Once, in a poor land not too far from here, a young boy was born. Nothing was particularly interesting about this boy, as he was regularly told by his mother. She loved him dearly deep down, but mental instabilities internalized during her youth often lead to her poorly treating the boy. He was the youngest of his family by many years, and an unexpected addition – a fact often divulged to him by his mother in moments of rage. Nobody can say how often or severe her abuses of him were except the boy himself – and at this moment, he has become unreachable. At an early age, as expected of all children of his heritage and time, the boy was taken to boarding school, and left with little contact to his parents.
The day he began school was a confusing one for the boy, still too young to properly understand what was happening. As his father left him in the school drive and walked away with neither a hug nor a glance, the boy blinked away the rising tide of tears and abandonment.
School treated him equally as kindly. The other boys would regularly commit abuses on each other in response to their own insecurities, acts largely overlooked by the Masters. It would make them develop into stronger people, went the logic, it would make them work harder – for their own good. But what of the boy? He’d had no respite from abuses like these his entire life, he had always been the victim, and was taught that the victim was all he could be. He was never shown how to respond to adversity. The big people in authority were the only ones who had any control, and they neither treated him well nor protected him, even though he was taught that it was their job to do so. The boy cried every day, from hurts on the inside more than the out. He hated school, he wasn’t very good at it and was told that he wasn’t very smart, either. He should expect to drive trucks for a living if he was lucky. He hated school so much that every day he dreamt of his return home for the summer. Every day his homecoming grew closer, and every day he pined for it.
Finally the days of return came. However, when the summers arrived, sticky and humid, and the boy went home, his mother would scream at him, and would hate him as much as she hated herself. Behind her tears and rage filled eyes was a fear, and a terrible loathing for herself and her actions, but she did not have the tools to properly address these hidden feelings, and from her fears she hid. The boy learned that this was the proper way to deal with his hurts, and began to hide them away in his mind, building strong walls around them so he would never have to see or deal with them again, like his mother had done.
What the Masters had never known, and had never told him, was that the little boy was very smart. He had a beautiful talent for both speaking and music. He learned that he could speak with passion and confidence, and convince people with his powerful voice and pure conviction. He thought that he should use this skill for God, because even though God had never stopped the hurts that the boy felt, He became a surrogate figure for all the boy’s hopes. God was the big person that always loved the boy, and would always be looking out for him and controlling his life for the better, like big people should. Well, that’s what the boy was taught by the big people around him, whose love and approval he so desperately craved.
So, the boy began the journey to devote his life to the one big person that he knew, without a doubt, loved him dearly – God. God always made things work out in the end, and the boy learned that he didn’t need to do anything and that God should be trusted fully – the world was His responsibility after all, and that included the boy’s life. After some time the boy met a girl, and they had some little girls and a little boy of their own. For a while the boy was very happy, God had made everything work out, just like he was taught. It was a nice feeling, thought the boy, not to have to be responsible for his own life. He didn’t have to worry about trying to change or to learn new things or to become different at all, because God would sort it out. God would show him what he needed to do through His Word. Every day the boy praised God for giving him the skills of music and of speech to share his love for God.
What nobody had told the boy was that God did not, in fact, exist. Or, at least, if He did then He wasn’t going to be able to change the boy’s mind or actions for him. The boy himself had noticed early on that he had a little interest in singing and in public speaking, and a meaningful direction towards which to point. Thus, the boy had practised long and hard for many years so that he could use the skills better, with the motivation of a God behind him. It wasn’t God that gave him these skills, but the boy himself, and a very powerful idea.
More time passed while the boy believed in something that was actually nothing, and he taught the same thinking to his wife and children, and made sure they lived strictly to the rules of the nothing. This nothing was like the Headmaster of the entire universe – and we all know that the rules of the Headmaster must not be broken. But something was wrong. Because the boy didn’t think he needed to take responsibility for things in the world, he didn’t. He didn’t try to learn about himself. He didn’t try to change some of the bad things he thought about himself and the world that his parents and peers and Masters had taught him. He didn’t try to do new things or push himself out of his comfort zone or even realise when he was wrong. He sat in the corridor that was his faith, and obsessively looked at the paintings and books in that corridor to solve his problems. Had the boy opened one of the many doors in the corridor he would have found a room with many new ideas, or even the outside world with a million more houses to look in. But, now that he was a big person, he thought he only had to worry about keeping his safety walls in place, and making sure his family didn’t do anything to chip them. The last thing he wanted was to see all of the hurts accumulated in his childhood.
