“The Grit Factor,” with Shannon Polson
Shannon Huffman Polson is the author of The Grit Factor: Courage, Resilience, and Leadership in the Most Male-Dominated Organization in the World, and the founder of The Grit Institute, a program committed to whole leader development with a focus on grit and resilience. As one of the first women to fly an Apache helicopter in the U.S. Army and to lead line units on three continents, Shannon now shares her firsthand experience and knowledge with world-class companies and organizations like Gradient Corporation, Boston Scientific, and Microsoft.
Amanda Stubbert: Well, let’s start with the obvious. Can you define grit for us? I think those of us who are addicted to TED Talks have probably heard a lot about this word, but that’s not all of us, so why don’t you give us your definition?
Shannon Huffman Polson: Yeah, Sure. And probably the one that you’re familiar with is Angela Duckworth’s work from University of Pennsylvania, and she defines grit as passionate perseverance toward a very long-term goal. And I have really thought about grit as a dogged determination in the face of difficult circumstance. And so I think that the two of them are very complementary, for sure. But in this past year where those long-term horizons have been hard to find, that dogged determination, I think, has really played in.
Amanda: Yeah, I think there’s a big difference, at least for me personally, when you’re working toward a goal, even if it’s a far out goal, but when you’re just working to get through and you don’t actually have a concrete goal on the other end, that’s where the grit really comes into play, isn’t it?
Shannon: I have certainly experienced that for myself. Yes. That can be one of the hardest places to find it and one of the most necessary places to employ it, for sure.
Amanda: When do you think grit is the most important during our lifetimes?
Shannon: All of us run into challenging circumstances, and whether we look for them or not, they will certainly find us at various points. I’ve really thought about grit in a way, and this is a little bit different from what you may have read in other definitions and discussions, but really as part of the fabric of our character really, as part of almost a character trait that can be, number one, can be developed, but it’s also something that truly is innate to every single one of us though sometimes we don’t seem to feel like we can find it, but I do think that there is an inclination to think of it as something for fighter pilots and big mountain climbers. But the exciting thing is it truly is innate to every single one of us. We are sometimes forced to find it. And sometimes we realize that we really need to spend that time working to both find it, but also to build it. And there are ways to do both of those things, which is the exciting thing.
Amanda: So you’re saying, which feels like good news to me, even if you didn’t find that grit growing up, if you’re not someone who had an upbringing where grit was very necessary and brought that out in you, you can actually learn to be gritty as an adult?
Shannon: Absolutely. The science seems very, very clear on this. And certainly as I was researching for The Grit Factor, the leaders that I had a chance to interview across all of the military services, crossing different ranks, crossing specialties, all of them had a similar experience, which is very much that it can be built, it can be developed, and the science supports that as well. So that’s encouraging news for all of us.
Amanda: For sure. Especially right now in history, when we all need to learn how to do things we didn’t necessarily know how to do before.
Shannon: No, for sure. The exciting thing is, and this is one aspect of grit, but the way that the grit breaks out as part of the character in the fabric of our character in The Grit Factor, and this grit factor really is formed by the stories and the lessons learned of these leaders that I interviewed over several decades. It came about because a young lieutenant reached out to me and asked me if I would be her mentor when she started flight school. And I immediately said yes, but immediately thought, oh my goodness, it’s been a number of years since I’ve worn the uniform. And surely my integration as one of the first women into an all-male field is somewhat unique. So how can I scale what I offered to her? And if I do that work, then scale the people to whom that’s available.
And that really became The Grit Factor, interviewing women in the vanguard of their fields. So there are leaders that happen to be women and they happen to be military; they all face this double crucible. And what they came up with, really again and again, was what I now call the grit triad, which is that it comes out into three phases: commit, learn, and launch. That breakout corresponds to owning our past. And we can get more into that, for sure, and parse some of that out because it’s a little bit more nuanced than that, and then deeply engaging in the present and then looking toward the future with various specific tendencies with that rootedness and that engagement.
Amanda: Well, that sounds fascinating. I want to talk about all three of those sections, but maybe we should talk about it in relationship to your career: Why the Army, in the first place?
