Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Got Grit?

As a 6th grader at Martin’s Creek Elementary School in the mountains of North Carolina, there was nothing that I enjoyed more than playing softball. I was fortunate that our small school afforded me the opportunity to cultivate this interest during recess and PE.  I soon began spending every spare minute practicing or trying to get someone to “pass” with me. I continued to play for the next 15 years.  I commonly attribute the development of my own understanding and personal commitment to hard work and determined perseverance to the ongoing pursuit of proficiency and success on the athletic fields.  Put another way, I learned “grit.” 

Grit, or dedicated effort over the long haul, is important.  In fact, many colleges and universities are beginning to introduce “grittiness measures” in to their admission considerations.  College completion rates are at an all-time low in the United States.  Too many students, it seems, just give up when the going gets tough.  Too many of them have never been held accountable for committing to a pursuit or endeavor for an extended period of time or to putting forth the ongoing effort necessary to develop proficiency or mastery.
The idea that personal effort over time results in skill development is expanded in Angela Duckworth’s book Grit:  the Power of Passion and Perseverance1. I am especially intrigued by her idea that, as parents, we can foster grit by encouraging our children to participate in at least one extra-curricular activity of their choice. She actually recommends that as soon as our children are old enough, we sign them up for at least one structured, extra-curricular activity outside of class and that we require that our children stay with it for at least a year.  In fact, Duckworth suggests we require our children to stick with a pursuit for two or more years during high school. As a social scientist and a parent she believes that kids thrive when they spend at least some part of their week doing hard things that interest them. Ballet, piano, karate, basketball or any structured activity provide two important elements that are hard to replicate in any other setting. First there is a supportive, demanding adult in charge who is not the parent.  Secondly, committed participation develops practice skills and fosters a sense of purpose and hope. Some coaches realize the importance and ask players to take Duckworth’s Grit Scale linked below to partner with students to further develop their perseverance or grit.

Duckworth shares that school can be difficult but it is not always interesting. When teens are texting their friends or watching TV, it is interesting…but it is not hard. Things like dance, acting, athletics or learning to play an instrument can be both and it provides a wonderful opportunity for challenge and intrinsic motivation. Duckworth also shares that many long-term research studies indicate that students who participate in extra-curricular activities end up with better grades, have higher self-esteem and are less likely to get in trouble.

I agree with many of Duckworth’s ideas throughout her book such as the importance of cultivating a child’s interests, developing a daily habit of challenging practice, and that connecting to a purpose beyond yourself increases happiness. The idea that learning to hope when all seems lost stuck a chord with me as well. We will all experience failure and we must learn to pick ourselves up and try again.
I can think of a number of friends, adults, and teachers in my life who have encouraged me, provided guidance or challenged my potential at critical times throughout my life.  The grit they unknowingly helped me develop along the way has served me well.  I am reminded that we, too, must all be cognizant of opportunities to invest ourselves in the lives of others.  Our children will only learn those things we decide to teach them.  It takes time.  It takes effort.  It takes grit.  Got grit?

1Duckworth, A. (2016). Grit: The power of passion and perseverance. London: Vermillion.

2Duckworth, A. (2016). Grit Scale. Retrieved July 08, 2016, from 

Note: Originally Published in Southern Distinction Magazine, Vol 4.4 2016