Grit: The unsexy story of how to get what you want (when you’re told no)
What if there was a simple way to develop the determination that all successful gritty people have? It turns out that there is. Shannon Huffman Polson learned to develop courage, resilience, and leadership in the most male-dominated organization in the world and shares her experiences with you.
You’ll learn what Shannon did when she was told by her commanding officer that she would never fly an attack plane, and you’ll see how you can also become resilient or more gritty as you face your obstacles.
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Shannon Polson 00:01
Going back into your own story and remembering the times that you have either pushed through or navigated through something really, really difficult, go back and remember those times, remember what strengths you either demonstrated or developed in the course of that. And then pull that into the story that you're telling yourself now in the midst of hard times.
Scott Anthony Barlow 00:49
We've mentioned grit several times before on the Happen To Your Career podcast. So you might ask, why would we do another episode on grit? Well, as it turns out, grit is one of the single biggest indicators of how likely you are to be successful in your endeavors. What does that really mean? Well, it means that, if you're a more gritty person, you're far more likely to accomplish your goals. But the real question is, are you just born gritty? Or can you actively develop grit?
Shannon Polson 01:17
Just the same way that you would grow muscle, the same way that you would develop any skill, is the same way that you develop grit, but it's absolutely something you can develop.
Scott Anthony Barlow 01:24
That Shannon Huffman Polson, she was one of the first women to fly Apache helicopters in the army. Serving on three continents, leading two flight platoons and align company. She has also done plenty of skydiving, scuba diving, big mountain climbing, long course triathlons, and now has been pursuing writing for many years. More important than all of that, she's built an entire career around practicing grit. Shannon and I discussed the idea of how you can practice grit, and become more gritty later on in the episode. But nobody starts out asking that question. Here's Shannon telling me about where she started out in her early career and where it all began.
Shannon Polson 02:06
Yeah, it's been a long and winding road. I was at Duke University and part of Army ROTC while I was there, and left to Duke to join the military. And I had my commission as a Second Lieutenant and was an Army Aviation, that's an eight year commitment. That's how I started out.
Scott Anthony Barlow 02:22
What caused you to go into ROTC. And from there, what caused you to be interested in the military in the first place? I'm super curious.
Shannon Polson 02:29
You know, I didn't think that I was to be honest. And when I was applying for college, my dad had asked me very briefly, he said, you know, “would you consider a service Academy or ROTC?” And I said, “No, dad, that's just totally not my thing.” And then I got to Duke and I realized that college was a pretty big burden on our family. And I was the eldest child and I was, you know, I was working three jobs. And there was a college career fair kind of a, or a club fair, really. And all of the ROTC were present there. And I talked to all three of the ROTC tables, both the Air Force, and the Navy required you to be in engineering, and I knew that I was going to be liberal arts and the army allowed you to be liberal arts. And I thought, you know, I'll try it. I'll just give it a shot and see if I like it, I'm sure I won't. I'm sure it won't be a good fit. But I can say that I tried it. And I ended up really connecting to both the people that were a part of the program, who were all great folks and people that came from backgrounds similar to mine that had worked their whole lives, but also this sense of service and this idea of serving something bigger than myself.
Scott Anthony Barlow 03:31
That is awesome. I'm always fascinated with how some of those events happen, especially when you're saying, “hey, I was pretty convinced that I would not like it, this was not going to be a thing.” Then what happened from there, you made the transition into the military, from ROTC after college. And what took place at that point?
Shannon Polson 03:51
There's actually a funny story that probably will relate to… be relatable to some of your listeners, which was the whole process of that transition. And I had been drilling with the National Guard as part of the simultaneous membership program for my last two years of college. And so the assumption was that I would serve in the National Guard. But right as I was getting ready to graduate, I was being just getting ready to be commissioned, I had to report to the state aviation officer about my assignment. So I drove out to Raleigh, North Carolina, I reported, you know, again, I'm still a college student, I'm just the cadet and I report to this Colonel who's… it seems like a sitting behind the desk because why does the room with shiny plate glass windows is going up behind and then we have a couple of pleasantries back and forth before he stops in the middle of a sentence. He leans back in his chair, looks down his nose at me and says, “you realize cadet that you will never fly and attack aircraft.” And I looked back at him and recognize his comment for what it was meant to be, which was small and mean, because at that point, attack aircraft were open to them and to fly. So I said, “Yes, sir.” Because there are times that you learn very early in the military, that that's the only thing that there is to say, but I went back to the campus of Duke University, back to the ROTC detachment and requested a transfer out of the National Guard and onto active duty. And then later that spring, Congress changed the game by lifting the combat exclusion clause. And suddenly every aircraft in the inventory was open to women and men to fly. So I reported later that year to Fort Rucker, Alabama. And initial entry, rotary wing and officer basic course graduated as an undergrad requested and then trained in the Apache helicopter.
