I just finished reading Angela Duckworth’s Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. It was recommended to me by a dear friend, and the subject matter is right up my alley. I’ve often wondered what makes some people able to weather adversity while others wilt and give up under it. And I’ve wondered if this mental toughness — or grit — is something you’re simply born with. Duckworth is convincing me that grit can be encouraged and developed, and that is some very good news if it’s true.
We all know that talent matters, but that’s only one ingredient of success. Even more important (we all know talented people who just can’t seem to get it going) is effort. And gritty folks make the effort — over and over again. Gritty people have passion and perseverance, and Duckworth argues that these traits aren’t fixed. We can learn them.
Which is very good news for younger folks, if they’ll just pay attention. And it’s very good news for older people who may be discouraged about their own progress or frustrated by what they see in millennials.
The instant success story is exceedingly rare, and I’ll bet that when we hear of one, we’re only hearing a tiny piece of that story. Yes, some people — very few people — seem to “luck” into something great. But that’s the exception and not the rule. The more likely scenario is putting in time, effort, figuring out how to bounce back after failure, and eventually creating a rewarding career or calling or hobby out of all of that.
Actually becoming good at something doesn’t often look like much at the beginning, and sometimes we don’t even know we’re beginning something. But if we stick with it, over time, we see nuances and get interested enough to pursue more. Here’s Duckworth’s colleague Barry Schwartz:
“There are a lot of things where the subtleties and exhilarations come with sticking with it for a while, getting elbow-deep into something. A lot of things seem uninteresting and superficial until you start doing them and, after a while, you realize that there are so many facets you didn’t know at the start, and you never can fully solve the problem, or fully understand it, or what have you. Well, that requires that you stick with it.”
Duckworth contends that “passion for your work is a little bit of discovery, followed by a lot of development, and then a lifetime of deepening.” Just think how much time all of that takes! I think we all have a romantic aha! moment picture of passion, and we impatient humans don’t make the time to develop interests and cultivate passion. We think that just because we have an interest in something, we’ll naturally be good at it and love every part and will see instant success. That reminds me of a quote from this “literary perfectionist” (I love that description!):
“The test of a vocation is the love of the drudgery it involves.”
Drudgery. Time. Effort. Perseverance. Work. Development. Learning. Failure. Pursuit. Patience.
Dirty words. But true, time-tested ingredients of getting good at something.
Unlike Duckworth, I’m no expert here. I came to my current career only in the past few years (although it is a return to my field of study in college) through a series of events that turned my world upside down. And I feel like there’s just not enough time to learn all I want to learn about it. But I do know that the more I learn, the more I want to learn. I feel a sense of urgency. But there is no substitute for time and picking up new things every day, trying to figure out how the parts fit into the whole, asking questions, messing up and determining not to make that same mistake again, and, yes, drudgery.
More from Duckworth:
“What do you tell people,” I recently asked Amy [Wrzesniewski, a management professor], “when they ask you for advice?”
“A lot of people assume that what they need to do is find their calling,” she said. “I think a lot of anxiety comes from the assumption that your calling is like a magical entity that exists in the world, waiting to be discovered.”
That’s also how people mistakenly think about interests, I pointed out. They don’t realize they need to play an active role in developing and deepening their interests.
“A calling is not some fully formed thing that you find,” she tells advice seekers. “It’s much more dynamic. Whatever you do–whether you’re a janitor or the CEO–you can continually look at what you do and ask how it connects to other people, how it connects to the bigger picture, how it can be an expression of your deepest values.”
“A calling is not some fully formed thing that you find.” Amen.
And as a side note, I think these ideas apply to hobbies as well as vocations. My first knitting project is embarrassing to look at, but now over two years in, I’m able to make pieces worthy of wearing and giving as gifts. And I’ve barely scratched the surface of what I want to learn and make. Time, practice, watching You Tube knitting tutorials over and over again, asking questions, getting stuck, messing up, ripping out, and starting over. This is the stuff of knitting. The more I do it, the more I enjoy it.
I usually fly through a book like this one, but I’ve taken my time and thought a lot about it. And I’ll keep thinking about it after I return it to my local library. Have you read it? I’d love to hear your thoughts.