DEAR LT: GRIT IN THREE WAYS YOU DIDN'T EXPECT, AND ONE YOU DID

By Shannon Huffman Polson (aborderlife.com)

Dear LT, 

This week I gave a presentation to a group of business people in Bellevue, Washington about the most important lesson I learned over eight years of service. I talked to them about grit.

A DIFFERENT DEFINITION OF GRIT

Angela Duckworth has defined grit as passion and perseverance toward very long term goals. I think that’s a great start, though it sounds more like endurance to me. My experience was a little— well, grittier, so my definition is, too. Here’s what I’ll offer. Grit is dogged determination in the face of difficult circumstances. 

My flight school stick buddy Anders and I in one of the many classes

My flight school stick buddy Anders and I in one of the many classes

My first note to you talked about grit, but I’ve had a few more thoughts. In eight years, there were three places I needed grit that I didn’t expect it, but there were places it came naturally, too. This is to say that grit is available to you any time. It isn’t some special and elusive characteristic that only other people have. There are times it comes easy, and other times it comes hard. Either way you’ll need it.

GRIT COMES HARD

First for the hard stuff. Early on as a lieutenant, I met and worked for both excellent senior officers and real jerks. It was eye opening as a young woman who had never experienced hostility from someone senior directed at her, and I was blind sighted the first couple of times. When I was still a cadet, one lieutenant colonel looked directly at me and told me what I would never be able to do (turns out he was wrong) and another colonel turned and walked away from me when we were introduced. I learned two things about grit from those experiences. The first is that I’d need grit when people imposed limitations on me. The second is that I’d need grit to avoid internalizing those doubts and limitations myself. 

Apache parking space at Glamoc in western Bosnia

Apache parking space at Glamoc in western Bosnia

The third and hardest place I’d need grit, though, was dealing with my own failures. If you’re driven to succeed, and if you’re unprepared, your own failures can take you down. 

When I was stationed in Bosnia, I failed one of my pilots. I knew he hadn’t been feeling well, and asked him if he wanted to fly on our several days trip to Glamoc in the western part of the country. He said he was ok, and he’d do it. We launched, made the cross country flight, and anded. That night the company instructor pilot came to talk to me. 

It turned out the pilot who hadn’t been feeling well was worse. We went to the company headquarters and requested a Medevac.

The company IP came back to talk to me.

“You’ve got to take care of your guys, LT,” he said.

I protested. I knew that leadership was a sacred trust. I knew that taking care of my people was my most important responsibility.

“I asked him how he was doing,” I told the IP. “He said he was OK to fly.”

“Sometimes these guys need you to look out for them when they won’t look out for themselves,” he told me. I knew that he was in some portion correct. That I had failed, and not only failed but failed someone I was in charge of taking care of. I was mortified.

And still, after arranging for the Medevac, I needed to be able to lead my platoon. I had to focus on shooting gunnery. This took more grit than I’d needed before in a way I had never expected.

OK. Enough of that. Now for the good part.

GRIT COMES EASY

If you’re someone who likes to be challenged— and if you’re wearing a uniform, then you are one of these people— there is a place that grit is part of the fun. It is innate for people in the right circumstances, and you can work to create those circumstances. 

Flying in mission profile in Bosnia. I took this photo from the front seat of my Apache helicopter.

Flying in mission profile in Bosnia. I took this photo from the front seat of my Apache helicopter.

For me that was flying and leading. In the cockpit, I had to focus completely on the task at hand. When I was flying, talking on three radios and multiple frequencies, managing three different sight and targeting systems and navigating, controlling the movement of four to eight helicopters, and employing three different weapons systems, the aircraft demands one hundred percent of your focus. There is no room for doubts or insecurities. I loved it. In the aircraft I wasn’t the female platoon leader or the female company commander, I was just the platoon leader, the company commander. I was, at different times, Aces 16, Blue Max 56, Razorback 06. 

Grit is at the intersection of focus and passion. You’ll need grit, but you don’t have to look hard to find it.

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT FEAR

This is not to say that everything about the aircraft was easy. There’s no room for fear in the cockpit, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t come at times. I remember a chill when we were strafed with enemy radar in Korea and Bosnia, the chilling focus when the cockpit filled with smoke and we made a hard landing on a midwestern prairie. The key to managing fear is this: when the fear comes, you turn toward it, and fly through it. There is not other way. That will take grit too, and you won’t have time to look for it. There it is a question of doing.

The thing about all of this though is that you have grit inside of you already. You need to be prepared, and you’ll make ample use of it. The way that grit is usually talked about and written about is as though it is always related to something bad, but this isn’t always true. In those places grit comes naturally, it can be fun. It’s part of working through a challenge, and that’s what you’re there to do if you’re wearing the uniform.

More to come next week, LT. Keep up the great work. And remember that no matter what comes, you’ve got grit.

Yours,

Shannon