Scott Anthony Barlow 05:26
So was that a point where it's like, “Challenge accepted” or was that a more of a transition?
Shannon Polson 05:32
Yeah, no, I think so. I mean, I think in a way it was probably the first time that I had heard somebody say directly and someone maliciously, no, you get to do this. And for no reason. And I think that that was, I mean, that wasn't the only driver at all. I wouldn't say that's why I chose the Apache, but it certainly played into my interest in showing that it can be done.
Scott Anthony Barlow 05:54
I'm always fascinated not to delve too far in this. But I'm always fascinated by when people make comments like that, in many situation, not just that situation, like what goes through people's heads. Have you ever thought about, like what his intent was?
Shannon Polson 06:10
Yeah, I mean, not too much. I think, I mean, there was and there is for some people still a pretty dated and dismissive and denigrating attitude towards women serving and towards women performing at high levels. And I think, for those types of people, I like to think that it's the small minded. I don't have time to think about it too much anymore. I'm too busy doing stuff.
Scott Anthony Barlow 06:35
I appreciate that very much on many different levels. That said, I also know that, you know, this point in your career where, you know, you had started in that sector, it was far, far, far from, you know, where you ended up, to help me understand what happened from that point in time.
Shannon Polson 06:56
Yeah, well, I reported the Fort Bragg after I was trained in the Apache, I was the first woman and the regiment, which is two battalions of Apache. So there were 120 men fly in the Apache and me at age 23. And I served for eight years, I lead to flight platoons and a flight company on three different continents. And at the end of those eight years, decided that I wanted to have more control over what it was that I was doing. It's also kind of the end of the fun time. If you're a commissioned officer, there's a lot of staff time that follows. And I didn't see that many people that were people that I wanted to be or role models that I wanted to follow. And so I applied for, actually only to one business school, I sent in my application to the Tuck School at Dartmouth the last day of the last round DHL from Kuwait. And I liked it, I'm guessing that might be why they let me in. But I transitioned to the Tuck School at Dartmouth, I spent some time in the corporate world as well, both in the medical device industry at guidance, which became Boston Scientific. And then later at Microsoft, I can keep going. But if you want to go into any parts of that, that sort of kicked off at after Microsoft, then I went into the writing and the speaking that I'm doing now.
Scott Anthony Barlow 08:02
Here's what I'm curious about. You attribute a lot of your success, not just in the military, but other areas, too, to grit. And first of all, help us understand why you attribute so much of your success to grit and what that even means to you.
Shannon Polson 08:20
Yeah, well, you know, Angela Duckworth defines grit as passion and perseverance towards a very long term goals. And I think, especially in the place that many of us are finding ourselves today where the horizon is so ambiguous and so unclear, long term goals are hard to even understand and for many of your listeners, if they're making transitions in their careers, it may be hard to know what that long term goal is, as well. I have defined grit a little bit more as dogged determination in the face of difficult circumstance. And I think that applies more today without that horizon line being very clear, even then the researchers definition. But in the military in particular, and this is why this became the basis of the training going for grit at the gritinstitute.com but also the grit factor, the book that we'll talk about later today. I understood that both my experience was not unique and that I was in this incredibly demanding environment in so many different ways. And also dealing with this continual often antagonism towards my even being there. And so when I wanted to put together a book that would be useful to anybody, they seen challenges and circumstances in their lives. I went to the same people who would had also served in those demanding environments where they had this what I like to call a double crucible really, right, so they're pushing through in an environment where they're often not welcome and sometimes even actively resisted, and at the same time performing these exceptionally difficult tasks in the difficult circumstances. So this double crucible and they really have to have what I… we always called growing up, they call it grit.
Scott Anthony Barlow 09:54
When you say, “we always called it grit growing up”, it sounds like that comes from someplace. Was that your family influenced with that? Where did that come from?
Shannon Polson 10:03
Yeah, definitely my dad. And you know, I tell this story. And I think this is one of the reasons to when people talk to me about their kids and like, what do we do for our kids and my daughter's especially, and I think sports are such a great thing. I mean, there's so many different ways to develop grit. But sports are great, especially for girls, but for girls and boys. And I remembered this story when I was playing soccer girls, just Girls Club soccer, people are all serious. Now, this was not serious. Soccer is…
Scott Anthony Barlow 10:28
It is a different landscape.
