Grit

You may have heard of one of the latest trends in education. It’s been picking up a lot of steam recently. It’s called grit.

What is grit? A lot of pundits seem to be trying to sell it as something ethereal and hard to define. It’s neither. It’s plain and simple. It means not giving up just because things are tough.

The argument goes that grit is a major factor in whether you succeed or fail in life. The grittier you are, the more likely you are to succeed. This being the case, grit becomes a desirable attribute, and something that kids should be trained in. Ergo, some schools and individual educators have made grit a primary focus of education.

Naturally, there’s a lot of backlash against this latest trend. Due in no small part, I’m sure, to the fact that it is the latest trend, because we all know how much fun it is to act smarter than everyone by pointing out that this is “just the latest trend” and dismissing it as such.

There are some legitimate questions raised about grit, however. For instance, is grit really important to success? Can grit can be taught? Is learning to act gritty the same as being innately gritty?

It makes intuitive sense to a lot of people that being gritty will increase your odds of success. Of course things that are intuitively obvious aren’t necessarily true. There is some preliminary research that correlates grittiness with real world success, but it seems like the jury is still out on that and the other questions.

One concern raised by a lot of critics is that being gritty isn’t always a good thing, that sometimes it’s important to recognize wrong turns and just give up. It may simply not be possible, or it may not be worth the effort of trying over and over and over again.

I agree. There are definitely times when giving up is the right answer. But I think this criticism is based on an over generalization of grit. And part of the problem is the language that many grit supporters use; they talk about running into a wall, falling down, but then picking yourself back up and trying again.

But that’s stupid.

Running headlong into a wall, then standing up and running into it again is stupid. Doing it a third time is a sure sign of failing mental faculties (perhaps a result of damage done during the first two collisions).

But this doesn’t necessarily represent a problem with grit, just a problem with the analogy used to describe grit.

So let me offer an alternative analogy. Instead of running into a wall, why don’t we talk about stumbling over an obstacle? You didn’t bash your brains against a brick wall, you just tripped over a tire or something. You fell down and skinned your knee, scraped your palms.

Bummer.

But now you stand up, look around, try to get your bearings. Where were you headed? What’s your next step? Is there a path forward from here?

And that’s the key. It’s not about whether you continue on or not, it’s about why you do what you do. It’s about asking yourself those questions when you run into problems. A gritty person might trip, stand up, ask themselves what the next step is, and decide the next step is to quit. But someone without grit will give up without asking themselves those questions. They’ll trip, roll around on the ground whining about how hard this is, then drag themselves home bemoaning their bad fortune.

Notice how I defined grit at the start of this article. I said that grit means “not giving up just because things are tough” instead of “not giving up when things are tough”. It’s an important distinction.

Being gritty doesn’t mean you don’t give up, it means that when you do give up, your reasons are thoughtful and rational, not emotional or reactive. Running into significant trouble should trigger you to reevaluate the worth of what you’re doing. When you reach a wall, you shouldn’t just keep charging into it. You should stop, see if there’s a way around it, then see if getting around the wall is worth the effort.

Sometimes it isn’t. A lot of times it is. Being willing to admit that it’s not worth the effort, inspite of the resources you’ve already invested in it, is a sign of intelligence, and good management. Just being willing to ask and answer the question honestly, is a sign of grit.

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Grit

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