Resilience is the ability to overcome or bounce back after a difficult set-back or circumstance. It enables us to learn from the experience and apply our knowledge to future experiences.

Where resilience is reactive, “grit” is a word that can mean “the drive required to achieve something that is difficult.” Grit is when you dig down deep, keeping your nose to the grindstone, without looking up; it’s when you work through the mundane because that’s how achievement occurs.

Angela Duckworth, in her book, “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance”, found that “grittier people are dramatically more motivated than others to seek a meaningful, other-centered life”.

She cites Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps as an example of true grit: beyond talent, Phelps put in the lonely hours spent in the pool doing the same thing over and over, day after day, year after year. That is grit.

Grit is that “thing” in you that has you persevering against the odds. This is what Viktor Frankl had; the famed Austrian neurologist and psychologist developed Logotherapy in and through his harrowing experiences in a Nazi concentration camp. It wasn’t his resilience that saved him: it was his grit. He didn’t just bounce back each night when he recollected the events of his day; he decided that he was going to live and he told himself that every minute of every day.

Harriet Tubman exemplifies pure grit: she led enslaved people into safe houses and the Underground Railroad to reach the freedom of the North. At great risk, enduring great hardship, time after time, she made the trip with those escaping from slavery.

As clinical social workers, we can help develop this grit concept in our patient population so as to enable full recovery, personal growth, and optimal functioning.   Here are some recommendations from Duckworth and others:

  1. Find what your interest or passion is—fall in love with something.
  2. Develop a capacity for doing hard practice—the kind scientists call “deliberate practice.” Over years of working in a very diligent way on your weaknesses, you improve.
  3. Find purpose and meaning. The meaning of life according to Viktor Frankl lies in finding a purpose and taking responsibility for ourselves and other human beings. By having a clear “why” we can face all the “how” questions of life. Only by feeling free and sure of the objective that motivates us will we be able to make the world a better place.
  4. Have hope. In “Grit, The Power of Passion and Perseverance”, Duckworth identifies two kinds of hope: one that has us yearning for sunnier weather, or a smoother path. It comes without the burden of responsibility: the onus us on the universe to make things better. Grit depends on a different kind of hope in which our own efforts improve our future. “I have a feeling tomorrow will be better” is different from “I resolve to make tomorrow better”. The hope that gritty people have has nothing to do with luck and everything to do with getting up again.

As clinical social workers, what are your thoughts on assisting clients in developing resiliency and grit? How about developing these in yourself?


Joseph Ford, LCSW-C, a Commander in the United States Navy, is the President of the Center for Clinical Social Work. He is currently serving at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, NC, as the mental health consultant for the 2nd Marine Air Wing Commanding General and staff Clinical Social Worker for the Naval Health Clinic.   (The views expressed in this article are strictly those of the author and not those of the U.S. Navy, Department of Defense, or Center for Clinical Social Work.)


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