I read reviews about the book Grit, by Angela Duckworth, when it first came out in 2016. But I didn’t start reading it until I found it recently on prominent display at a bookstore. I started reading it on Sunday. And, like all good books, it got me thinking. This book is all about the power of persistence–day in, day out–good, old-fashioned persistence combined with the accumulation of skills and the drive to achieve.
I am not done with the book yet; I am on chapter four. But I can say that so far it makes a strong case for grit, and it has a solid thesis: Duckworth argues that grit, or the power of perseverance and practice despite setbacks or failure, outweighs talent or “innate” ability. Grit is the stuff that makes us get things done. It helps us sharpen our skills every day until we are able to get ahead. It’s the stuff that defines our success as human beings. It’s the stuff that ensures we do what we set out to do. It also touches on the stories of our forefathers: The “I rose at 4:45 every morning to milk the cows and feed the livestock and then walked two miles in snow wearing shoes two sizes too small so that I could go to school, then returned and cared for my family farm for the remainder of my day,” story that Grandpa or Grandma told around the family dining table to their wide-eyed grandchildren. Or the “I lived through the Great Depression and learned to use every part of the celery and all the bits of an apple and how to boil a bone for days in order to make our food feed our family of six.” Those kinds of stories. Those ones that offer perspective, and also hope. Because there they were: The grandparents lived to tell the tale. And they had something to impart, and something to give back.
I have often bemoaned the fact that it is nearly impossible to recreate the pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps mentality of my grandparents’ generation. Their generation went through a period in time that was universally appalling and universally harmonizing: Everyone knew. Everyone saw. Everyone was there. They all pulled through together.
Today, we have many more disparate experiences to focus on in America. We have, for example, the top 1% of income earners alongside the ones who are living on minimum wage. We have a smaller middle class of shared experiences. And in that mix we find all the children of those income-earning parents. Those kids who are learning to find their own grit in the middle of increasingly challenging intellectual and social dynamics.
I don’t have anything preachy to add to this. I just like the book, and I am enjoying the jolt of strength it gives me as I read through the chapters and the perspectives and I am reminded of the importance of not only showing up and trying, but of showing up again and again and again and trying and trying until you get where you want to be.
Nothing is really ever simple, I don’t think. It might feel that way at the time, but that feeling of simplicity is more likely the result of a highly orchestrated series of events that came before that one simple moment and encapsulates the work of generations. Call it DNA, call it karma, call it intuition, call it shared learning–call it what you will, but at the core of everything is a certain amount of sweat and effort, sacrifice and reckoning, and–at least in the long-term–honesty and integrity to carry your forward.
The very fact that you’re alive right now reading this is a testament to the sweat and effort of all the men and women who came before you.
As I read through Grit, I am considering the word, the concept, the theory. Like the author, I don’t hold onto outdated notions that talent overshadows persistence. Talent, or “a natural inclination,” or “a mathematical or artistic mind” are nothing in the face of the person willing to work night and day for his or her dreams–as long as they do it with moral integrity. That’s my belief. I am planting it firmly here, like one might plant an acorn and water it daily until it grows into the biggest oak one can imagine. I fall on the side of championing the power of hard work. I’m the one who believes that if you keep showing up and doing the work, you’ll win in the end no matter what your ability was to begin with.
I guess I’m just musing today. I’m remembering being 12 and being a full-time nanny handing over all my paychecks to my single mom so we could afford rent. I’m remembering the time that I was in high school nannying to save money for a red North Face jacket that I wanted–a tremendous splurge that I wore for almost 20 years until I gave it away to a homeless man. I’m remembering being in college carrying my groceries in a heavy backpack while walking up a steep hill. I remember thinking the backpack straps were going to dig permanent dents into my shoulders. And I remember thinking, “This is teaching me something. I will always remember the hard work of carrying my groceries. This is good for me.”
And it was. All of those experiences were powerful and good and they shaped me into the person I am today–a person that I respect, a person I can count on to make the right decisions, and a person that has a level of endurance that will always help me in times of trouble.
Because life isn’t easy. It just isn’t. It throws curve balls all the time. It’s not a finite entity that can be controlled. We’re too soft and squishy for that.
None of this overshadows the inherited moral backbone or beliefs that were handed to me by my mom or my grandma or all my teachers and professors–nor does it negate the education of all of the generations that came before me who made it possible to be in the situation I was when I was in college with the tools that I had at my disposal.
This isn’t a soapbox. It’s not a pat-myself-on-the-back moment. It’s not that at all. It’s a reflection on what makes a person. How do you build a human? So much is out of our control, and yet the one thing that all able-bodied human beings can learn to isolate and strive for is simple, honest-to-goodness hard work.
Does any of this resonate with you?
As a parent, I often think about these concepts while we raise our kids. We want our kids to have happy, carefree childhoods filled with a lot of imaginative play. Both Brian and I spent our childhoods off in the woods and fields constructing busy worlds of our own and solving difficult problems through play. We truly believe that it’s an essential part of our kids’ growth.
And, as a parent, you can’t necessarily manufacture difficulty–and you might not want to. But you can set boundaries and have strong convictions. You can teach honesty and integrity and you can require a certain amount of contribution to the family welfare, even if it’s just requiring your 7-year-old to empty the dishwasher. You can celebrate luxuries with a reverence for the moment. And you can give back.
But above all, you can work hard and have a vision for your own life. You can point your compass where you want to go, and stay on course day after day. And you can do the most difficult work of all: You can show up, even if it is really hard at first. Because we all know it gets easier as time goes by, and that every day of increased effort and practice pays huge dividends when you get to live the life you want to live.
Don’t you think?