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  • Writer's pictureChris Toepker

Got grit?

Updated: Jul 8, 2021

On my first day of Hung Kuen practice, I was handed a short pamphlet. My first introduction to kung fu.

It read:

“(proficiency in) kung fu depends on three factors:

  1. instruction,

  2. natural ability and

  3. patience (or perseverance)

‘if you cannot perform that which has been studied, do not consider the matter ended. If another achieves success with but one effort, use ten. Where another succeeds with a hundred efforts, use a thousand.

By persevering, even the slow of mind can become intelligent and a weak man can become strong.’”

Indeed, the etymology of “kung fu,” as literal as you can make it, is “he who has spent a lot of effort at his work.”

 = 工 (work), 力 (effort, strength) = “gong”

= an honorable person (man) = “fu”

Now, many years on, looking back, I can see how these simple suggestions blended with my own character and fueled much of what I have achieved. They also continue to encourage me, even now.

Even so, it’s always good to get a little more encouragement!

“Grit” by Angela Duckworth, revisits this ancient wisdom and demonstrates that it’s as true as ever. Even better, she introduces a short series of tools to measure your own grit (your own kung fu) and thereby help predict your likelihood to succeed. She also offers tools to improve your own grit and maintain course over time.

I find this incredibly valuable validation. Not only for #BreakingImpossible, but for questions I’ve been recently faced with around career, teamwork and leadership.

For one powerful tool, that we use here at #BreakingImpossible: a hierarchy of goals.

Dr. Duckworth attributes the approach to Warren Buffet’s 25/5 rule from asking three questions of his pilot (believe it or not). In any case, we have found it relevant to many aspects of our practice.

Dr. Duckworth further suggests “add an additional step: Ask yourself, To what extent do these goals serve a common purpose? The more they’re part of the same goal hierarchy—important because they then serve the same ultimate concern—the more focused your passion.

It’s important to note that “passion” and “patience” are more about perseverance. The application of effort and practice, over time, to a central goal or aim or end. That is: your kung fu practice. Not the martial arts, but the effort over time to a specific goal.

Focusing on running for a moment, this method drives us on both the biggest and smallest of scales. When out on a challenge or race, finishing the distance with a time is The Goal. When it gets hard, we often carve it into medium or small goals. The next trail or terrain transition. The next food or water. When the running get really tough, like when struggling with something like a hard hill, we break it down into “just to that next switchback” or even “that tree.” And the next, and next. Of course, each small goal leads to the medium and larger one until the challenge is done!

This cycle is repeated with a collection of challenges and races themselves. Our big goal is the Hong Kong Four Trails Ultra Challenge (hk4tuc). So, each completed challenge gets us closer to succeeding with that. Tellingly, we fully expect to fail in our first #hk4tuc attempt. Maybe the first few! Importantly, we’re not willing to give up.

If it takes someone else 100 efforts, we’ll use 1,000.

So, is the #hk4tuc the ultimate, final goal? No. Instead, the Truly Big Goal: we want to inspire ourselves and everyone to explore their own limits.

As William James noted in his 1907 work “The Energies of Men

Compared with what we ought to be, we are only half awake. Our fires are damped, our drafts are checked. We are making use of only a small part of our possible mental and physical resources.

Or, as Dr. Duckworth highlights in her work “Grit”

“James asserted that “the human individual lives usually far within his limits; he possesses powers of various sorts which he habitually fails to use. He energizes below his maximum, and he behaves below his optimum.” “Of course there are limits,” James acknowledged. “The trees don’t grow into the sky.” But these outer boundaries of where we will, eventually, stop improving are simply irrelevant for the vast majority of us: “The plain fact remains that men the world over possess amounts of resource, which only very exceptional individuals push to their extremes of use.

When we say “break impossible,” we are inviting you to join us, pushing your resources to the extremes of their use. And have fun doing it together!

We’ll see you out there!

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