Shannon Polson 10:30
Different landscape today. But I was playing Girls Club soccer, and I was a defender, I was a fullback. And there was a girl on the other team. And we were just nine, nine or ten, maybe, who was… who ended up being on the national ski team, by the way, and she was a forward and she would come charging down the field. And every single time, you know, we would park like the Red Sea, and she would score on ball every single time. And I remember one time, after a game, my dad said, “Well, why don't you just run back at her?” And it was just a nice question kind of, and I just looked at him like he was crazy. And the next game we played against her team, she came charging down my side of the field, I went running right back at her and we collided at full speed. And all of the soccer parents were quiet, which of course never happened. And she never ever land down my side of the field again. And I like to think of that as a pretty formative experience back when I was 10 years old. And I think it's actually, I think I tell that story in my first book “North of Hope”. But it certainly was impactful. And I will say that my dad was one for encouraging those sorts of challenges.
Scott Anthony Barlow 11:32
I feel like there's so many underlying lessons just in that one experience.
Shannon Polson 11:37
Yes. Absolutely. That's right.
Scott Anthony Barlow 11:42
When you think of grit, and I love what you're talking about, and how you're defining grit, why do you think that it makes such a difference? Especially in these, you know, what I heard you called double crucible type situations as well. What are, you know, for someone who hasn't yet read the book and might be listening, by the way, the title is “The Grit Factor” of your latest book, but which is wonderful, by the way, and we only get to delve into so much here. But I want to know, why is it grit? Why is it grit in those types of situations? Help me understand what is that.
Shannon Polson 12:23
So let's talk about that. I think you're right, there are… we are in the world where there are so many sound bites. And there's so many things like this podcast out there, where it's easy to listen and say, “I just need to keep on keeping on and everything else.” But what can… to try and take this a little bit and make it even a little bit more tangible, what can someone do that's listening to this right now, to be able to either develop themselves as more of a gritty type of person or to be able to practice grit, what can they do? Yeah, I think that sometimes it's easy for any of us to get worn down, right? We get worn down by either the challenge of the situation or especially and maybe even more so an environment that is unwelcoming or resistant to us being there. And making contributions. And again, I think many of your listeners probably have experienced some of this. It's pretty exhausting. And it requires this willingness to keep going. And I will say that I don't think of grit as this isolated characteristic, I think of it very much in the grit Institute really focuses on whole leader training. And you know that in The Grit Factor, we really talk about the whole leader, because it's part of this ecosystem that we have to build and develop in ourselves and in the environment around us. And so it's just really easy to and I hear this all the time from people, when I give presentations, and I give, I have a chance again to talk to audiences across the country and around the world. And I'll have people come up afterwards, I'm like, well, it's good to something you have or you don't, because I don't feel like I have it or, you know, maybe I used to do this thing. But now I don't feel like I'm able to get through things. And that's where I feel like it's so important to talk about, you do just have, you know, keep on keeping on. And I actually tell a story about my grandma, saying that in the midst of a family tragedy, actually, and there is a component of that. But there's a way to really I think shaped that in a meaningful way to be the most effective in a given challenging circumstance. So I do think that grit is important. And you do just have to keep going. And that's something I think in a world where there's so many sound bites, and people jump from job to job. And you know, some of that is natural, but you also have to kind of keep on keeping on at points and that requires grit. And the whole book, The Grit Factor is full of ideas for your listeners. So both stories, as well as very tangible takeaways. But I would say, I mean, maybe even the most important thing and this is really the beginning of the book and it's the beginning of the training and going for grit is going back into your own story and remembering the times that you have either pushed through or navigated through something really, really difficult. Go back and remember those times, remember what strengths you either demonstrated or developed in the course of that, and then pull that into the story that you're telling yourself now in the midst of hard times. So I think that is really important. The second part of it is really about mindset. And this is part of and there's actually quite a bit of research that is building on this original research around Carol Dweck “Growth Mindset”. Having the mindset, that challenge makes you better, challenge actually can hone your ability to do things well. And so if you go into challenge with that mindset, there's actually new research that actually says if you have the mindset, that stress enhances performance, it actually significantly enhances performance. And this research was down the navy seals, it's more recent, and it didn't make it into the book. But it's building on this idea that you've got to approach difficulty with the understanding, and this is backed by science, lots and lots of it, that those challenges will make you better. And that mindset will help you go into all of the tactical exercises of The Grit Factor, where you really can. You build your grit like you build muscle, it's very much a characteristic that can be developed.
Scott Anthony Barlow 16:00
When I do push ups, I don't get tired, I grow stronger, that type of mentality.
Shannon Polson 16:06
Yeah, and you might get tired, but you're also right. And that is actually exactly the example when I was speaking at West Point a couple of years ago, we talked about how you train for push ups by doing push ups, right? I remember getting ready for an accounting exam in business school. And I was an English major, right. So I was going back, it was rereading the chapter and I was highlighting and I was writing in the margins. And wow, I almost didn't pass that exam. And I realized you get better at accounting by doing the problems, right, like not by rereading the book. And so you train for grit. By doing things that require grit, you train for hard things by doing hard things. And I always recommend to people, you pick something smaller, and then you constantly increase the level of difficulty. And that is just the same way that you would grow muscle the same way that you would develop any skill, is the same way that you develop grit, but it's absolutely something you can develop.
