I was listening to an interesting podcast about grit, based on the research by Angela Duckworth. If you prefer to read a shorter article about her work you can do that here, or listen to a short TED talk she gave about it you can do that here. I’ve talked before about the value of perseverance and why it is beneficial in my series about what I think makes a good human. In that series I tried to also perhaps point out where these strengths could have negative results. How we can perhaps go too far, or how their might be darker side to it. The podcast brought this idea into the forefront of my thoughts again because they talked about how grit might actually be drawback if we continue to try at something that we are not likely to achieve we waste our energy. We can become obsessive, and not know when to give up. This is more commonly known as stubbornness. What was really interesting to me was what they said in the final few seconds of the podcast which was that grit and stubbornness are really just the same thing, given different names based on the outcome achieved. If one is successful they had grit, if one was not, they were stubborn.
This then gave rise to a couple of additional thoughts. One was to wonder what other qualities fall under a similar category, where they are one in the same just depending on the outcome? The second thought I had was a bit of sadness about how easily our strengths can become our weaknesses. But then I thought, perhaps this idea we have about strengths vs. weaknesses is really an incorrect way to look at ourselves. Because we can certainly say that a world in which no person had any grit would be a much different one and one that I believe would be much sadder and without flavor. So we absolutely need these qualities and the consequence of such virtues is simply that we will not always succeed. And so we find ourselves, once again, on the topic of risk.
When we see that star athlete, or master carpenter at work, or a genius who has invented some technological marvel, it can be easy to be an awe, and focus on a talent that must lie within giving them an almost divine like quality in their ability. We see the end result and we don’t think about the years of practice. We often see the person who made it to the Olympics or the professional league, but not all the ones who failed to make it. We don’t see the less than impressive or faulty works the carpenter built before he mastered his techniques. We don’t see all the failed ideas and failed attempts associated with the process of creation and invention. History remembers the genius of Newton’s discovery in regards to gravitation, calculus, and his laws of motion. Few except those who really study his life know how obsessed he was in the field of alchemy, which was of course a big waste of time. Few know how much time he wasted searching for hidden patterns in scripture. Also, as the podcast points out that many people don’t enjoy the periods of grim determination and practice it takes to perfect their craft, whatever it may be, at least not in the typical definition of fun. It’s clear that idea that we may master something or have success can drive us forward through the less than savory hours and hours of effort it takes to achieve one’s goals, but in the end we don’t know whether our goals will be achieved. So grit also means that we are taking a risk, because we could spend all that time and energy, and still fail in the end.
Of course the easy answer is to say, focus on the journey, nobody is perfect. I’d like to believe I am that type of person as I often tout the value of perseverance when I think about the effort it took to get a PhD which seemed less about my intelligence and more about grit. At the same time, had I failed in the end, how much would I still be touting all that grit and determination? It seems harder to celebrate the process that got you there without getting positive results. I do feel that is what we must always try to do, because if did always focus on the end result we’re likely to be in a constant state of depression! And perhaps the only real weakness is an inability to learn from our mistakes. In the end that’s all we can really do, because there is value in the process, and most things that we think are our weaknesses might actually be our strengths with the wrong shade of intensity and it is only in reflecting on our behaviors and the outcomes can we gain the knowledge about how to use those strengths more wisely in the future. Even then we will still be taking risks, but perhaps with a higher probability of success. The final problem being that we are also terrible at assessing probabilities. Of course if we always did things based on the odds, we also might never try anything, and yet it can be easily argued that much of our progress as a species is the story of overcoming low probabilities of success through grit and determination.
In the end, it seems to be a truth (perhaps even one with a capital T) that we are always bound to make mistakes and have failures. The good news is that if making mistakes happens to everyone then there really is nothing wrong with us as long as we continue to strive to be more than we are, and strive to make this a world where everybody has that same opportunity.