Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Opposite of Grit

My sister and her family recently returned from a visit to Thomas Edison's laboratory (because when engineery types head to greater NYC, that's their idea of a cool stop), and they took many pictures. The place is amazing-- all this space cleaned and arranged and perfectly fitted out for investigating and experimenting and engineering much of the modern world.

It was not, I thought, the kind of place where you needed lots of grit to work.

As much as we value the quality of grit, of perseverance, of resilience, have you noticed that what we mostly do on the road to success is eliminate the need for it?

Bill Gates did not say to his folks, "Hey, I'm working on something here that I think may be important, so to help me, I would like you to cut me off without a cent, throw me out of the house, and force me to get a job at Piggly Wiggly that will barely support a one-room run-down apartment let alone enough food to keep me conscious. Because to get this done, I really need to stimulate my grit glands."

I have never read about a CEO saying, "I want the smallest, most cramped office in the building. And no administrative assistants-- I'll answer my own phone. And no paid lunches-- I'll pack and sandwich. And do the same for all our executives! And cut all our salaries to 6% of current levels. We'll never achieve greatness if we don't have to have grit!!"

From sports stars to medical personnel to high-priced lawyers, we work hard to create a smooth supportive work environment, to get rid of any obstacles in their path to success. Nor do many privileged parents give their children an allowance of $1.00 a week and make them live in the tool shed so that they'll develop grit.

If we really believe that grit is the loam that grows excellence, we have a funny way of showing it. The more important the job, the more carefully we insulate it from the need for grit. Instead, a true marker of success and status in our culture is the degree to which one does not need grit.

So what does it say about members of the Cult of Grit that they want our students to live as if they're failures?

A clip circulated recently of Neil deGrasse Tyson responding to a question about why women seemed genetically unsuited to be scientists. He talked about his own path to science and the tremendous institutional and cultural obstacles he faced ("Wouldn't you rather play basketball?"). He talked about the toughness and devotion it took him to become so successful (he didn't use the word "grit" but he might as well have), and about looking behind him to see young black men following the path into science-- and seeing none.

How many gifted black and female scientists do we NOT have today because of the extra giant heaping helping of grit they would need to follow that path?

It's not that I don't think grit is valuable. I do. Resilience and perseverance are useful for everything from dealing with career setbacks to handling a child who always wants to cry and eat at 2 AM.

But here's the thing. Life provides plenty of need for grit all on its own. It's not necessary to provide more on purpose. And the need for grit doesn't help get things done, doesn't help people succeed. It may call on their strength, but it doesn't create it. We know that. We understand it.

When we want someone to succeed, we do as much as we can to remove the need for grit.

Do we not want our students to succeed?

It's true you don't build muscle by lifting a 3 ounce weight, but you don't build anything trying to bench press a truck, either. We really don't have to worry about making things too easy for a six-year-old. Life is never all that easy for a child-- you're physically tiny and generally powerless over your own world. And people who idealize the teen years as idyllic and happy and easy are dopes; I've been around teenagers for four decades and you couldn't print enough money in a year to pay me to be sixteen again. Trust me-- if we want students to need grit, the universe has that covered already.

But if we want them to succeed, we can stop the nonsense about fostering grit and deliberately making life more difficult for our children. Challenge, yes. Grit, no. Instead, let's try support and kindness and building them up. Let's take care of our children, and let the grit take care of itself.

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