When I hear or read the word “grit”, I first think of John Wayne. For those of you who weren’t raised on a healthy cinema diet of old Bond movies, Westerns, and war movies, John Wayne defines grit. With a birth name of Marion Morrison, I guess he felt like he had a lot to prove. Wayne played the most rough-and-tumble characters in cinematic history, winning an Academy Award for the 1969 film “True Grit”. When I think of grit, or the characteristic ascribed to someone who is willing to push through all odds regardless of ability or what others think of them, I think of John Wayne.
Aspiring to be John Wayne is not exactly the easiest thing for a young Southern girl to do, though. I remember being drawn to The Duke’s devil-may-care attitude, and wanting to be as tough and resourceful as he was in any given situation. I started searching for women who embodied this same approach to life, and I found many: My paternal grandmother, my 7th grade teacher Mrs. Zehring, Anastasia Romanov, Bea Arthur, Scout Finch, Mary Poppins, The Little Match Girl, Angela Lansbury…and countless others.
So what is grit? According to Angela Duckworth, the academic-turned teacher-turned psychologist who wrote the new book Grit, it is this ferocious mix of passion and perseverance that some people have much of, some people have less of, and it drives us to pursue dreams and goals in spite of all odds. I have been reading Duckworth’s book and have become fascinated with all of the scientific research that describes, well, me. I’ve always known I possess an internal drive that has pushed me through life regardless of my circumstances. According to Mrs. Duckworth’s scale, I rank a 4.4 on the Grit Scale, putting me in the 90th percentile of the thousands of Americans who have also taken the same assessment.
I just thought I was “scrappy”, or at least that is the attribute I have ascribed to myself when people ask me why I do some of the things that I do and how I do them. I always just thought I had a high tolerance for pain, or a low-failure threshold, but it turns out that now this “grit” has been coined and is being marketed to companies, schools, organizations, infantries, and parents world wide.
Duckworth presents some outstanding research on developmental psychology, as well as the need for children to be encouraged to play before they can be expected to “succeed”. For the most part, I have really enjoyed this book and have learned a lot. My fear comes into play when I question the purpose of this, and other books sold in the “personal success” sections of bookstores around the world. Good and useful data can be dangerous in the wrong hands. I want people to know how much life functionality is affected by ambition, and how ambition is affected by poverty, and how we can eradicate and prevent poverty and “high risk” situations in our communities. At the same time, I fear another parents picking up another book so that they can now drill “you just need grit!” into their tiny minds so that they will work harder in school.
While I faced some hard things as a kid, and my parents were far from perfect, they did allow me to play. They encouraged me. They let me dream and create and break bones and explore new things and figure problems out on my own. They didn’t sit me down one day and say, “Look, Lindsey, you just need to develop grit.” They gave me the opportunity to develop my own skills, passions, and personality on my own without the stress of performance.
My hope is that, with each generation, we raise better parents who will raise creative, brave, empathetic, compassionate, intelligent, resourceful, generous children of all skill sets, walks of life, belief systems, and cultures who will bring the world together rather than keep tearing it apart.
Maybe that requires a high grit score, or maybe it just requires some courage and a little bit of empathy. After all, “Courage is being scared to death and saddling up anyway.” – John Wayne