Scott Anthony Barlow 16:53
I so appreciate that, that both mentality and advice at the same time. And it sounds, I don't know, I think some people could hear that and think that it sounds trivial to just like start with something smaller and grow. But I think that that is reality,
Shannon Polson 17:07
What's reality. And also, what's interesting is that it seems like it should be so basic, but I think so many of us get really overwhelmed by the huge goal or the amorphous goal. And you don't even know what to do, it's like you just take a step, and then take another step and then take a little bit of a risk and then take a slightly bigger risk. And so really, it is something that we have to return to when we start to feel overwhelmed by either not knowing or perceiving that something is so big that we can't possibly overcome it.
Scott Anthony Barlow 17:33
I absolutely love it. Thank you very much, by the way. I really appreciate you taking the time and making the time. And just two other questions, the first of which is, you know, for people that are in a situation where they want to make a change, and they're in the thick of it. And if they need to, I'm just going to call it be grittier or have more grit in one way or another. And they're going through that challenging situation like a career change, which many of our listeners are. What advice would you give them where they're in that place right now?
Shannon Polson 18:06
Well, in addition to that first piece that we talked about, which is going back to past triumphs that you can draw, right, that's really owning your own story. And it's really saying, “I'm going to create the narrative of my life, I'm not going to take anybody else's story, I'm going to create the narrative of my life” giving yourself that agency and again, that opportunity and that responsibility, I think, is really, really important. You also, I think, need to know that it doesn't matter if you get every step, right, there's not one plan, there's not one path. And I will say my path, I hope is an example that there's lots of twists and turns. And yet every single twist and turn has added to the foundation that I'm operating on right now. And so know that you might take a turn and decide in two years that this isn't something that I think is actually the long term solution. And that's okay, the recommendation I just gave to somebody the other day, a young graduate, she's just a couple years out from from college and I was like, just stay somewhere long enough to learn something or make a difference in something, right? Before you change, don't just change stay long enough to make a difference, or to have learned something and then you take a step in another direction. And if it's not the right step, that's okay, you can adjust, it's not final. And so being willing to kind of take a risk and draw on those strengths from the past, I think will stand every single one of your listeners in very, very good stead and of course read The Grit Factor.
Scott Anthony Barlow 19:31
And of course, read The Grit Factor. Speaking of which, where can people get that? Your latest book is called The Grit Factor, where can… is that everywhere books are made or sold?
Shannon Polson 19:41
Everywhere books are sold and every kind of format. Yeah, it's Barnes and Noble, Amazon, your local independent bookstore which I like to recommend to people, it's even on Walmart, it turns out so and if you want to do for a company or organization just contact me at shannonpolson.com and I can help connect you to the right people.
Scott Anthony Barlow 19:58
Amazing. Thank you so very much. I appreciate you sharing, I appreciate you being on the podcast, sharing your story and writing the book, which is no small feat, as it turns out, yeah, I mentioned before we started recording that we're going through that process right now. So…
Shannon Polson 20:13
Good for you, oh, that's outstanding. It's hard work. But and it takes grit, right?
Scott Anthony Barlow 20:18
Yes, as it turns out, I see what you did there.
Shannon Polson 20:22
Scott Anthony Barlow 20:24
So you've probably already figured out that grit is one of the things that you'll need to develop on the way if your goal is meaningful work. There's also a whole series of other pieces, keys and things that you'll need, if that really is where you want to go, especially if you want to do meaningful work that pays incredibly well. And that's why next week, on The Happen To Your Career podcast, we're airing a series, this is actually a disappearing series. And it's going to showcase the nine stages of getting to meaningful work on your mountain climb to meaningful work, if you will. And also, we just, as of today, literally today, we opened the doors to happen, the brand new version of happen our program to help you move through every single stage of meaningful work as it… as you move throughout your entire life. And it can support you through, not just now, but literally your entire life and every step along the way. So happen is for people who have a commitment to learning how to do meaningful work, both now and throughout the whole rest of your life and you want the development and not just the learning but also the development along the way, and support from an entire community, and experts. And if you're interested in learning more about the brand new version of happen in the happen community, then you can find out one of two different ways, you can either go to the happentoyourcareer.com site, or happentoyourcareer.com/happen (H-A-P-P-E-N) or you can email me directly and just put ‘happen' in the subject line. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org and either myself or my team will get back to you and make sure that you have any of your questions answered anything you need to determine if it's right for you. Also, guess what? Next week right here, you will hear at first the, nine stages of moving to meaningful work and finding and keeping meaningful work that fits you. We'll see you then. Adios. I am out.