Shannon: That’s a great question. I grew up in Alaska and then I was a student at Duke University. And as a freshman, I realized that as the eldest child, that it was a pretty big financial strain. I was already working two jobs and had a couple of scholarships, but was walking through one of those student fairs on campus and saw the ROTC tables. My dad had served in the Army, as well, but he had been drafted for Vietnam and ended up being sent to Alaska instead, which is how we all located there. So I’d had some brief acquaintance with the idea, but I never thought that it was something that I would do. And then I figured, maybe I’ll just try this and if I don’t like it I can say I don’t like it, but I can at least say that I’ve tried it.
The other services all required you to be an engineer. I knew that I wanted to study in the humanities and the Army would let you do that. And so I gave Army ROTC a try. I really connected to that sense of purpose, that sense of something bigger than myself, the idea of service, and the cadre or the people that were in charge of the program were outstanding, and the other students were people that also had to work during their growing up and save for college and do all those sorts of things. And so it really was a community that I connected with, as well. And that was the beginning of what became a long journey.
“I knew that I wanted to study in the humanities and the Army would let you do that. And so I gave Army ROTC a try.”
Amanda: It’s interesting that you were talking about growing up in Alaska and working two jobs and looking for what was going to help you get to that next place. Because I think there are a lot of us, not the current growing up generation, that kind of look, and I know I have two college-aged children myself, and I feel like my upbringing was more difficult. Just the logistics that my upbringing was more difficult and therefore would read more grit for the future than what my children experienced. I wonder if you feel like that’s true. Is it really just the logistics of what you had to overcome, or is it more complicated than that?
Shannon: I think it is more complicated or more nuanced in the sense that there certainly are aspects of growing up. One of the reasons that are actually wouldn’t have identified this before, but something that I like about living where we do, which is out in the country, is that there are some difficulties in just going about your daily tasks, and a self-reliance that is required, which was also part of growing up in Alaska, I think, or growing up in any kind of a place with extremes of temperature and climate and being a little bit dispersed from others. But also there’s a sense of community that comes from that, as well. But relative to the grit, I think it really is your approach. I think, for parents, you’ve got to model it for your children.
For sure, modeling is a really big piece of it and there’s many components that are relevant to that, but this is actually pulling from Angela Duckworth’s book because I did not study kids at all, but I get asked this all the time is really how it is that you approach the different activities that your kids are involved in. So whether it’s sports or church or music, there is a stick to it-ness that is required in our family, for sure. And these are certainly things I grew up with that I am feeling are very important for our kids, too. And that is that it’s non-negotiable that you go to your sports practices and you try hard and you find ways to continue to push yourself and improve. And that’s the same with music, that’s same with everything. And so I really think it’s the approach that we decide to take that is relevant to developing that grit.
Amanda: Yeah. That really resonates with me. I remember many years ago, having a dad that was just in our group of friends, basically tell me one day that I was doing our girls a disservice because neither of them were in a team sport, but they were both in theatre and music and all sorts of things that require teamwork. And we were just sort of staring at each other down like, how are you not understanding where I’m coming from? I thought it was interesting because it is, isn’t it? It’s the approach. It’s, if you can learn teamwork without being on something that’s called a team, and I’m sure you found that in the Army as well, it doesn’t matter what it’s called. If you have to act as a team, you are learning that lesson.
Shannon: Yes. And it is an important thing to bring out because there’s some interesting studies that have been done around sports, in particular. And I think the statistic is something like 94% of women in C-suite positions played competitive sports in their lives. And so there’s this strong push toward sports, which, by the way, I’m a huge fan of, because we’re a very athletic family. At the same time, if you’re not sporty and that’s not your thing, there are so many other ways to develop grit and resilience and exactly that sense of team and that sense of contribution. I mean, really, that’s how you engage in your community, how you participate in service. And all of that has to be modeled by the parents and taught by the parents, I think, as well.
Amanda: Awesome. OK. Well, I realized I got you a little off-topic with kids there, but let’s get back to your time in the armed forces.
Shannon: It’s all relevant, Amanda. It’s all the same.
Amanda: It is. I mean, it’s all relevant, and I think it means a lot to us right now when so many of us are doing more at-home parenting than we had in previous years.
Shannon: Absolutely. Yes.
Amanda: OK. So let’s get back to the armed forces. So now you’re in the armed forces and you’re deciding what you want to do, you said the humanities, and yet you end up flying helicopters. How did that path come about?
