Growing Grit

When Angela Duckworth’s Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance was first published and started appearing on lists of “must read” books, I skipped over it, thinking I was already gritty enough. Perhaps even too gritty.  After all, I do have hardware holding my hip together;  the result of “persevering” through a stress fracture while training for my first marathon.  The last thing I thought I needed was more grit.

But, as I began to research the essential skills for the Future of Work, Duckworth’s book again appeared on reading lists.  I finally relented.  Not for me, of course, but for the sake of my research.

And, well, not only is my research better off for having read the book, but so am I.

Turns out, my broken hip has nothing to do with grit. 

Grit is more than just perseverance.  In fact, perseverance alone may just be unenlightened stubbornness that leads to negative consequences, like broken bones.

According to Duckworth, grit is your interest or passion, which has a purpose, that you practice deliberately and pursue with hope.

So, being gritty is not just about barreling through without thought.  That may occur, but that’s only after there is considerable deliberate practice to refine the details of the task at hand.  It’s not hours and hours of practice for the sake of practice.  It’s perhaps shorter bursts of practice — or research, or reading, or writing — with a specific goal of improving just one element of the work. Then, obtaining feedback on that element, and if improved or perfected, moving on to other elements that become the focus of more deliberate practice.

And, what you practice, deliberately, is your passion.  How do you find your passion? According to Duckworth, one’s passion is not discovered in an instant.  There’s no spark or flash of inspiration.  Rather, it’s a process, and there may be several interests that are explored over time.  Then, one day you may realize that you’ve begun pursuing something to the exclusion of all others.  

Many of us have heard speeches, or seen quotes, or read articles about finding and following our passions.  Each of those sources implies that a passion is easily “found.”  But, Duckworth, rationally dispels this idea as a myth, and explains that most of the people she interviewed described years of “exploring several different interests,” with “one that eventually came to occupy all their waking (and some sleeping) thoughts.”  And, this eventual passion, “wasn’t recognizably their life’s destiny on first acquaintance.”  

Thus, for those that haven’t yet found their life’s destiny, Duckworth provides great advice on how to explore different interests, or how to dig deeper into work with which you are already engaged in order to further develop what might be your passion.

As for perseverance, that is part of hope, which according to Duckworth is an “expectation that our own efforts can improve our future.”  Gritty people have a hope based not on luck but on “getting up again.”  

So, for gritty people, their chosen passion likely has elements that are hard to master. Or there is a considerable amount of rejection that occurs in the profession.  But, gritty people, ultimately find it within themselves to keep going, to keep trying, to find another way to get up and keep moving forward.  Not digging in without strategic thought, not running through pain, but stepping back, assessing the situation, and, moving forward with more deliberate practice on the parts that created the setback.

And, perhaps the best news in Duckworth’s book, is that grit can grow.  We can improve our grit.  And, parents (or teachers) can help children develop and increase their grit.  How?  Encourage ourselves or our children to do something difficult.  Or perhaps even require it.  Duckworth’s family has a “Hard Thing Rule,” where everyone in her family does a “hard thing.”  Whether that’s learning yoga, dance, or judo, you work at doing something that’s interesting to you, but hard too.  Something that cannot be mastered overnight, but can be learned, with effort, and failure, and effort, and success.  That’s how you grow grit.  

With the ongoing evolution of our world of work, growing our grit now, will help us navigate through the rough spots that are certainly ahead.  And, for parents (or teachers), helping your kids find their passion, by letting them explore different interests, is a great investment in their future.  And, as they explore these interests, don’t let them give up when it gets hard — support them through the hard parts by insisting on disciplined practice.  Once they see, or hear, or feel the improvement, then you remind them how they once thought it was impossible.  Get them hooked on that feeling, that feeling of healthy perseverance. 

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