Here in Tucson, Arizona, one ritual we cyclists have is riding up Mt. Lemmon. You start at just above 2,000 feet and end up around 9,000 feet (if you ride to the observatory). It is where Lance Armstrong trains, need I say more? As you mash your pedals and climb many thousands of feet in a few hours, you can really get to know your riding partner. Deeper conversations naturally sprout, maybe because on the way down you and your partner will together be speeding along windy mountain turns at up to 45 miles per hour on tires that are less than an inch wide. Trust is essential.
Not long ago I rode up with a family friend who happens to be a F16 pilot and instructor. He said something that made me stop and think about what life is all about. His statement then set off a domino line of other thoughts I had about what it means to really experience life fully. I am talking about a truism that is key to understand as an adult or as a parent who understands that part of the sweetness of life is about chasing big goals – grand visions – that may prove elusive. But what we as adults and parents try and do during our brief lives is give ourselves fully to something greater than our ego needs. It is hard enough for us adults to do this. But as a parent one of my main concerns is how do I prepare my children to enter an increasingly complex world where the strength of their character mettle will be tested. And tested. And tested again and again.
How do we as adults or parents invest our time to maximize the chances we or our children will hold up under the pounding character mettle must undergo?
That brings me back to my F16 pilot friend. Let’s start with a reality. The chances of becoming an F16 pilot are about as infinitesimal as becoming a pro football player. This is a very very elite group of people. You need to have top notch physical qualities such as very quick reaction time. You need to be cool even under incredible pressure. You must have an almost obsessive tendency toward perfection. And there is at least one other quality you must have according to my pilot friend….
To get to this quality let’s go to how I learned about this quality. As a behavioral scientist, counselor, and therapist, I asked my pilot friend (as we are riding up Mt. Lemmon) if he saw any commonality among all of the F16 pilots he knew, any common tendencies in personality habits/traits/preferences…being a professional who is most focused on helping people reach their potential, I wanted to know what makes pilot tick.
He began by clarifying that in his opinion, his pilot peers did not seem to be the people who were popular in high school. They also did not seem to be from families where they were born with a “silver spoon in their mouth”. No, to him this is a different breed.
To him, these jet jockeys are most often people who seem to be out to “prove something”. They may even have been told they would not amount to much or were challenged by someone else who thought their potential was lower than what these pilots thought it was. That is, their passion was partially driven by the painful fact that someone else made them want to prove something. Now we arrive at the quality you want to know about. It rhymes with happy, but does not involve much pleasure. The quality: “scrappy”. He said that all the pilots seemed to share one characteristic, they were…..“scrappy”.
Halfway up the mountain I smiled and breathed this idea in around 6,000 feet. At 41 years of age I am keenly aware that oxygen gets thinner as you gain altitude. But my scappy pilot friend in his 20’s seemed to be just fine. Yes, yes, I thought, what a wonderful trait to have, being scrappy. To me being scrappy means that you will take what you get and work with it, and will fight to reach your goal. No matter what the obstacle is, no matter how few resources you have, you will overcome. Being scrappy to me means you almost relish the idea of being the underdog. You almost enjoy not being the one who is favored, who is more attractive on the outside. In horse racing this you might be called the “dark horse”. The one who is the unnoticed, unfavored, but a deeply competitive workhorse. You might be more like a junkyard dog than a pure bred, full of scars and not afraid to lose.
Now, obviously being scrappy can lead to unethical behavior if one is willing to do anything to win. But when you have a solid character + scrappiness, what a combination!
My reflections on the importance of being scrappy since that ride have led me to greater insight about human character. One of my Missions in life is to study and disseminate information about what personality qualities (and groups of qualities) help humans achieve their potential.
I would say scrappiness is a key trait to have if you want to achieve your potential. A scrapper is hungry, and they don’t mind being hungry for a lot longer if need be. They are the one you want on your lifeboat; they will fight to surive.
What is so special about being scrappy? It is not that it helps you win at any cost, which is one way you could criticize scrappy people. No, I am talking about people who have a solid character *and* are scrappy. Scrappy people are willing to look deep within themselves and correct whatever they need to modify in order to perform better to reach their goals. To me, scrappy people adapt, and they accept the cards they are dealt, they are not whiners.
While I have blogged about “derailing traits” (See my previous blog entitled “10 Character Flaws that Can Derail Even Good People”), I believe scrappiness can be a “re-railing” trait. It can help you get back on track. It can inspire you to shave down personality thorns and help you recognize the importance of self sacrifice for a greater more noble goal than protection of your personal gaps or narcissism. Scrappiness can help you be honest about your skill gaps, challenges, and annoying or impairing qualities. because you know that to overcome you must shed the weight of those things dragging you down.
As I work with parents, I see a concerning trend toward making life too comfortable for children (or themselves) where scrappiness is not being cultivated. Here are my tips for parents or adults who want to cultivate a scrappiness in themselves or their children:
-“Rough it” – practice being in situations where you and/or your child have tougher circumstances and you must use creativity to do well (e.g., camping but without all the creature comforts). When I worked construction my boss Chuck Reinhardt, a sturdy German, he used to say “Many are cold…but few are frozen”. How true!!! Teach your children to ensure tough circumstances by modeling adaptability in the family. I am not talking about conducting overly simplistic lectures about how tough the parent had it with your child, I am talking about teaching your child that part of life is exposing oneself to fear, to hunger, to pain. That there is no other way to build character. Fireside chats are good, but repeated exposure to trying circumstances is great!
-Don’t over compliment your child or yourself – help yourself or your children realistically see their strengths and their skill gaps. If you want to know of a way you can evaluate yourself, see my previous blog on derailing traits, and begin rating yourself week to week.
-Cultivate in yourself (and yuor child) the habit of accepting criticism gracefully, where the person who offers this critique is thanked. Even if you disagree with the content, it is likely if one person thinks it, many others do as well. What would a world of non-defensive people look like? Well, we would look alot more intelligent, mature, productive, and noble.
-Make sure to remind yourself or your child that part of life is proving yourself to others who will demand that much more of you than you want to give. But that how you deal with their higher expectations will be a major character builder.
-Remember “what got you here will not get you there”. This means that if you want to do better, or want your child to do better, you/they must bring something new to the table. That usually means a new skill set. Get in the habit of building new skills.
-Put on the refrigerator the following statement: There is no change without growth, and no growth without pain”. Take that message into your Heart. Live it. Love it. Share it.
-Don’t defensively guard your own or your child’s annoying qualities. Make sure there is a clear message being played and replayed that if you/they want to compete and do well in whatever arena there is interest (academic, sports, etc), one must adapt. Make adaptability a chief characteristic that is focused om, inspired, even celebrated! “Hey Judie, you really adapted well to being hurt!”.
-Too many parents helicopter in and defend their kid, instead of telling teachers or coaches, “If you see any concerning behavior in my child, please let me know”.
I do the latter. Coaches and teachers are so used to parents being defensive, that they find parents who WANT character feedback on their kid positively refreshing.
My ride up Mt. Lemmon that day gave me much more than a perspective on the surrounding mountains, it reminded me that if you are scrappy you CAN move mountains. To all those who move mountains, and all those inspiring their children to be scrappy enough to move the mountain they set their sights on. I salute you!
And thanks to my pilot friend MK for teaching me something about character.