True grit: why passion and perseverance are the key to animal liberation

Being unwillingly interviewed for Sky News about the cruelty of the leather industry

Talent vs grit

There are few things that I dislike more than being interviewed by journalists. Pointing a camera in my face while being asked the questions is even worse. Having been a full-time animal rights advocate for seven years, I’ve been interviewed on radio, live television and in newspapers about subjects ranging from veganism to animals in the circus to the cruelty of the fur industry more times that I can count. Often I wouldn’t be able to sleep the night before an appearance and eating beforehand was out of the question. When the time came to speak, my throat would slowly close up and my mouth would become dry. I knew I wasn’t a ‘natural’.

One of my former colleagues, however, seemed to be exactly that. They agreed to every possible speaking opportunity, relished the attention and commanded authority while making a good impression in the interviews. They never seemed nervous and their voice certainly didn’t shake like mine did whilst arguing with hunters on the six o’clock national news. “They must be born with this skill”, I would think to myself, “I just don’t have what it takes.” Basically, they were talented. I was not.

Then one day I decided to ask them how they managed to be so calm and collected in the face of such stressful situations. I thought they would tell me that it’s just the way they’ve always been — that they don’t get nervous. Instead what they said shocked me.

“Kirsty,” they began.

“What makes you think I don’t get nervous? Every time I’m about to go on television I have to go to a room on my own to breathe and calm myself down. I’ve seen the inside of the bathrooms at the BBC so many times I could describe them clearly to you.”

Sure, my colleague was good in interviews, but it took me years and one lasting conversation for me to realise that the reason they were good at what they did, the reason they seemed to thrive, was not because they were born with talent, but because despite being very nervous, they accepted the challenge anyway. It made them uncomfortable and they still did it. They practiced and they made mistakes, but instead of letting that stop them from moving forward, they learned from it and performed better next time. In short, they had grit.

The science of grit

Psychologist Angela Duckworth has spent years studying grit and this difference between grit and talent. Using scientific studies she defines the quality as being about two things:

  • Perseverance — you overcome setbacks to complete an important challenge
  • Passion — you are focused on a subject you are passionate about for a long time and don’t change your interests frequently

In her book, Duckworth describes her experience of teaching teenagers at low-income schools in the United States as being one of the first times she saw the difference between talent and grit and how one was much more a predictor of success than the other.

At the beginning of the term, it was clear to her that some of the students picked up subjects such as math much faster than others. They just got it. It was easier for them to notice underlying patterns than less gifted students. But she was surprised to find when marking their work at the end of the first term that some of these promising students weren’t doing as well as she expected. Some did, but many did not, despite their talent. On the other hand, Duckworth noticed that many of the pupils who had originally struggled with the work were doing better than she had expected.

The “overachieving”, grittier pupils:

  • Came to school every day prepared with what they needed
  • They took notes and asked questions instead of playing or daydreaming
  • Would try again and again when they didn’t get something correct
  • They sought out extra help in their own time

Her conclusion?

“Talent for math was different from excelling in math class.”

Our potential is one thing, she continues, but what we do with it is quite another.

Building grit

Grit is something we can all benefit from and can all build more of. Looking at my own research and experience I would encourage you to do the following if you want to grow more grit:

  • Develop a daily habit of pushing yourself outside your comfort zone
  • Connect your work to the bigger picture. Know what you are fighting for and why is it important
  • Strive to learn from your experiences and mistakes
  • Disconnect yourself from your failures. They do not define you as a person
  • Build your physical health. Make sure you get enough exercise, take real time off when you are sick and get enough sleep
  • Build your mental health. Practice gratitude, consider a daily meditation practice and make sure you laugh frequently
  • Connect with others in similar positions. Cultivate friendships with people who share your fight
  • Surround yourself with gritty people. You are the sum of the people you spend the most time with, so look for strong friends, family members and colleagues
  • Practise, practise again and then practise some more

You. Only grittier

Yes, we should be grittier. Yes, we should recognise that passion and perseverance play a larger part in success than talent. But that doesn’t mean that you should never give up. No matter your passion, your fight or your job, you should always consider whether the work you are doing and the strategies you are using are the most effective. If they are not, change them. Learn from your mistakes and do better. A gritty person will not be afraid to admit they are wrong and will change direction if it proves more successful. But their ultimate goal, in our case, ending animal exploitation, will stay constant.

Animal rights campaigning, or indeed any form of campaigning trying to change dominant societal structures, is an extremely rewarding but difficult field to be in. If you are part of the movement then you know that every day is a battle. We lose as well as win, our opponents are powerful and omnipresent. We are constantly exposed to distressing, graphic and depressing images. People laugh at us, shouting at us in the street. On the worst occasions, we may even be attacked for the work we do.

All of the strategic planning, big budgets and teamwork in the world won’t help us end animal exploitation unless we have the power to continue in the face of all this adversity. In order to do that we need to develop our perseverance. Like my former colleague did, we need to learn how to continue even when things get tough. We need to learn to hope and keep going, even when all seems lost. We need to be grittier.