This past week I finished reading two books – two New York Times bestsellers. One written by a renowned researcher and psychologist, the other by someone who has escaped a life of poverty. While completely different in nature, the evidence presented in Angela Duckworth’s Grit parallels with the family memoir of J.D. Vance in Hillbilly Elegy.
Duckworth has made a name for herself by studying and researching the psychological notion of grit – the perseverance and passion for achieving long terms goals. In her research, she dives into the complexities of what allows individuals, teams, and organizations to achieve success. In most cases, it’s how people respond to the obstacles and challenges on the path towards growth. A gritty individual (or organization) doesn’t see trying circumstances as a means to throw in the towel, but rather to gear down, to learn, and to grow through the adversity.
Vance, on the other hand, has become a respected author after writing a family memoir that shares his migration out of Appalachia to southwest Ohio, and onto earning a law degree from Yale. Escaping and breaking the chains of poverty, and the social issues embedded in such a culture, required exactly the traits and characteristics that Duckworth researches. J.D. Vance embodies everything it means to be a gritty individual. Growing up with a mother who was a drug-addict, a non-existent father, and being raised by his grandparents wasn’t the best of situations. However, Vance went on to escape what he describes as a ‘culture in crisis’.
Both Duckworth’s research and Vance’s personal journey, provide evidence of how learning (particularly in times of hardship and difficulty) can serve as a catalyst for growth. Learning is a process that takes time – for some quicker than others, and consequently the growth associated with such learning. Then, at some point in time, your growth becomes your success. Personally, I like to think that success isn’t reaching the end goal, but rather it’s overcoming the struggles, adversities, and hardships along the way. Because, if you have made it through, then you have maintained your moral character.
The truth is, though, however much grit you might have, the process is damned hard. The process can knock you down, and there will also be people who want to see you fail.
So, how does one do it? You stay the course. Relying on everything you’ve learned. Because, as Vance writes, “lack of knowledge and lack of intelligence are not the same. The former can be remedied with a little patience and a lot of hard work. And the latter? Well, I guess you’re up shit creek without a paddle.”
The Importance of Character in Achieving Success
I like to think of character in two domains. The first is how you present yourself to others. The second is how you live out your life according to the values and morals that you believe to be important. It’s one thing to achieve success by working your tail off, but lacking personal integrity in the process. It’s another thing to earn the respect of others because of the way you carry yourself while working towards success.
Displaying character begins with a belief – a belief in yourself that no matter what, you will be successful. As Vance would attest, the deck is only stacked against you if you believe it is.
“Still, Mamaw and Papaw believed that hard work mattered more. They knew that life was a struggle, and though the odds were a bit longer for people like them, that fact didn’t excuse failure. ‘Never be like these f****** losers who think the deck is stacked against them,’ my grandma often told me. ‘You can do anything you want to.’” -J.D. Vance
Strong, moral character will drive you to keep pushing forward. It will keep you grounded in times of success, and it will humble you in times of failure. And, at the end of the road, it will be one of the things you look back on as having carried you along the way. It will require you to display courage time and time again. As the legendary basketball coach John Wooden stated, “Success is never final; failure is never fatal. It’s courage that counts.”
Duckworth argues that grit is only a small part of a person’s character. As she brings her book to a close, she has penned words on a page that bring it all together.
“I can tell you, for example, that grit is not the only thing I want my children to develop as they round the corner from childhood to maturity. Do I want them to be great at whatever they do? Absolutely. But greatness and goodness are different, and if forced to choose, I’d put goodness first.
As a psychologist, I can confirm that grit is far from the only – or even the most important – aspect of a person’s character. In fact, in studies of how people size up to others, morality trumps all other aspects of character in importance. Sure, we take notice if our neighbors seem lazy, but we’re especially offended if they seem to lack qualities like honesty, integrity, and trustworthiness.
So, grit isn’t everything. There are many other things a person needs in order to grow and flourish. Character is plural.
One way to think about grit is to understand how it relates to other aspects of character. In assessing grit along with other virtues, I find three reliable clusters. I refer to them as the intrapersonal, interpersonal, and intellectual dimensions of character. You could also call them strengths of will, heart, and mind.
In the end, the plurality of character operates against any one virtue being uniquely important.” -Angela Duckworth
What are you chasing after this week? This month? This year? Ask yourself, ‘What is it going to take to get there?’ And, along the way, learn at every opportunity. Allow the new-found knowledge to drive your growth. Most importantly, maintain your character and allow your growth to push you towards success.
At last, remember, ‘strength of will, heart, and mind’. Anything is possible.