Shannon: I think I’ve always had some part of me that wants to be a little bit contrary. And at any time that I’m told that I can’t do something or that women haven’t done something, was always a trigger for me to want to do it. And if there was a field where there were a lot of women, I did not want to do it. I don’t know where that came from, except for maybe it was innate to my day out as well. But I had been drilling as part of a scholarship program when I finally did apply for a scholarship. It was a two-year guaranteed reserve forces duty scholarship, and it required me to drill with the National Guard. So I was both going to college, working two jobs, and drilling with the National Guard, as well. And there was an aviation unit.
I was also pretty acquainted with aviation from growing up in Alaska, where there’s a huge amount of private aviation. I think the highest percentage per capita in the world. Aviation had always been an interest, not a passion, as a youngster, but certainly an interest. I figured if I had time to serve and I had the opportunity to be trained in something that was probably a little bit unusual, I should do the most interesting and the coolest thing I could do. And that was aviation. And it’s a little bit of a longer story than that, but that’s how the branch aviation came about. And relative to the Apache specifically, when I was in college, it was the early ’90s and Apaches weren’t open to women to fly.
“I figured if I had time to serve and I had the opportunity to be trained in something that was probably a little bit unusual, I should do the most interesting and the coolest thing I could do. And that was aviation.”
I have this recollection of going to receive my assignment from the National Guard, from the state aviation officer in Raleigh, North Carolina, driving out to the state aviation headquarters. I was not yet graduated and not yet commissioned, and I report to this colonel who’s behind a desk that seems as wide as the room and shiny windows going up behind him, and I’m trying not to shake as I stand at attention. He asked me to sit down, and we exchanged a couple of pleasantries back and forth. And then he stops in the middle of a sentence, looks down his nose at me and says, “You realize, cadet, that you will never fly an attack aircraft.” I looked back at him, and I recognized his comment for what it was meant to be, which was pretty small and mean and cutting, because attack aircraft weren’t open to women to fly.
But I had learned by that point, at the same time, that there were times and places that you said, “Yes, sir.” So I said, “Yes, sir.” I went back to the campus of Duke University and requested a transfer out of the National Guard and onto active duty. And then later that spring, Congress changed the game, lifted the combat exclusion clause, and everything in the inventory was open to women and men to fly. So when I reported to Fort Rucker, Alabama, later that year, graduated as an honor grad from the aviation officer basic course in the flight school, and I requested and was assigned the Apache attack helicopter. And the rest is not quite history, but I guess at this point it kind of is.
Amanda: I love that because I recognize that within myself. No, I was never in the military. I did fly a helicopter once. It was a tiny little passenger helicopter that I paid someone, I think $200, to let me fly the helicopter. Not the same thing, but I did grow up, I mean, I played the drums in the band because it was all boys and that just looked like more fun than the flute or the clarinet or wherever most of the females were. So I definitely understand that feeling of like, oh, you just told me I can’t, well, that’s what I’m going to do then.
And yet funneling that, because that can be a terrible thing: Don’t do drugs. OK, I’m going to go do drugs. No, but it’s funneling that into the positive of breaking ceilings that didn’t need to be there in the first place. So when you were actually doing it, so you’re in the helicopter, you’re flying the helicopter. Did you feel extra pressure knowing that so many people were looking at you as a woman doing that job?
Shannon: For sure. I mean, typically while I was actually flying, I was pretty focused on the flying itself. And so I wouldn’t say that that was my primary experience while actually in flight, but certainly on the ground. I mean, the biggest challenges really come from the ground. I mean, we all had to be excellent at our jobs and excellent at the aviation requirements, of course. But I was very aware that when I showed up to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, at age 23, as the only woman Apache pilot out of 120 men in the regiment, yeah, there was going to be a microscope on me at all times, for sure.
Amanda: So you made it through and had all these wonderful stories and leadership things to share, but during those times, do you have moments that you look back at and realize you were very close to quitting? Do you have those moments where you were about to say, “This is too much.”?
Shannon: I think the difference is in the Army, you can’t quit.
Amanda: It’s true.
