Grit is only effective when put in its place

Here we are in February where, once again, millions face the reality that they cannot achieve their New Year’s resolutions. Is the solution to simply show more grit?

It’s not just how hard we try

At least some (if not all) of our inability to follow through on our goals may be traced back to the learning environment in which we were raised. See if these statements strike a chord:

  • From a very young age we were made to do and learn things that we had no say in and often had little interest in. We were told (or we assumed) these things would be important one day and, therefore, had little time to invest in our own pursuits.

  • We set out to do things that do not actually align with the core of who we are, our circumstances, or the connections we have, simply because someone along the way said we should follow a particular path.

I’ll go into more detail, but suffice it to say that when we spend the first 22 years of our lives shrouded in the above mindset, it’s very difficult to wake up at age 23 (much less  at 40) and be able to determinedly pursue something that comes from our own will and desires (or to even know what they might be). In fact, when we do, it’s usually called a mid-life crisis.

How can we ensure that when our own children reach adulthood they will do so, not with a list of resolutions and regrets, but with a solid understanding of how to work diligently and with excellence on the things that matter most to them? 

Lack of choice leads to burnout

While many parents and teachers lament a lack of time and energy to achieve their own goals, they ironically insist that their children and students fill their time and minds with content that has little to do with their own personal desires. It is implied that children’s interests don’t “count” right now and that it’s more important to “prepare” for university. After all, it’s really just the “working hard” that matters, right? These young people are made to sacrifice their own will with the promise that they’ll have plenty of time to fulfill their dreams later on in life. Except you and I are proof that they won’t have this time later.

In fact, as children get older, they traditionally spend more and more time revising for exams with less and less time being allocated for personal endeavors. When this pattern is normalized in childhood, it’s no wonder that when these children become adults, they carry loads of unrealized expectations, desires, and goals. Young men and women start to question their purpose in life as they work tirelessly without a sense of fulfillment. What did all their grit and determination prepare them for? Burnout. The result of a life pushing themselves to do exactly what they were told to do whether they liked it or not. 

Don’t get me wrong. Working hard with excellence and grit is a good practice; a necessary one even. But when grit is misplaced, we just end up spinning our wheels.

For determination to be effective, it must be coupled with desire. And this is where home educators and those in non-traditional learning environments have a distinct advantage. Instead of insisting that a child do something they see as unimportant or irrelevant, from a very young age, we let them choose. (More on this idea HERE).  If they realize, after a time of sampling, that a particular course of study is not for them, we let them quit. 

The concept of quitting is a complicated one, but I’ve come to the conclusion that if quitting does not affect anyone else, or indeed might benefit everyone else, then it may be the best course of action for an individual. The lead actor in a show has an obvious obligation to fulfill to her fellow cast members by staying committed through to the performance. This situation is starkly different, however, from a child who is made to study advanced physics just for the sake of doing something difficult. Different yet, is the unhappy basketball player who becomes a leech, sucking the joy and energy out of the rest of the team. Any wise coach would assure such a player that there is no need to “stick it out” and make everyone miserable. 

We want our children to use their time efficiently and effectively. Under the right circumstances, do your kids have permission to quit? 

True Grit

A child doesn’t need much willpower to simply do as they are told, only sufficient rewards or punishments (which directly translate into the “carrots and sticks” of the business world). For me, there were plenty of artificial rewards: grades, honor roll, and scholarships to motivate me academically, and a coach constantly in my ear to push me athletically. With these external motivators, I was able to keep my young mind and body in perfect check. When those rewards and coaches were no longer there, however, it became difficult for me to motivate myself to do even the things that I knew would benefit. I was simply too accustomed to, and perhaps dependent on, doing what I was told.

(Not only does it not take much willpower, it also doesn’t take a whole lot of creativity and critical thinking to do as we are told, but these are two traits that 21st century universities and employers are increasingly looking for in new students and employees.)

Brené Brown, in an interview with grit guru, Angela Duckworth, says that “grit is in the sampling”. It takes perseverance to keep trying new things, exploring options, and letting go of things that don’t work. True “firmness of character” (grit defined) is developed when a child is allowed to choose what to pursue and then goes about it with steadfastness and determination. Do your children have both permission and sufficient time to pursue their own interests?

The pitfalls of a mis-matched path

When children assume that the best path to pursue (guided by well-intentioned educators and parents) is the one that will lead to a prestigious university or land them in a high-paying job, they end up feeling jaded when they realize that their path is somehow out of sync with who they were created to be.

Article from a November 2019 edition of Psychologies Magazine.

