By Caroline Adams Miller, MAPP
Cautionary tales about how using some of the strengths that comprise grit, but without evincing key traits like honesty, kindness, and humility, can lead to a flawed outcome
Handsome, smart, and ambitious, Brian Williams made climbing the network ladder to become the NBC Nightly News anchor look easy. With rarely a hair out of place and looking preternaturally young, he reported from war zones, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and other dangerous places at his personal peril, he told viewers. And in speeches before large audiences, he would gravely share how he’d narrowly missed danger, been shot at in helicopters, and watched dead bodies float down streets, all of which he endured because it qualified him to sit in an esteemed television-anchor chair, to report the news honestly and without bias.
But Williams’s stories began to publicly unravel in 2015 when a combat veteran wrote in the newspaper Stars and Stripes that Williams had made up large parts of his narratives of derring-do, cheapening the bravery of the soldiers who had actually come under fire. It wasn’t long before a rush of other stories came out, magnifying many years of embellished yarns, all of which had been designed to make Williams look tougher, braver, and grittier than he really was.
In order to explain why it is important to cultivate the habits and mindset of authentic grit, it’s equally important to look at people who have seeds of the right kind of grit but who fall short of turning their actions into outcomes that make the world better or that inspire others to strive for worthy goals. Brian Williams and the other men and women profiled here aren’t necessarily “bad” people. However, they do provide cautionary tales about how seeking the trappings of fame, money, adulation, and success using some of the strengths that comprise grit, but without evincing key traits like honesty, kindness, and humility, can lead to a flawed outcome. You might find yourself nodding or chuckling as you look through the following examples, but pay attention because they all illustrate how “the little engine” can go off the rails if you don’t heed the red flags of narcissism, envy, arrogance, and ignorance that flap wildly in the wind when we go down the wrong track for the wrong reasons.
Brian Williams is a perfect example of “faux grit,” which is a quality seen among those who pretend to themselves or others that they have achieved difficult things, but who have taken shortcuts or faked those accomplishments to obtain admiration. Although many people readily admit to puffing themselves up at times to impress a romantic interest or a potential employer, faux grit takes this quality to a whole different level because of what the people allege to have accomplished. Specifically, these people choose outcomes that put them into a select, sometimes elite, group, despite knowing that they have not done, and probably cannot do, the hard work that’s commensurate with those goals.
Faux Grit: a quality seen among those who pretend to themselves or others that they have achieved difficult things, but who have taken shortcuts or faked those accomplishments to obtain admiration
Many people think that falsely appropriating the mantle of war hero is one of the most repugnant lies a person can tell because military service is almost universally admired, irrespective of country or background. Some of the most egregious examples I found of faux grit are men claiming to be recipients of the Medal of Honor, the highest award given in the U.S. armed services. The award is so coveted and so rare that there are currently only seventy-eight living Medal of Honor awardees, all decorated for ”gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while engaged in an action against an enemy of the United States.”
Appallingly, many men have been caught purchasing fake Medal of Honor medals online and at flea markets, even going so far as to put the false award on their résumés and riding in parades that honor combat veterans and other heroes. Paul Bucha, president of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, believes that part of the reason people claim high honors they haven’t earned is because our society prizes “winners,” and some believe that their normal lives and actions just aren’t sufficient to feel good about themselves. Faux grit, he speculates, is a natural outgrowth of feeling the pressure to achieve important goals in order to feel validated. And if you believe you don’t have what it takes to be a winner and that you are not worthy enough without that title, it may seem better to misappropriate honors you haven’t earned than to figure out what else you could offer the world to give your life purpose.
“Why do we use connections to get into a college we normally couldn’t get into?” Bucha asks. “Why do we use human growth hormones in the Olympics? For that matter, why do we send NBA basketball players to the Olympics? Second place is not good enough. We’ve placed such tremendous value on cosmetics. Winning has become everything. That’s the society in which a faker or a fraud presents himself.”
The news is full of stories of organizations that have been caught defrauding unsuspecting customers by illegally pumping up earnings or pretending to have earned legitimacy through years of honest, hard work. One of the most recent and egregious examples is Insys Therapeutics, which got approval to sell a powerful fentanyl-based opioid for cancer pain in 2012, but decided to skip the time-consuming efforts of legitimate marketing and instead engaged in an elaborate scheme that included bribing doctors and creating fake offices with fake patients and records so that insurance companies could be scammed out of millions of dollars. They wanted to have the reputation of a legitimate pharmaceutical company but didn’t want to do the work to be one. This is another example of faux grit.
Politicians who are looking for popularity and votes aren’t above faux grit. Several examples of those who have embellished their war service include Ronald Reagan, who was grounded stateside during his military career because of poor eyesight but who made his time sound more dangerous than it was. Hillary Clinton was also criticized for saying that she’d run across the tarmac while dodging bullets in Bosnia in 1992, when video footage of the trip shows her waving, smiling, and shaking hands upon her arrival. Real-estate developer and President Donald Trump, not surprisingly, has his own brand of faux grit. Although he’s known for his braggadocio, boasting about his success in virtually all departments of life (which qualifies for yet another kind of negative grit), he doesn’t actually pretend that he served in the military. He goes one step further, stating that his time at the New York Military Academy “always felt like [I] was in the military” because he received “more training militarily than a lot of the guys that go into the military.”
When winning at all costs is the coveted prize, it’s inevitable that someone will take shortcuts—like the pervasive “redshirting” in sports and even academics—which is often when faux grit pops up in the sporting world. Use of banned substances, such as anabolic steroids and human growth hormone, to achieve athletic domination has tainted many of the world championships and Olympics in recent years. Perhaps the most egregious case of faux grit in recent sporting history is that of Lance Armstrong, the cyclist who built an industry and persona around being the survivor of testicular cancer and who then, allegedly without any unnatural aids, created a superhuman body and honed his will of iron to ride to multiple Tour de France victories. His nonprofit foundation, Livestrong, basked in the aura of being headed by a man so gritty that even cancer couldn’t stop him. Armstrong continued to rake in millions of dollars in prize money, endorsements, and appearance fees as he perpetrated his fraud on the world for over ten years.
Former teammates blew the whistle on Armstrong after being summoned to testify under oath about what they’d witnessed and participated in. Armstrong responded with viciousness, threatening harm and suing his accusers, ruining their livelihoods and reputations in several instances. For several more years, he managed to dupe the public with his faux grit story while privately paying doctors and suppliers for the substances that would allow him to ride hard, recover quickly, and win. Eventually, the whole house of cards fell. Now Armstrong lives in semi-isolation and ignominy, banned for life from the sport that he rode to glory and reviled by his former teammates, who were crushed in his quest to achieve victory and be seen as an indomitable champion.
Faux grit is distinct from authentic grit in many ways, most notably because people with authentic grit have humility and are the last to brag about themselves. The person with faux grit wants you to know how much they’ve done, how hard they’ve worked, and how tough they are, and they revel in the trappings of their alleged success, whether it’s giving interviews about their accomplishments, tweeting pictures of framed yellow jerseys from the Tour de France (which Lance Armstrong did), or waving in a Fourth of July parade while wearing fake medals bought at a flea market. Instead of naturally attracting others because of an authentic aura, people with faux grit eventually repel others by over-promoting themselves, which then causes them to lose all sympathy with others when their misdeeds are discovered.
Next up: Stubborn Grit…
This post includes excerpts from Caroline Adams Miller’s book Getting Grit.
Click here to download the introduction and first chapter of Getting Grit.
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Photo credits (in order of appearance): skeeze on Flicker, Benjamin Faust and paolo candelo on Unsplash