Shannon: It’s not quite like pretty much anything else you do that you could actually opt out of. You cannot do that: Once you’re signed up, you’re in. So there is a difference in what the options were, but certainly there were times when it was completely overwhelming. Yeah, there’s no question when it felt like … and there are terms for some of these things now that we didn’t have then, but I worked with some of the best people that I will ever know in my life, and I worked with some of the absolute worst.
It was tough sometimes, for sure. It was really not so much about active and visible resistance, as much as what are now termed as microaggressions, and the death by a thousand paper cuts can be even more challenging to navigate I think, sometimes than the more overt things. I caveat that with, I’ll say it again, that I’m incredibly blessed to have worked with some phenomenal leaders and I learned so much from, but there certainly was the give and take. There were times when it was really, really tough. And that’s where I think really grit is a primary part of getting through that.
“There were times when it was really, really tough. And that’s where I think really grit is a primary part of getting through that.”
Amanda: Do you have kind of a shorthand? I know we talked about you owning the past and then the present. Can you give each of us a little bit of a Cliff Notes of what to do in those moments where you are so exhausted that you are considering giving up, even if, like you said, the actual giving up may not be true, but you can certainly feel like it.
Shannon: Sure. Yeah. And this is pretty nuanced for sure, but both in The Grit Factor, and in the keynotes that I give to companies and organizations across the country and around the world and in the training at The Grit Institute, we really focus a lot on this commit phase, as well as learning and launching. But the commit phase is that deep work. And ideally you’ve done some of this before you run into the challenge, but it’s certainly an option when you’re in the midst of it, as well. And that’s investing in yourself enough to go back and look at what we call your journey line or your storyline. And I really in The Grit Factor take you from story into theory and the background research, and then into the tactical applications. So these are really spelled out quite clearly in the book, as well as in the training.
But it is looking at your lifetime relative to those events that shaped you, both positive and negative. And you go through that lifetine several times. The first is to write down those events. The second is to write down what you learned from those events, if you failed, what you learned about yourself, or how you learned to overcome a weakness or how you learned to compensate with another strength. So what you learned, and then you go back through it again and indicate those values that really were formed in those crucible moments. And typically that’s when values are formed, in those most significant parts of our lives, or when they’re identified, at least. And then you have a sense of what those values are, those core values. That’s really the first chapter of The Grit Factor.
The second chapter in the second exercise is drilling down into what I call core purpose or heart purpose. And that’s doing an exercise. And I actually borrowed this from Toyota’s manufacturing technique, which is to drill down into the root cause of deficiencies by asking why not one time, but five times. And so you’re really peeling back those layers of meaning, peeling back the onion, peeling back those layers of meaning to get to something that is agnostic of the circumstance, agnostic of the organization or the job, and really, truly, belongs to you. And if, when you can anchor yourself to that core purpose or that heart purpose, you’re really able to have that foundation to negotiate almost any kind of turbulence that comes your way.
So owning your own story, drilling down to core purpose or heart purpose in training, I take you deeper into both of those, for sure. But it is about owning your past in a way that says, hey, we sometimes have elements of our past that we’ve asked for, and sometimes we have elements of our past that we would never have chosen, but we have the opportunity and the responsibility to shape that raw material of our life to be able to produce that trajectory where we can best contribute to the world. And I think looking at that as an opportunity and a responsibility is a really pretty amazing opportunity. Luckily, there’s tactical ways to start to take those steps.
Amanda: I love the idea of the five layers deep, of why it makes me think of the deep roots of a tree. And when the storm comes, you can sway quite a bit but you’re anchored by how deeply you know why you’re doing what you’re doing. And I think we all have so many layers deeper than we investigate most days of our lives.
Shannon: Right. Yes, absolutely. And it takes some work. It’s not back of the napkin sort of sketching this out in a couple of minutes. It really is some thoughtful work. I’ve really been blown away over the last six to nine months as we moved on to doing keynotes and also leadership facilitation virtually, which has been working actually remarkably well. But there are a couple of senior leaders that I did this exercise with, who came out of it and said, “I thought I knew why I was doing what I was doing. I thought I knew who I was and why I was working in this place, but I did this exercise and it was totally revelatory. I had no idea; it was an epiphany.” I love hearing that. It’s really exciting to be able to help people connect to those places that are really where the meaning lies.
“It’s really exciting to be able to help people connect to those places that are really where the meaning lies.”
