Living Lives With True Grit

By Lindsey Novak

February 11, 2021 5 min read

We rarely hear about women (or men) who have made exceptional achievements in careers, perhaps because there are so few. We know both women and men can be highly intelligent, but more than intelligence enters into why some achieve unimaginable goals while most do not. Since intelligence is only one factor, perhaps it is due to the messages young girls receive growing up.

Shannon Huffman Polson, after serving as one of the first women to fly the Apache helicopter in the U.S. Army and becoming an attack aviation leader for nearly a decade; earning her MBA from the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth and an MFA from Seattle Pacific University; working in the field at Guidant in cardiac rhythm management; and leading teams at Microsoft, wrote "The Grit Factor: Courage, Resilience, and Leadership in the Most Male-Dominated Organization in The World." Polson wanted to find other women with comparable achievements. Some of the inspiring women featured in "The Grit Factor" are: retired Maj. Gen. Dee McWilliams, who spent 29 years in the U.S. Army and commanded four companies and a training battalion; retired Lt. Col. Amy McGrath, the first woman to fly in the F/A-18 in combat in the Marines; retired Coast Guard Cmdr. Alda Siebrands, the first woman to complete the course from the all-male Army Special Forces and teach the Jumpmaster school; Lt. Angel Hughes, whose classmates were all graduates with engineering degrees from the Coast Guard, Navy and Air Force, became the only woman — and a woman of color — to become an aircraft commander for flying search-and-rescue missions; retired Cmdr. Karen Fine Brasch, who spent 29 years in the Navy; retired Maj. Heather Penney, an Air Force F-16 fighter pilot; Christine Callahan, the first female F-35 pilot; Sara Faulkner, a Coast Guard Rescue Swimmer who outperformed all other applicants; and retired Maj. Katie Higgins, the first woman to fly with the Blue Angels.

These women had the grit to go above and beyond the requirements and compete in a male-dominated world, and according to Polson, grit can be learned. Finding one's purpose — the why - and then connecting the head to the heart is critical for success. Finding the "why," or the "Five Whys" is a technique created by Taiichi Ohno, founder of the Toyota production system. (In today's society, where students choose careers based on the highest salary, a large portion of the population will likely never develop grit.)

Mindset is the next factor to consider. The Army worked with the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania to develop the Master Resilience Training course. The training teaches its students to connect with their own stories through six core competencies: self-awareness, self-regulation, optimism, mental agility, identifying one's own and others' character strength, and connection. This training can help one overcome "learned helplessness," a trait most people have witnessed in certain types of people. One of the requirements for strong leadership is the ability to analyze a situation and take action at the right moment. In the military, making the right decision at the moment can mean saving lives (and it is perhaps a skill that should be required in college courses).

Mental agility is part of resilience. In the military and throughout life, a helpless mindset could be fatal. This means one has to have a Plan B. Some common and highly negative pitfalls are "Dismissing the grain of truth, minimizing the situation, rationalizing or excusing one's contribution to a problem, and weak responses."

Individuals can retrain their brain — their mindset — by using reframing exercises. Some examples of mindset reframing involve completing different sentences, such as "A more optimistic way of seeing this is ..." which helps a person find the positive aspects of any situation. Another sentence is, "The most likely implication is ..." which helps a person see a broader perspective. A sentence to prompt a person to prove their assumptions is, "That's not completely true because ..." which also requires the person to come up with evidence instead of using emotionally based fears and opinions as a foundation for argument.

Many may go through life without ever knowing what it is to embrace grit, but everyone can benefit from the practical exercises presented in "The Grit Factor."

Email career and life coach: [email protected] with your workplace problems and issues. Ms. Novak responds to all emails. For more information, visit, and for past columns, see

Photo credit: WikiImages at Pixabay

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