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Productive Failure: Motivation and Maintenance Take Grit!

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Sunday, September 02, 2012

This is the time of year when there are lots of "back to school" articles aimed at parents who want to motivate their children to be successful. Intelligence isn't the most important factor in academic success.

Margaret Wente at the Toronto Globe and Mail has written a terrific article interviewing writer Paul Tough (good name!) and summarizing the recent research on "productive failure". Heaping "self esteem" on kids doesn't work very well in motivating them to succeed. Character, Tough says (and Wente agrees), is actually built through failure. That's how we learn persistence, curiosity, optimism and grit. We have to let our kids fail. Because that's how they build character. Especially grit.

But: it's not just kids who need to learn. All of us are learning and relearning all the time, our whole lives long. And particularly in the weight loss context, we know that motivation is key. To learn to sustain the motivation essential to maintenance, we have to let ourselves fail too. Maintenance, I'm thinking, is another process of productive failure.

We lose all the weight. Then we learn how to maintain the weight loss.

And we learn, inevitably, by failing: by putting some weight back on.

And then taking it off again. Immediately. This time, not giving up. This time, keeping the fluctuation within a range.

We learn to be persistent: we keep on tracking.

We learn to be curious: we explore what works.

We learn to be optimistic that this time we will succeed. This time, we will not give up. Ever.

And that requires above all, that we learn grit. Grit in the weight maintenance context means:

willingness to tolerate some hunger;

willingness to tolerate some social inconvenience (when everyone else is eating and we can't); and

willingness to tolerate the day-in, day-out every-dayness of exercise and calorie control necessary for life-long weight loss maintenance.

The initial weight loss process was somewhat glamorous. People noticed. People offered congratulations. There was lots of praise, and the ol' self-esteem rose pretty rapidly. But self-esteem isn't a solid foundation to maintain weight loss. We need something more. Grit.

Grit, for me, means accepting the unpleasant reality of weight loss maintenance. Learning to accept the discipline that it takes. Maybe even, eventually and at least some days, to like it. But to stick with the program even on those days when we don't much like it. To say "oh well". And stop eating. And start moving.

It's those failures we've had in the past -- the yo yo losses and regains --- which eventually produce this change in attitude. That build character in us, just as productive failure builds character in our kids.

We make our failures productive failures when we don't give up! When we learn, instead, the persistence, curiosity, optimism: and above all, the grit which are necessary to sustained success.

Try the grit test!! Pretty interesting!

(I did and . . . was pleasantly surprised by the result).

Member Comments About This Blog Post:
SUSIEMT 9/13/2012 10:24AM

    So True! I hat e that feeling of hunger! It makes me examine am I thirsty? Am I worried about something and on and on! So, maybe I am a little bit gritty! WooHoo!

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CAROL494 9/9/2012 5:45PM

  Thanks for sharing your story! emoticon emoticon

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EASH5M 9/9/2012 5:10PM

    emoticon blog

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NEW-CAZ 9/9/2012 3:37AM

    emoticon blog emoticon

Nice to be home and catching up with everyone, have a great Sunday hun emoticon

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MANILUS 9/8/2012 8:51PM

    Nice blog, those who are successful do have grit! They have been through a lot of tough situations and thrived. All the best to you!

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CAROLISCIOUS 9/8/2012 7:42PM

    Agree with every word written here! Thanks!

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THINTASTICME 9/8/2012 2:14PM

    emoticon emoticon

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VALERIEMAHA 9/8/2012 11:30AM wonder you got THE VOTE! Speaking of cornbread (well, grit anyway), check this out:

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DOKEYOKEY 9/7/2012 6:24PM

    So great that you have taken the time to share this with us! It's helpful to me on so many levels!


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HAKAPES 9/7/2012 2:48PM

    Yes, it goes trough failure, and not giving up.
Great blog, thanks for sharing!

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MKELLY72 9/7/2012 1:50PM

    Wonderful blog, and the article you referenced is fantastic as well. Thank you so much for sharing this!

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ESME25 9/7/2012 11:25AM


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MANDELOVICH 9/7/2012 9:48AM

    I love this! You are so inspiring, and it's really important to keep these things in mind during maintenance. Grit is hugely important. And I like to think about having persistence, patience and practice during the journey. Also, it's all about continuous improvement and self-correcting in the moment of little slips!

