Got Grit?

culture education family personal growth Oct 17, 2021

His composition met the requirements for an “A” grade, but he hadn’t earned it.

It was native and accumulated ability more than exertion and striving for growth that resulted in the alphabet’s first letter being circled in red ink at the top of the page. I sighed. And exhorted. And warned. Again.

Talent can be such a distraction.

Parents, caregivers, and teachers desire their children and students to succeed. But how does one define and measure success? Businesses have “bottom lines.” Researchers receive grants, have studies published in peer-reviewed journals, or develop breakthroughs leading to new products, treatments, or cures. Manufacturers count the rate at which goods fly off shelves or showroom floors. Farmers measure in bushels per acre or pounds per hoof.

Measuring educational success is obligatory, useful, and universal. It is also challenging, conceptual, and complicated. How does one pack all of what is meant by “education” into tiny check-here boxes listed under categories like “state standards” and “core values” and “desired outcomes?” Is education supposed to measure ability, effort, progress, accumulation of skill, retention of information, or a combination of all of these? It’s an ancient predicament modernity has intensified more than solved. Yet there’s an old truth contemporary studies validate.

Enduring achievement relies on perseverance.

Angela Duckworth’s New York Times bestseller, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance is a must-read-and-apply guidance manual for every parent, caregiver, and instructor. I ponder if the present-day’s proclamation, “Follow your passion,” isn’t an adaptation of the “Emperor’s New Clothes” tale. It sounds wonderful. Delightful! Exciting! But what, exactly, does “follow your passion” look like? How do you know it when you see it?

We often view passion as a Hollywood love story. Two strangers’ eyes meet by chance. Instantaneously, a no-words-needed understanding occurs. Forget the tedious work of observing how the other handles feisty kids, elderly aunts, boorish bosses, complaining colleagues, feral cats, and winning or losing board games. Never mind considering whether they are a good life-long fit with complementary beliefs, priorities, and goals. The biggest hurdle is changing the minds of snooty parents.

Passion is oxygen to a vibrant life. But it requires the lungs of wisdom and heart of perseverance.

Duckworth writes about the necessity of “fostering a passion” rather than “following” one. This is especially critical advice for those guiding adolescents whose interests – while genuine – may be more attributed to peer influences, parental expectations, or environmental opportunities than personal delights and abilities. However, one also cannot over-rely on innate likes or dislikes. She advises, "Interests are not discovered through introspection. Instead, interests are triggered by interactions with the outside world.” Introspection bolstering self-awareness is good but also insufficient. It's like mixing the ingredients for a cake but never putting it into an oven to bake. To transform raw introspection into nourishing interests, a person requires a variety of different experiences, some practiced long enough to determine whether they should be discontinued or deepened.

Perseverance isn’t mind-numbing repetition or a temporary acquisition of knowledge. It’s not effort for its own sake or brawn-bragging tenacity.

Grit, according to Duckworth, requires:

  1. Interest in what's being done
  2. Practice
  3. Purpose
  4. Hope

She states, “…nobody works doggedly on something they don’t find intrinsically interesting.” Yes, teachers, I can see you in the back of the room rolling your eyes and muttering, “Just tell me how I’m supposed to get all my students interested in my subject.” Trust me, I get it. It’s tempting to tune out at this point because you don’t want to read another list of 217 Tips & Techniques Guaranteed to Engage Bored, Reluctant, and Disengaged Students. The following isn't a cure-all, but it's a start!

Duckworth shares one simple exercise which dramatically energized student engagement in several longitudinal experiments conducted by David Yeager and his colleague, Dave Paunesku. High school students were asked, “How could the world be a better place?” and then asked to draw connections to what they were learning in school. This focus on cultivating purpose – a reason to persevere – produced astounding outcomes.

Parents can step into the trap of facilitating a child’s narrowing their career path too early. Junior realizes he love observing tiny things under a microscope, so it’s the science life for him! Forget guitar lessons, theater auditions, or construction projects. Misty excels with music. No need to bother with computer programming, foreign languages, or technical writing. Their passion has been discovered; no wasting time or money pursuing other avenues. Yet children need a rich variety of experiences, not just cursory exposure to different opportunities. This doesn’t mean enrolling children in every available activity with the goal they’ll have an “Eureka!” moment, returning home after summer camp with their collegiate and vocational path planned. Instead, it means allowing a child to taste-test from a buffet of possibilities, both encouraging participation while observing what excites and what exhausts.

Yet vocational samplers don’t typically fare well as adults. There’s a whale-sized difference between changing careers, even multiple times, and job floating. There does come a time to move away from the buffet and into the field.

You can’t grow grit like a radish.

Push a radish seed into the loam, water it, and keep the weeds from taking over, and you slice fresh radishes for your salad within a month. You also use your fingers to harvest radishes, not shovels or plows or backhoes. Grit’s grown like an apple tree. It takes careful soil preparation, fertilizing, watering, pruning, and waiting. But nobody harvests apples by plucking the tree from the ground. It’s rooted. Productive. Strong. So how do parents grow grit-apples and not give-up radishes?

Duckworth offers great help. One of her best applications is the "Hard Thing" Rule. It has three parts:

  1. Everyone (including Mom and Dad) has to do a hard thing. This requires daily deliberate practice.
  2. You can quit. But not until the season is over, the tuition payment is up, or some other 'natural' stopping point.
  3. You pick your hard thing. No one picks it for you.

But wait! What about talent? Ability? Performance? Don’t these count!

Duckworth researched West Point cadets. Not West Point hopefuls, but actual cadets. Those who had made it into the illustrious academy with its 10% acceptance rate and incredibly challenging application mandates, including being nominated by a member of the U.S. Congress and starting the process in the junior year of high school. What measured those who stayed and those who dropped out? Surely the drop-outs had the lowest Whole Candidate Score. (Keep in mind the lowest scoring on this scale still placed a person on the nation’s most elite list!) Nope. Those with the highest Whole Candidate Score were just as likely to quit. The difference? Not talent. Not ability. Not past performance. Not standardized test scores or GPA’s. Just good old-fashioned, get-it-done, don’t-give-up, put-your-shoulder-to-the-wheel, grease-the-elbow, suck-it-up, and stop-complaining grit. (My description, not Duckworth's!)

It’s not just those struggling with failure who need a growth mindset; it’s those succeeding on talent.

Talent can be as much a barrier to success as poverty, nominal caregiver support, or mediocre teaching. Meeting expectations with little effort can garner a student high GPA’s, awards, and accolades. Test scores can gain scholarships. Abilities may inspire praise and peer approval. But school and family structures have inherent safety nets which the rest of life doesn’t offer. To fully educate a child both parents and teachers need to intentionally cultivate grit, and Duckworth’s book is an excellent guide on why and how to do this.



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