“Nobody can pick your hard thing but you,” says Duckworth.  Indeed, but sometimes children need to be guided to figure out what their “hard thing” might be. We as parents and educators have the great privilege of calling out what we see in our children and we must take care not to inadvertently lead them into thinking that they should pursue a certain school or career for arbitrary reasons.

Use these questions to guide you into a better understanding of your child’s interests.

A girl may grow up hearing things like, “Since there is a lack of female scientists, you should become a scientist.” She commits to studying content that will make her parents and teachers proud, but also sacrifices the skills and content that are most enjoyable and the best fit for her. Not only is such advice a disservice to the child who feels “stuck” and discontented on a mis-matched path, but also to everyone around the child, who misses out on the unrealized talent and expertise that is still hidden away. 

Healthy boundaries for our desires

In her book, Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert is tired of her life (and her husband) and leaves them both to find herself. It worries me to think that even one 30-something mom would read her words as advice and believe the lie that pursuing her “dreams” is worth sacrificing her relationships. This is perhaps the most challenging component of grit. It is one thing to live and work with great zeal and determination, but to do so without consideration of the people around us, is to be a hurricane with no thought of the destruction it leaves in its path. This is not the type of grit we hope to develop in our children.

We want to raise them with an understanding that in order for their talents, interests, and desires to bring them joy and fulfillment, they must be freely given away for the benefit of others. Learning takes on great purpose when it is connected with who our children are and the circumstances in which they live, including the places and people around them.

The “You-can-do-it-all” lie

We live in a society that preaches, “You can do it all!”, but the reality is that you can’t without sacrificing something. At some point, we all find ourselves at a crossroads with a choice between giving up an interest or desire for the sake of our circumstances and relationships, or sacrificing relationships in the name of our pursuits. An ultimate sign of grit is when we stand firm in our priorities despite societal pressure to do otherwise. 

I can look back at different seasons of motherhood and remember when I felt “trapped” by my circumstances, when my gifts weren’t “being used”, when I had “so much more to offer”, etc.
In those times, the fine line between grit and faith was almost indistinguishable. My prayer became, “God, you know my circumstances, you know my priorities, and you know the core of who I was created to be.  Help me to creatively and faithfully use my gifts within the boundaries that you’ve given me, and in a way that brings life to myself and to others.” 

Print out and keep close 😉

Only you (with the help of wise counsel) can determine the appropriate balance of pursuing interests while prioritizing relationships and circumstances, but I will say that every sacrifice I thought I was making with regards to my own plans, always paid off in abundance in the realm of relationships.

Desire + Connection + Grit = Fulfillment

In Summary, for grit to be effective in leading to fulfillment, the elements of desire and connection must also be present.

Aspergian John Elder Robison is a perfect example of someone who showed tremendous grit after figuring out what he really loved to do. He went from being labeled an unmotivated trouble-maker as a child, to a hard-working genius as an adult.  These are some of his  “keys to success” taken from his book, Be Different:

  1. “Find your Strengths and Interests: In school a lot of emphasis is put on identifying your weaknesses and then improving them. That’s important if your weaknesses are holding you back, but it’s not the path to greatness. Greatness happens when you find your unique strengths and build upon them. Building up a weakness just makes you less disabled. Building a strength can take you to the top of the world. Where would you rather be? When you discover a unique ability, there’s no limit to what you can achieve.” 
  1. “Find Real-World Applications for Your Special Skills: Many people seem to go through life with the opposite perspective. They don’t find their special interests, or ways to apply them. They reach the end of school with the question ‘What do I want to do?’ unanswered. They pick a major in college, or select a trade, based on some arbitrary factors, like an uncle in the business or a magazine article or a recruiter who promised fame and fortune at his company.  They lack a focus-a purpose-to their life.” 

After finding your “thing”:

  1. “Focus and Work Hard: Whatever you want to be…you can’t truly be an expert without putting in the hours.” 
  2. “Resolve: When I was young I would decide I wanted to do something, and more experienced older people would laugh and say, “You can’t do that!” However, my Asperger’s made me blind to their skepticism, which might have discouraged a nypical (neuro-typical) kid. So I went ahead, and many times, I succeeded.”

Bottom Line

Allow your children to keep sampling until they find their thing.  Once they do, give them permission to spend many, many, hours developing their strengths. Help them to dive in, set goals, dream big, quit when necessary, pivot, start again until they find that thing they never want to stop doing. Help them to see who might benefit from their gifts, how a particular interest might connect with the community in which they live, and when the time comes, how they might sacrifice their own desires for the sake of another.

If we provide in this way for our children, then chances are by the time they are our age, they won’t be burdened with so many meaningless resolutions, because they will be in the habit of pursuing and realizing their goals and desires through hard work. They will see that with true grit comes a great sense of purpose. 

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