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KANOE10 9/7/2012 7:50AM

    Great post. emoticon

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TRYINGHARD54 9/7/2012 5:56AM

    great blog

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ELLEKTRA 9/7/2012 4:43AM

    Amazing, amazing, amazing! You have hit it directly on the head with this!
I am someone who has maintained for 1.5 years after living a life of being over weight and I have often said I wish I could bottle up what finally clicked in me and be able to pass it on to those who struggle.

Great read! Thank you!

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SHERYL_B 9/6/2012 9:55PM


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MARTHAWILL 9/6/2012 8:32PM

    Thanks for this. I kind of like the word "GRIT" although I only scored between 2.5 and 2.9. Interesting since I am a pretty ambitious person who likes changes
and can really stay the course. Not enough GRIT I guess but working on it.

emoticon emoticon emoticon emoticon emoticon emoticon emoticon

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AMARILYNH 9/6/2012 6:55PM

    So very true!!

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HEALTHYCALM 9/6/2012 6:50PM

    Thank you for writing this! I love your observation that self esteem is not a solid foundation for maintaining weight loss... I am going to make that my new mantra!
emoticon emoticon

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GUITARWOMAN 9/6/2012 6:38PM

    I scored between 4.5 and 5.

Having this kind of grit does not make one the most popular person in the world, but..... emoticon

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LJR4HEALTH 9/6/2012 6:32PM


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DSJB9999 9/6/2012 3:39PM


Thank you for sharing these ideas


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POPSY190 9/6/2012 3:31PM

    Yes, the 3Rs need to be balanced with at least 2 Gs- Grit, Gumption. Even the words have fallen out of fashion! Great blog.

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DDOORN 9/6/2012 1:59PM

    Great points...reminds me of one of my favorite quotes within SparkPeople (and one of the toughest pieces of advice for me to follow!):



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DOUBLEMME 9/6/2012 1:44PM


Thanks for motivation!


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SHELL22222 9/6/2012 1:21PM

    Fanatastic post! emoticon

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ADRIENALINE 9/6/2012 12:54PM

    Thanks so much for a really terrific article. I completely believe that it is grit that helps us to lose and to maintain and to succeed but I could not put it as elegantly as you have. Thanks for a great article.

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SLIMGOODY160 9/6/2012 12:47PM

    I like this, it's so true. Thanks for posting it!

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SUNSHINE20113 9/6/2012 12:45PM

    Lovely. You've put into words what I've been feeling about maintenance just recently. Thank you.

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-SHOREIDO- 9/6/2012 12:37PM

    G - Greatness
R- Reveals
I - Itself
T - Time&time again : )

Great read!! Thanks for sharing and motivating!

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LOGOULD 9/6/2012 12:29PM

    emoticon blog - thanks for sharing with us a way to view the remainder of our journey - the part after all the kudos and glamour is done! I will hold tight to this vision and muster every ounce of grit I can to get back to my ideal range and STAY there!

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PRESBESS 9/6/2012 12:07PM

    Excellent blog! GRIT! I think I am going to include this word in my vocabulary a bit more. That is truely waht it takes when it comes to maintenance. Thanks for the insight.

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NUOVAELLE 9/6/2012 10:32AM

    It took me many years to realize that failure can be productive. But to be honest, I had never actually made the connection between this realization and weight maintenance until I joined the "At goal and maintaining" team. I don't think it's a coincidence that most of the successful maintainers have had the gain-it-all-back experience at least once!
Now I know that our mistakes are our most valuable learning tools.
Your blog hit the nail on the head!
And I learned the word "grit"! Powerful characteristic!
emoticon emoticon

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TUBLADY 9/6/2012 10:19AM

    Thank you for a well thought out blog. i will go on to read the article.
I do believe I have grit. I have always excelled and am constantly challenging myself.. That's why when I gained to the morbidly obese weight I was , it shocked so many, including myself. But with my determination and "grit" I lost 200 lbs and have maintained for over a year.
Now I want to reach out and help others who stumbled like I did, and help them regain their self esteem and confidence , that they too can make changes, no matter what the weight or the age..
Congratulations on the success you have had and will continue to have.
Be strong, stay positive.
I took the test scored 4.1-4.4.
Tisha emoticon emoticon emoticon emoticon emoticon

Comment edited on: 9/6/2012 10:23:20 AM

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AEHEGE 9/6/2012 10:18AM

    What a great blog that addresses so many facets of our lives! You said it well, and the links were also interesting. Also, speaking as a retired teacher, the words of Paul Tough are also very true.

