Friday, August 26, 2011

True Grit

I like to think that the old virtues are making a comeback. After decades of countercultural attacks, it’s about time.

By old virtues I mean that virtues that make for strength of character. They would include honor, loyalty, responsibility, trustworthiness, decency, dignity, propriety,courtesy, decorum, temperance, self-respect, and perseverance. 

You acquire these virtues by behaving well. And by doing so consistently. You do not acquire them by gaining insight into why you do not have them. 

When the therapy culture encouraged us all to indulge ourselves by following our bliss and expressing our feelings, it was, surreptitiously, undermining good character. 

When it told us that it was mentally healthy to heed the counsel of our gut it was allowing us to ignore our duties and responsibilities to others. 

Trying to find happiness by satisfying needs and desires sounds good, but in practice it promotes self-indulgence and sloth.

Now, the cultural pendulum is swinging back toward civic virtues. Since therapy helped lead us into this cultural morass, it is fitting that a group of therapists is leading the way out of it. Among them is Penn psychologist Martin Seligman, whose recent work in positive psychology and happiness has promoted the old virtues. 

Today’s post addresses a character trait that contributes mightily to success: perseverance or grit.

For background reading on grit, I recommend two articles by Jonah Lehrer. Links here and here.

Those who persevere keep working on a task until they get it right. They avoid distraction, difficulties, and even failures in a single-minded pursuit of their goal.

By this theory, success does not come to those who are well-rounded and who multitask.

Those who persevere succeed because they follow the gospel of hard work. If they do not get it right, they keep going until they do.

You can have all the natural talent in the world, but if you do not have grit, you will not be very successful in life.

But it is also true that if you do not have talent all the grit in the world is not going to do you very much good. 

In principle, a combination of limited intelligence and true grit will produce a higher measure of success than will exceptional intelligence and no grit.

This reasoning can very easily lend itself to a misinterpretation. If Beethoven became Beethoven by working on music for thousands of hours, that does not mean that if I work on music for the same number of hours I am going to become Beethoven.

In my own case, I guarantee it. 

Talent may be somewhat overrated as a predictor of success, but if you have no aptitude for a task, grit is not going to make you as successful as the person whose aptitude is complemented by true grit.

Peter Drucker once recommended that before setting your goals you should find out what you are good at. It’s easier and more fulfilling to go from good to great than it is to go from mediocre to good.

Great achievements will receive commensurate rewards, to the point that they will make the effort seem worth it. Good or middling achievements purchased by grit will not feel worth the effort. 

There is no virtue in applying yourself assiduously to a task you are never going to succeed in, for lack of the requisite talent. 

There is a clear difference, however subtle it may appear, between persevering when you have the talent and persevering when you do not have the talent.

Lehrer emphasizes the point. He wants us to distinguish between true grit and wasted effort. Perseverance in the face of futility is no virtue.

Hard work, the kind that was derided by attacks on the Protestant work ethic, must actualize potential. You cannot make yourself into anything you please by the mere application of true grit. 

How do you know the difference? How do you know what you are really good at and what you will never be great at?

Lehrer found out that he was not going to be a great novelist when his college writing teacher told him that his talent lay elsewhere. 

This implies that he could trust his teacher’s judgment. 

If you want to discover where your potential lies, do not follow your bliss or your feelings or your dreams. Find a trusted advisor who has excelled in the field.

A basketball coach can tell you whether you have the talent for the game. I cannot. Your dreams of superstardom cannot either.

And then there is the verdict of the marketplace. If you do not agree with your adviser-- everyone makes mistakes-- then you can submit your work to the judgment of the marketplace.

I know, even the marketplace can get it wrong, but it is a far better judge than your gut.

How do you develop grit? Where does it come from? I assume that there isn’t a grit gene, one that some of us possess and some of us do not.

Surely, acquiring a virtue has something to do with the way you were raised. It comes from the values your parents taught you and the values that the culture holds dear.

When you had trouble with algebra did your mother insist that your grades were not acceptable, that you could do better, that you had to keep at it, and that you would not be allowed to watch television until you had gotten it right?

If so, you probably developed grit. 

A child may have enough grit to sit alone for hours on end memorizing words for a spelling bee, but at some time or other that child had to have learned the habit. 

And I would say that the exercise cannot truly be satisfying if the child does not win a few spelling bees.

You cannot keep putting in the time and effort if your efforts do not bring you some measure of success.

A demanding taskmaster, a drill instructor, teaches grit because he shows you how to push yourself, to go beyond your limits, to persevere in the face of your natural resistance. 

Your mind might be telling you that it’s time to end the exercise and relax. A good trainer knows that you can do a little more. He pushes you beyond your own sense of your own endurance. 

Of course, this reminds us of the parenting techniques practiced by Amy Chua, the Tiger Mom.

If you want to measure your own adherence to the value of perseverance, think about how you reacted to the Tiger Mom. If you thought that her approach made sense, you understand the importance of perseverance. If you think that she was abusing her children, you have not quite arrived there.

Remember the scene from her book, the one that elicited near-universal opprobrium, where her young daughter was learning how to play a difficult composition on the piano. It was so difficult that the child simply could not get it right.

Remember that the Tiger Mom forced her daughter to sit at the piano-- no rest, no recreation, no snacks, no bathroom breaks-- until she got it right.

For the record she did get it right.

You might not think that this is what character-building looks like, but then you should rethink the question. 


Dennis said...

We have a saying in music that talent is only 5-10 percent and 90-95 percent hard work. Put another way, 5-10 percent inspiration and 90-95 perspiration.
Got to run because my next practice session is due. If you don't use it you lose it.

Anonymous said...

Great Post, but Calvin Coolidge beat you to the punch:

”Nothing in the world can take the place of Persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan 'Press On' has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race."

This truth can not be emphasized enough.

-- michael

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thanks for adding the good quote... I had not seen it before...

Dennis said...

It appears in this case that "Silent Cal," when he talked, said something of real value.