Amanda: I would assume that most people would have been able to guess the first couple, but by the time you get down to the fifth, it’s something that they haven’t actually unpacked before.
Shannon: Yes, exactly. It might be something you could have guessed, but to really drill down where you make those connections, that’s where that power is. And that’s where it becomes this foundation that is incredibly just rich and strong and the place that you can return again and again.
Amanda: Yeah, those deep, deep roots. I’ll take a little sidetrack here. Let’s talk real quick about your work with the public library and why that has been important to you.
Shannon: Yeah, I’m glad you’re asking about that. Well, so when I did the five whys, and this is in retrospect, because I often am asked, “Well, how did you know how to do this back then?” And I said, “Well, I didn’t.” This is all me going back and putting into place those things that I wished that I had known. Thanks to, again, all these leaders of The Grit Factor. But I came down to the idea of service, and service was a deep value and purpose that I grew up with, really, and is integral to who I am. At this point in my life I think that is more nuanced.
I’m now in my late 40s as opposed to my early 20s, and service is still one of the things that is really important to me. I actually have now this little shield that I have people draw with four different parts to it, and you can put something in each of those four quadrants and they don’t have to be assigned to anything in particular, but mine include now learning, loving, and creating, as well as service. And when we arrived, we moved from Seattle out to this little rural community where we live. It’s a beautiful place where there’s lots of outdoor recreation, which we love, a wonderful community in so many ways, but there’s still 30% poverty and 50% kids on reduced and free lunch.
I realized when we got here that, well, there were little groups of people that cluster around Nordic skiing, for example, or some other activities, and often with kids, there was no place for us all to gather. And there was no public space that was in the northern 25 miles of the valley. And really that access to opportunity was missing for these people that were struggling in other ways. And so we started this work to form a board and to raise money to build a new library. We have this little tiny trailer, we researched how it’s part of the district, but there’s no money from either the town with a tiny tax base or from the district to be able to build this.
And so, we formed the nonprofit and the building is underway. We’ve raised over $5.5 million, and we still have a little bit to go, but it’s really been incredible to see people come around this project and understand that this gives life to a community or will give life to a community in such a meaningful way, especially as we come out of this isolation toward the end of this year or into next year, which is when the doors should open. So it’s been a huge honor. It’s been overwhelming in many ways. It’s taken more of me than I thought that it would, or that I had to give, but it’s also been this incredible blessing to be able to say, “Hey, this is a meaningful way to contribute to this community.” And really, I think, impact generations to come.
Amanda: Well, congratulations. I know public libraries have played a huge role in my own life and our family’s. And what a blessing to be able to have a public library in a place where there hasn’t been in the past. So congratulations on that work.
Shannon: Thank you. It’s an honor to do, and it’s a wonderful team of people that continues to grow that’s making it happen. So it’s certainly well past me at this point, but it truly is an honor to be part of this.
Amanda: OK. I want to get in before we run out of time here. I want to get into the future and looking into the future with grit, but you said the personal shield that you created for yourself involves creativity or creating, learning, and service, and those three make a lot of sense to me on the shield and helping you make decisions going forward, but where does the loving fit in?
Shannon: Yeah, I use the word love because I was thinking, obviously, my family is critical to me, and the most important thing to me with my faith. And so it’s faith, it’s family, and it’s community. And so it’s putting all of those things into a bucket, understanding that I think love is what drives those connections and wanting to really focus on that as the heart of what family is, of what my faith is about, and what our community is about.
Amanda: I just really enjoy the idea that you use the term loving versus, say, family, because I think it’s so easy to think of that as time, that I’m going to give time to my family, but I think we trip over that so much, especially as women, and we end up doing things like being on a school board, which there’s nothing wrong with being on a school board, of course, but we’re doing that to honor our children and our families. And yet I think sometimes the children and the family don’t see that. They don’t see that as a way that you are helping the kids in the family. And when you label that loving, it changes what things you’re going to put into that bucket, and it feels so organic and lovely to me. So thank you for sharing that.
Shannon: Yeah. Thank you. And that is also the result of some discernment to get to that. Like any of us, when we do this kind of internal work, it’s not just, again, it’s not just sort of sketching it out or you can start with your sketch, but then you really want to spend some time in understanding how to make that really the right word and the right idea and the right concept and the right action. All of those things.
