I’ve been hearing this phrase a lot – in podcasts, interviews, and even personal conversations with people I most respect and admire. Maybe it’s a timely coincidence, or maybe for the first time I’m simply appreciating the value within this phrase. Regardless, it’s been rattling around my head the past few weeks. It’s been an ever present force drawing focus to itself and directly challenging how I view work, opportunity, and struggling through new personal projects.
Whenever I get some momentum behind time management and personal passions, I start to feel good. That feeling where everything is moving to the same rhythm and you’re cruising at 30,000 feet. No traffic in sight, no obstructions to deal with, and there’s clarity on your path. Then something throws you out of that rhythm. Something at work tips you over (like when that one guy who just really doesn’t pull his weight starts talking…you know the one. Yep. That one.), you wake up late, burn a meal you’ve been working on, or you tweak your shoulder working out – whatever it is – you hit some turbulence. It ends up sending you into a mental tailspin. On cue, thoughts that only pull you further away from your goal flood the mind. The engines blow out – taking you from cruising altitude to a rapid descent you desperately try to pull out of. This is an all too common experience, at least for me.
Even the last few weeks have been quite an emotional rollercoaster for me. This feeling of the need to “escape” – to forge my own change in my life – has been consuming. And the energy expended on that has been so intense, I’ve had a noticeable drop in time spent working on the things most import to me. Because it takes energy to pull out of a tailspin, to course correct – everything takes focus and energy. Especially being consumed with frustration and stress.
Even though this is normal, it’s still very unpleasant to work through. And I’m realizing what I lose I most in these mental cycles is that mindset of discipline and consistency. Of showing up every day – the grinder mentality.
A grinder is someone that just puts their head down and does the work. They’re not necessarily the smartest person, or the most skilled, but their deficits are addressed and made up for by consistency and work ethic. A grinder focuses on effort and output.
The romanticism surrounding side hustles, personal projects, entrepreneurship, and “breaking free” can be a dangerous mirage. Focusing on the end state – the success and new life that eagerly awaits – can quickly become crushing. It can transform from the vision of your project and virtuous life goals, to a tortuous abstraction that seems impossibly far. It can intensify the emotional spirals and push you further from where you could be. When you lose sight of the journey – the long, vague, cumbersome path between the present and your goals – things can feel much worse than they really are. Fragments of negativity that line all of our lives get disproportionately accentuated. And with this discouragement, we begin to falter. We can enter a tailspin which demands energy. Energy which rightfully belongs to the things that actually matter to you.
“You think I want to get up every day and do what I do? No. But it’s what has to be done. And it’s the best opportunity I have in the moment to afford me the capability to do other things.”
The grinder mentality can shield against the blown engines and the tailspins. The grinder can keep the grand plan in mind through obstacles. The grinder focuses on the journey. The next task at hand. The motto of the grinder is “it’s what has to be done”.
To make great changes, the grinder mentality has to always be present and active in some capacity. Only through focused consistency over time can we guarantee success. The beauty of that mindset is that we all have that capability within us. Discipline, determination, and consistency are simple skills that can be strengthened with effort. They’re choices we can all make. The choice to suffer through inconveniences to get to the next goalpost. Then once there, we can target the next one. And then the next one.
All of my references for “it’s what has to be done” have been from people a generation+ older than me. To me, characteristics such as this grinder mentality are based on the individual not an age group. However, when looking at a key difference between generations, younger generations (millenial-ish) tend to be the passion and purpose generation, and the generations before them seem to be the “work is work” generation. There is so much nuance and individuality which that generalization recklessly glosses over. Regardless, on the surface, the chase your passion mindset seems to be at odds with the grinder mindset. That was always a mental trap I fell into. I was certain the two mindsets couldn’t coexist. Passion dictated purpose, and if you were passionate you would work hard to achieve that vision.
I now realize that binary viewpoint is flawed. Grinder mentality and passion fit perfectly together. They empower each other. Those with passions have an excessive drive to strengthen their grinder mentality because they have purpose tied to it. And the grinders can manifest discipline and consistency through any obstacle, ensuring they can capitalize on opportunity when it presents itself.
Jocko Willink has a good example of this in his book Extreme Ownership. While detailing some aspects of SEAL training, he and Leif Babin discuss boat races. Potential SEALs are broken into small teams which are each assigned a small raft boat. They race from shore to a designated point out in the ocean, turn around, and return. There are goalpost progression markers along the pathway of this race. The description they provide details a grueling grind of getting battered by ocean waves, fighting physical exhaustion, and combating critical mental fatigue. Each boat team has a designated leader. The strongest leaders are consistently seen to display 2 key qualities:
1. Doing the work they are expecting their team to do – leading by example
2. Having their team focusing on the next most immediate task to maintain drive and determination – in this case, focusing on the next nearest course marker, not the final marker
This example perfectly embodies the grinder mindset. The need to do what has to be done. So now as I pull myself out of this most recent tailspin, I am try to reconcile my goals with my actions. I know another tailspin will happen sooner than later, and that I am still very far from achieving my goals, but I have to keep at it. What’s the alternative? Sure, I’d like to turn my projects into a career now. I’d like to know that I am financially free. I’d like a multitude of things we all want. But I’m just not there yet. Like it or not, whatever commitments exist have requirements – bills, rent, debt, startup capital for our would be businesses. Our aspirations have requirements. The ability to sit down and maintain focus on what has to be done is an invaluable tool of calibration and progress. A tool of a grinder.
See you tomorrow.
Inspirations: Extreme Ownership, Discipline, Gary V., Stand Up Comics
Quote: Close Personal Relationship