One of the key buzzwords in American education today is “grit.” It stems from the research of Angela Duckworth, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, whose bestselling book Grit and popular TED Talk have helped spread the word about the importance of resilience and determination in kids today. The pushback on standardized tests has led many educators to argue that character – in particular, a strong sense of self and a refusal to give up – can mean more when it comes to success in life than any report card or SAT exam.
I have always agreed with this philosophy, as I’ve seen it play out in both the successes and failures in my life and in the lives of those around me. I have worked very hard at all my jobs, and I’ve seen that work bear fruit. I also have memories of job interviews early in my career in which I exuded more entitlement than grit. Those interviews did not lead to job offers, for good reason.
At 46, I’m now old enough to know that the best way for me to succeed is to put my head down, get to work, and let the grit guide my own development as an educator, writer, learner and colleague. In preparation for the school year that begins tomorrow, I’ve taken some time to rest – but I’ve also had some decidedly gritty moments under the summer sun.
About a month ago, I wrote about a tree stump I’d been trying to chop down on the hill that fronts my house, and how after several days of hacking away – and meeting lots of cool people as they passed my house – I had decided to hire someone to finish the job. Unfortunately, the company I hired was unable to level the rest of the stump, as the dirt and rocks that filled the cavities within this stump were deadening the chain saw blades. So, as I returned home from a few days at the beach, I learned that the tree stump was back in my hands again.
After eight more days of chopping, sawing, sledgehammering and shoveling, the stump is down as low as I need it to be. It’s been a week and a half since I finished the job, and my hands still ache. I don’t really think congratulations are in order, because the job I took on was slightly insane to begin with. But it’s done, and I am definitely confident in my own grit.
As I chopped away, I met Danny, a retired construction foreman, who told me he would have hired me to work on the jobs he had in Manhattan and Brooklyn. He said my determination reminded him of Tiny, a worker he had years ago who never gave up. After September 11, Tiny was given an important job in removing an object from one of the buildings at Ground Zero, because he could be trusted. Danny’s words were humbling and inspiring, so I kept chopping.
Pierre, the fittest octogenarian I’ve ever met, kept giving me tips as he passed by during his walks. James, our hilarious and caring mailman, encouraged me each day. Sam, a neighbor down the street, loaned me a sharper ax. And so many other neighbors shared words of encouragement as they walked by the house.
As I neared the end of this dirty, gritty job, a neighbor named Gerry walked down the street to my house. He held an electric chain saw in his hand. I started to tell him about how the tree company had tried that, and that’s why I was in my eighth additional day of chopping. He shook his head and, in so many words, told me he couldn’t stand to watch me do this anymore. He showed me how to use the electric saw, then advised me not to cut my legs off. I gave it a shot, and it helped me close the deal.
The next step, of course, is to landscape the darn thing. That will take stones, and dirt, and weekend days filled with more labor. But this hill will look awesome, eventually. And in the meantime, I have practiced the art of grit more than I probably needed to this summer. It’s a funny story, and it will be even funnier when these hands stop hurting. But I can tell you that there are a lot of neighbors around me who (a) think I’m crazy and (b) have a lot of respect for my work ethic. I’m going to focus on the second of those for now. And as my students report for classes this week, I’m ready to show them how to keep chopping.