Grit and your inner cowboy

Learning how to bounce back when things don’t go your way


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Admittedly, I have a certain weakness for cowboys. Not because of the sound of a slow drawl or smell of dry, orange clay, or the sight of blue jeans finding their place across a smooth leather saddle — not the jangle of spurs, nor the trademark hat and swagger that captures women’s and men’s hearts alike and fuels Hollywood’s best stories.

As a very young child in Oklahoma, I was aware of none of these things. No, for me, I’m in love with the grit and courage that cowboys represent.

I grew up with a cowboy father. He looked the part: He wore boots and a hat, had guns in the car and had an entrepreneurial streak that was given an Oklahoman spirit to back it. Nothing seemed to frighten him. He was tall, dark and very handsome, with piercing light blue eyes that twinkled in his storytelling and connected people through his great sense of humor. He had a “can do” spirit and inspired everyone he met.

Years later, he would tell us stories about his setbacks, particularly on how we arrived in Oklahoma. His Wall Street firm in New York went under. He sold cars in New Jersey to pay the mortgage. He discovered the West had opportunities for what he did well, so he moved his very young family to Oklahoma. He was determined to be successful wherever he landed. He knew he could. And he was.

Fast-forward many years later, with my own tremendous setbacks in love and life, I am fascinated by my father — what he did to keep himself going. When he was dusty, dirty and hungry, how did he keep his sense of humor? How did he trust that he’d make it?

Angela Duckworth’s excellent book, “Grit,” tells us that it is this ability to deal with setbacks — our “grittiness” — and not our IQ that best predicts our success. She asks if we can combine both our passion with unrelenting perseverance. My father admits that he was no student. But he is brilliant with people, and even more astute at handling rejection, setbacks and taking risk.

At work, grit and the courage to keep going come up in little ways. How often do we speak up to address an issue? How well do we listen to someone with an opposing viewpoint? How much do we really believe in our abilities and ourselves? How vulnerable are we willing to be again, even after we’ve failed?

Duckworth suggests that we put more emphasis on our “gritty” factors. In other words, how can we increase our ability to handle challenges, risks, and when things don’t go our way?

At the risk of having it sound trite, I do like to think about cultivating our grittiness and courage in cowboy terms:

1. Register for the rodeo: Decide what you want. Just begin it.

2. Put your boots on every day: Develop a learning mindset. Deliberately practice what you’re after. Again and again. Fail brilliantly.

3. Forgive yourself when you fall off your horse: Falling off can hurt. Forgive yourself for your mistakes. Remember, you’re learning as you go — even when it seems you know what you’re doing. What counts is how often you get back up.

4. Feed and groom your horse. How you talk to yourself and those who are part of your success matters. Feed yourself healthy thoughts. Surround yourself with people that nourish you and inspire you to be your best. They both love and challenge you.

5. Sleep under the stars: Connect yourself to something larger than just you. If it’s about a movement or something you care about, you will find a way.

6. Don’t give up on yourself: Ever. Believe in what you’ve set out to do. Say “of course I will!” Believe in yourself like your life depended on it.

Dusty and dirty, we go into the arena again because we love the work we’ve set out to do. Developing grittiness is a commitment and a practice. And so, we ride.

Trinnie Houghton is a partner and executive and organizational coach with Sojourn Partners, Bedford. She can be reached at trinnie@sojournpartners.com.

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