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    Love this blog! Excellent post!

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    emoticon emoticon

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LAURIE5658 9/6/2012 9:27AM

    I am comfortably gritty. I love this blog and it gives me insights that I didn't have before. Thank you!!!!!

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NELLJONES 9/5/2012 2:50PM

    My father used to say that "any damn fool can do what he likes and do it well. It takes character to do the things you DON"T like to do and do them well." This was a man who suffered a lifelong disability from polio as a small boy so he knew whereof he spoke.

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CELIAMINER 9/5/2012 8:56AM

    Interesting test. I also scored higher than I expected on the grit score, making me wonder how honest I was with myself. While I am doing well so far with maintenance, I'm still new to it. And while I have a couple of things in life that hold my interest (walking festivals and decluttering, at least in spurts), I am easily distracted by shiny objects at work, and projects that go to the back burner to address a crisis rarely make it back to the forefront without a lot of prodding and without being late.

Also, interesting article. I grew up doing only things I knew I was good at so I wouldn't fail. I once brought home a report card with a B on it in a one-semester art class. One lousy B, rest A's. My dad's only comment: "You need to bring up that B," which I couldn't because the class was over. I understand that the constant effort to build self-esteem can produce offspring that feel the world owes them so they have to do nothing, but it's really easy to go the other way and produce a neurotic perfectionist that also gets nothing done.

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ROOSTER72 9/5/2012 3:21AM

    I love this blog - thanks.

Grit is such a good word. I will use this as a mental trigger. Thanks!

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PERIWINKLE88 9/4/2012 10:06PM

    Wonderful post! (I scored between 3.5 and 3.9).

Trying to teach my kids grit. Much more important than arithmetic!

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CRYSTALJEM 9/4/2012 5:54PM

    Cant wait to read the article. Like the usage of the word tolerate instead of something like suffer through - it puts a more positive, achievable, goal oriented slant on things.

And you are so right - those who have never learned how to deal with failure live in fear of it instead of seeing it as just a part of life, a different kind of opportunity.

Grit - a good thing.

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ISHIIGIRL 9/4/2012 5:49PM

    Fall down 7 times, stand up 8. Old Chinese Proverb. Not being afraid to fail is when we truly find success. Great blog!

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STARDUSTD 9/4/2012 3:04PM

  I scored shockingly high for grit. Amazing, considering how bad it feels like I'm doing at maintenance!
Thanks for this blog. I hope you don't mind if I print it off and add it to my motivation resources.

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KALIGIRL 9/4/2012 9:34AM

    Interesting that you talk about building character... new book about how to build character in our children to prepare them for life was reviewed on NPR this morning.

I carry this in my wallet, "Do you not see how necessary a world of pains and troubles is to school an intelligence and make it a soul?" - John Keats

Namaste my friend.

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GETFIT2LIVE 9/4/2012 1:38AM

    Great point--it IS in failing but getting up and trying again that we learn the most. That has certainly been the case for me in losing weight. Thanks for the links, I was pleasantly surprised by my score, too!

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PHEBESS 9/3/2012 11:47PM

    3.5 to 3.9 hmmmmmm

I agree that the constant praise, or awards for what I consider to be mediocrity, totally contradicts what educators SHOULD be doing to prepare our students for the real world, for their future lives. Not that we need to be mean, or set the students up for failure - but for students (all of us) to realize that sometimes we fail, sometimes we pick ourselves up, sometimes we try a new approach - and that sometimes that new approach helps us succeed. Had we not failed, we wouldn't succeed on the second (or tenth, or thirtieth) try.

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NOLAZYBUTT110 9/3/2012 11:36PM

  Always taking the GRIT test, but I alway seem to fail! susana

Comment edited on: 9/3/2012 11:37:32 PM

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