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Tenacity. In our everyday lives, we often view tenacity as an intangible ability to rise above obstacles, despite circumstances. Related words include grit, endurance, perseverance, and relentless determination.

However, there are some subtle differences between the word tenacity and its related counterparts. Although all imply some form of persistence, the word tenacity also implies strategic thinking. A tenacious person works smarter, not necessarily harder, than a persistent person. He or she is in it for the long haul and will do what is strategically required to accomplish a goal.

Where does tenacious ability come from? How does one come to possess it? Is tenacity an innate ability or a learned behavior?

Some people are tenacious spirits as a result of dire circumstances. However, that does not mean that all people who encounter dire circumstances are tenacious. Those who do possess tenacity are often viewed as an anomaly of sorts. Their inspiring stories about overcoming oppression, homelessness, poverty, poor health, and many other types of adversity are often the topic of biographies and noteworthy recognition. Many effective motivational speakers draw on their past challenging experiences to inspire others to do the same. Their relentless pursuit to overcome adversity or attain a goal is noteworthy and worth examining.

Do they possess a special “X” factor that the general population doesn’t? As a professor in the field of gifted education, I have spent many years studying gifted and high-ability individuals, traits of giftedness, and high-ability and high-potential students in all socio-economic settings. Many would think that those being born super smart would naturally become super successful and be fantastic leaders. However, this is simply not the case.

Those who are tenacious can continuously outperform many (if not most) academically gifted individuals who do not possess tenacity. Tenacious individuals are found in every socio-economic class, and their cunning and resourceful behaviors are easily recognizable when encountering them one-on-one. You will find them among the poorest of neighborhoods or in the workplace as thought leaders and innovators. We admire their strength and sheer determination that led to overcoming what we perceive to be insurmountable obstacles and/or achieving their goals. Whether intentional or not, they often inspire us to find our own inner strength and courage that provoke greatness. They possess resolve to face what many of us would fear. Their approach to problem solving defies standard logic and reasoning. For reference, think Chris Gardner, the homeless salesman portrayed by Will Smith in the biographical film The Pursuit of Happyness (2006, Sony Pictures).

Great, tenacious leaders are goal setters, goal seekers, and accomplishers. Their commitment to a cause allows them to treat obstacles as an opportunity for growth. They possess “a growth mindset as opposed to a fixed mindset,” a phrase coined by renowned psychologist Dr. Carol Dweck. Dweck spent decades studying people’s mindset toward failure. She noticed that some individuals rebounded after encountering failure, while others were devastated after experiencing the smallest setback. Her research uncovered a link between mindset and achievement.

Simultaneously, the field of neuroscience revealed the malleable “plasticity” of the brain—that is, the brain’s ability to change with experience. The implications of these discoveries are twofold.

First, we now know we can actually increase our neural growth by the type of deliberate actions we take. Yes, action! If you think of this in terms of the nature (genetic inheritance/biological factors) vs. nurture (environment/learning experiences) debate, what we now know is that we can most assuredly nurture certain behaviors through conditioning. We can actually increase our IQ, competencies, skills, and knowledge through action!

Second, we now know we are able to move from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset. This means that if you don’t currently possess a particular disposition, you can if pursue a growth mindset. Simply put, your approach matters. For example, two very goal-oriented people might tackle the same problem. Both people work very hard trying to achieve their goal. However, one applies the same method over and over, even when it is flawed. His productivity declines, despite his work ethic. Over time, he might become discouraged and give up altogether. Although his efforts are valiant, he never achieves his goal.

The other person implements the method once, analyzes the results, and implements positive change, learning from each iteration of implementation. Furthermore, his early failures are not a setback. He believes he can achieve his intended outcome. In other words, failure is not an option. He achieves his goal.

You can achieve your goals, too. Here are five G’s to help you develop tenacious behaviors:

Goals. Set clear goals that are broken down into achievable baby steps. Approach it like weight loss. You might want to lose twenty pounds, but it is easier to (mentally) chip away at the goal when you set it in five-pound increments.

Guidance. Look continuously to your surroundings, including unlikely people, resources, and mentors, for guidance. Every person is an expert at something. Analyze what you have learned, and implement change to hone your strategy.

Growth. Embrace a growth mindset. Be comfortable with being uncomfortable. You will experience the greatest growth mindset when you are uncomfortable. You will eventually learn to live and conduct business fearlessly.

Gurus. Look up, not sideways! Surround yourself with goal seekers and reachers…the thought-provoking gurus of your industry.

Grit. Get gritty. Thick-skinned, gritty people do not allow setbacks to discourage them. They will persevere, despite their circumstances and naysayers.

I will close by encouraging you to take care of yourself spiritually, mentally, and physically while pursuing lofty goals. If it were easy, everyone would be doing it. There is a reason why “one is the loneliest number.”

The word tenacity reminds me of a slogan found on my favorite coffee mug. It simply states, “She believed she could, so she did”—an example of a growth mindset approach to achieving a goal. The fixed mindset version of this slogan might be, “Others couldn’t, so she didn’t.” Both statements illustrate the effects of surrounding yourself with like-minded people. To quote Confucius, “If you are the smartest person in the room, then you are in the wrong room.”

“You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.”

—Maya Angelou

Tenacity is written by Dr. Alicia Cotabish