A few days ago one of my brothers-in-law was telling us over dinner how much he had enjoyed a book he had just finished. The title was The Endurance Expedition and it was about the 1914 attempt to traverse the Antarctic continent. Hearing my brother-in-law talking so excitedly about the challenges encountered by Sir Ernest Shackleton and his party made me think of one of those elements in a person's upbringing which has, sadly, gone AWOL in recent years: grit.
How you define grit depends pretty much on different factors but on one aspect we can all agree: grit is hardly ever the easy way out. Grit is the process whereby we commit ourselves to finish what we start, to get back up when we fall over and to learn from our mistakes. Based on the above, is our current generation grit-deficient?
I would not like this post to turn into a 21st-century-generation-bashing exercise. Our young people have enough with the grim prospects ahead of them: housing shortage, and rife unemployment, for instance. They do not need me to add to that list. But the question is still valid: how do you teach grit? And is it still necessary in our technology-rich world?
I admit that when I was growing up in Cuba in the 70s and 80s I was not expected to learn about grit. In a certain way my upbringing was rather sheltered, both by the state and by my family. One reason was my being an only child (just to my mum, mind you, my dad became father to two other children when I was thirteen- or fourteen-years-old). Another reason was a long-suffering stomach illness that made my already-overprotective parents (especially my mother) even more cautious. As a consequence most things were served on a plate for me. It was not until I reached my teens when, following my parents’ divorce, I broke away from the safety net around me.
What those teenage and young adulthood years taught me was that I had a built-in “I’ll show you” ready-made response to face down challenges. I also discovered a very useful skill: I could block out unnecessary background noise and focus on whatever task I had to complete. This became one of my essential coping strategies in the early 90s after the fall of the Berlin Wall. A third discovery was that, although I reacted badly to mistakes, I had the knack to learn from them.
However, with this personality change, becoming more go-getting if you like, I also acquired an unwanted reputation as a tough-as-nails, tell-it-like-it-is, harsh critic. This happened mainly in uni and above all whenever I was part of a team and we had a tight deadline for handing in course work. As I remember now, I was not very patient with people who expected to do well without putting in a shift.
The beauty of remembering is that you can choose what you want to remember and how you want to remember it. Never mind the fact that memories arrive unbidden. We still have the power to twist them to our advantage. I was a nightmare as a team leader, that much I recognise now. But I was also quite demanding of myself and therefore of other people. I was driven, still am, and perhaps that was what irked some of my fellow students. Grit can be cruel if not well managed. It is all well and good to never give up but when you assume those around have the same ability, you are bound to fail. Not only that, but also you risk losing the togetherness and focus that you are precisely advocating for.
I agree that the present generation has gotten used too much to being praised the whole time. It is all “well done!”, “you’re great!”, “wow, aren’t you a little genius?” I would not change that approach overnight (I mean, some children do need that encouragement) but I would also include some harsh criticism once in a while. Mix the rough with the smooth. In my life experience, growing up in a socialist dictatorship, moving to another country, adapting to life in that country and finding fulfilment with a loving partner and children are some of the elements that have made me. Not my final dissertation in uni. The latter was just one stage in my life. The former was all about persistence, resilience and bloody hard work.
Of course, it goes without saying that persevering when the chips are down and you’re down in the dumps might not be the go-to, perfect solution. What if you are clinically depressed? Pathology is usually excluded from articles on grit. So is poverty. Some people work their fingers to the bones and yet, years down the line they still have not got much to show for their efforts. Could you accuse them of not trying enough? Of being grit-averse?
Like other subjects educators nowadays realise they should include in the school curriculum (empathy and spirituality to mention but two), grit ought to be taught in small doses. I do think that the current generation would benefit from a termly or half-termly, three-day outdoor activity in which they would have to work their way out of a maze or be asked to build a boat using the bare minimum, materials-wise. For one, the exercise would level the playing field to a certain extent between the haves and have-nots and it would show that in order to succeed in life one does not always need a high IQ or talent. Trying, failing, falling and trying again is good enough sometimes.
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