Amanda: Yes. That’s going to help you make the right decisions. That’s what all these exercises are for: helping you make those right decisions for the future. So, as we look to the future and as we use these tools to make better choices going forward, how do we use grit as we look to the future?
Shannon: I would say a couple of ways. The first is, and again, considering what has really come out of this work is this grit triad of past, present, and future–commit, learn, and launch–we talked about the learn phase as this deep engagement in the present. So this is building your team, and it’s also working on some of the skills that are part of working with others in relationship to include active listening, interestingly enough. And then it’s mindset. I’m going to come circle back to that because I think the mindset piece connects to every single part of that triad so much so that I ended up drawing a circle around it and saying, this is about the mindset of grounded optimism. But the future aspects of grit are really looking forward with operating from an authentic place.
So, leading: We are all leaders when we decide to make a difference, when we decide to commit ourselves to excellence and believing from an authentic place, being willing to be audacious, so brave and courageous and taking risks, that’s an important piece, as well. And then being able and willing to be adaptable. That adaptability is the last part of The Grit Factor. And I think it’s almost the culmination of what’s required of grit, but it’s also connecting in a way that grit to resilience, which is this ability continue to push through and adapt to change. So I would say, as you’re looking toward the future, you want to have that groundedness in the past that we’ve just talked about, understand that it’s a relational exercise that you don’t do this alone. None of us do this alone. And you build your team thoughtfully, make sure that you participate as a relational member of a team in a thoughtful and considered way, and then work to develop the mindset, which really is that developing that grit and resilience in yourself.
And the most important part of that, I think there’s certainly the growth mindset aspect that’s important, but it’s this idea of grounded optimism and the idea that Admiral Stockdale, who was held in prison in Vietnam for seven and a half years, that you can never, ever, lose faith, that you will ultimately prevail in the end, within understanding of the challenges that you face in the day to day. And that mindset is critical to building grit and resilience, and it’s critical to be able to move toward the future. So I would say investing in yourself in each of those areas, understanding that you’re constantly growing and strengthening that character so that you can face challenges.
And when you do face those challenges know, and this goes back to the growth mindset part in the learn phase, that you are getting stronger and you are getting better. There’s a rest component. That’s important, too. But knowing that as you continue to build that character, you’re building yourself in a way that you will be able to better address challenges when they come and address bigger and bigger challenges as you encounter them.
“As you continue to build that character, you’re building yourself in a way that you will be able to better address challenges when they come and address bigger and bigger challenges as you encounter them.”
Amanda: That growth mindset is such a big deal for me. I know when I’m going through hard times, I like to tell myself the more you take on and learn right now, the faster you get out of this particular hamster wheel. And that’s my own little mini goal of learn it quick and do it right so that you can get out and move on to the next challenge. And that’s always been super helpful to me.
Shannon: Absolutely. Yeah.
Amanda: Well, Shannon, this conversation has been so helpful. I know this is one of the episodes I’m going to go back and take notes and listen to a few times myself. But I want to end with the same question that we ask all of our guests, and I’m very interested in your answer. If you could have everyone in Seattle do one thing differently tomorrow that’s going to make the world a better place, what would you have each of us do?
Shannon: Oh my goodness! Besides not using leaf blowers?
Amanda: That might be the best answer I’ve heard so far.
Shannon: Yeah, I think understand, I would say reframe whatever is frustrating you or challenging you in a different way that looks for the opportunity to understand, and this is this mindset of grounded optimism, which is a choice that each of us gets to make in every minute of every day. It’s every day or every hour, depending on how challenging it might be, or every minute, but reframe the challenges and the frustrations–and I know there’s a lot of both of those for all of us right now–as an opportunity. As part of research for my next book, I just talked to a disabled veteran who said, “You change the word from I have to, to I get to.” I have to go pick up my kid from school, I get to go pick up my kid from school; what a blessing. And that reframing, I think, can really help us show up to the world and to each other in a really different and beautiful way.
Amanda: Amen. Well, let me follow that up with the prayer of blessing we pray for all of our guests. May the Lord bless you and all you put your hand to. May the Lord be gracious to you and all who hear your story. May He bring unity to our community and peace to us all. Thank you so much, Shannon.
Shannon: Amen. Thank you, Amanda.