Stick with it

Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance
By Angela Duckworth
Simon & Schuster, 2016

What is it about?

What we achieve in life depends on our passion and perseverance for long term goals. In other words, how gritty we are. Most of us go through life unsatisfied, dipping our toes, sampling and quitting early and often, especially when the going gets tough. We can become more gritty with deliberate practice and with some help from our friends, parents, coaches and the environment around us.

A few key ideas

Practice like a toddler

To master something, you need to practice. We’ve only got so much time and energy in the day, and some of that needs to be spent deliberately if you’re going to get anywhere. For me, practice can be described as pleasant and painful. Easy and hard. Sweet and sour. Some days you’re in a flow state, others you’re banging your head against the wall. Ideally, you’re doing both at once. Terry Laughlin thinks you can do so by not judging yourself too harshly. Little kids understand this without needing to read pop-psychology. When they are interested in something, they don’t mind making mistakes or spending hours learning something new.

The dojo is the teacher

“There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision.”

William James

Although science doesn’t really back it up, Duckworth intuits that grit is enhanced somehow by a structured activity, outside of your regular routine. I think most parents would agree. Why is that? Pursuits like ballet and basketball tend to have a supportive yet demanding authority figure like a coach and the environment is often designed to encourage you to keep at it, whether it’s motivational lingo or the culture that can rub off on you. If you’re setting off on a long path to get good at something, you want like-minded people around you and structure to help build new habits.

The benefit of digging an endless hole

“I’m not afraid to die on this treadmill.”

Will Smith

Most people are constantly distracted by more interesting stuff, so nothing ever becomes truly interesting. When we go deep into something, or simply spend a lot of semi-enjoyable time practicing, we learn a sort of reverence for the process. Swimming or maths are bigger than us in every possible way. At enough depth, or with enough time, the activity becomes sort of irrelevant. You learn more about yourself, and most importantly you realize that anything you learn can be transferred to other parts of your life.

Is it hard to live a gritty life?

Duckworth uses the example of Tom Seaver, a legendary baseball pitcher who “devoted (his) life” to pitching “the best I possibly can day after day”. It’s tempting, but I would be wary of imitating Seaver. On paper, he sounds incredibly disciplined and gritty. But perhaps these gritty habits were not forced, or designed top down, but naturally unfolded once he settled on something he liked to do. I would bet that Seaver isn’t “gritting his teeth” when he picks something healthy to eat, goes to bed early or doesn’t drink alcohol because he’s pitching the next day. For him it’s second nature, it’s habit, it’s who he is, it’s easy, it’s effortless.

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