Inevitably, the pressure that was building up behind the walls caused them to crack and rupture, and the façade the boy had worked so hard to build began to crumble. All the problems he refused to deal with started flowing out from behind his walls and affecting his mind and behaviour. The boy became anxious, violent, temperamental, paranoid and very sad, and so did his family. He acted erratically, quit his job, began to gamble and did everything he could to repair the destroyed mental walls or avoid them completely. Unfortunately for all, the reparations he made consisted only of falsehoods and of ignorance. The boy grew steadily more and more unstable and with each opportunity to accept the challenges his history and psychology provided, he rejected them and failed. But every moment is a new opportunity, and every moment is the perfect one to start working on yourself. The boy never accepted this, he had become rigid and stuck in his ways, he believed he was too old to change, that his future had been set by his past and by God. The boy sat by the now pulverised walls and, day by day, tried to repair them. His family had run away in fear and he had lost those things he most loved. But to him, that didn’t matter. To him, all that mattered was God, and his walls, and his narrow little corridor. Now alone, with no hope or self-belief, he sat by his rubble and slowly turned the wreckage back into little walls to protect himself from the things he didn’t want to accept, believing his victimhood and isolation inevitable.
The boy still sits there to this day, weakly and ineffectively repairing the walls, to live out his days under a veil of false comfort, alone with his thoughts and his God, abandoned by those he cherished most, just as he had expected, just as his parents had done.
The boy in the story is my father, and he is the original reason I care so deeply about the concept of Grit. I truly believe, in the bottom of my heart, that the boy still has plenty of time, despite now being an old man, to grow and develop, if only he tried. The story above demonstrates what I call the Three Gifts of Grit. Those gifts are Self Confidence, Responsibility and Hope. You’ll notice that at points in the story some of the gifts were demonstrated by the boy, the basis for the hope I have in his ability to move into a new, more open, phase of his life. Sadly, while I believe it possible and far from hopeless, I don’t believe it will happen. His mind would benefit from a drastic change, but the ways that might occur are limited. He would need guidance and mentorship that only someone devoted to him could provide, and I believe that my energy is better spent on other people. For example, preventing cases like his by teaching people about their own abilities to be gritty, and the tools they can use to pull themselves from adversity of any kind and become more aware versions of themselves. My belief in him comes from another place, too, and that is the capacity of all humans. There have been many who have succumbed to hardship and rigid beliefs forced upon them in childhood, and few who have learned to rise above. However, those who have transcended have been unique in every factor bar one. Grit. And Grit, you may be pleased to know, is as much a learnable skill as anything.
While other factors are integral and important to the flourishing of individuals, such as the opportunities provided them and the role models available, high concentrations of grit and the knowledge of their own potential capability when combined with that grit can be enough of a toolkit to teach them to pull themselves from states of perceived powerlessness into states of forward mobility. They can learn to use adversity as their renewable fuel source and motivation, rather than a confirmation of their inadequacies or misfortune. And you can, too.
The tenants of grit assume that, with enough hard work and perseverance, with aligned interest and sufficient information, any individual can reach much further levels of success in any field than they might have originally guessed. This suggests that innate or intrinsic ability: talent, while having an initial importance perhaps, is not required for long term and serious pursuit of specific goals.
Thus, we are only limited by our ability to keep working hard through the most difficult times. Again, this skill can be taught, and all but a very few lack the capacity to learn any new skill. This is, in my mind, enough context for a significant and realistic self belief to flourish within each of us. If we care enough about something, if it’s right for us, if we want it enough, if we put in regular hard work, have realistic ideas, are patient, and if we don’t give in when it becomes easiest to give in, we will make positive process on our journey. Obviously there are some physical and probabilistic limitations to this, but the belief remains for most reasonable goals. Grit as a concept encompasses and contextualises all of these conditions and more, and is the ultimate tool for forward mobility.
The Self Confidence that inevitably arrives with the knowledge of your own unshakable potential and your long but limited time limit is the first Gift of Grit. That is, with the knowledge that the limiting factor to your own success is not based on your existing ability but your willingness to keep going, you won’t need to stop to question whether you will ever make it – you will. If you know that you will, then the doubt in yourself evaporates and your confidence precipitates.
The boy never displayed this confidence because he never learned that work was enough. He was stuck, as so many of us are, with the presupposition that he doesn’t ‘have what it takes’ to change, succeed or to improve. I can tell you that despite his belief, he does, and if he does then you most definitely do too.
The second Gift comes with the assumption of the first. We all have the capacity to be great, to fill a single branch of the many branches that form our potential. We therefore have two options: follow a branch, or get stuck in the trunk. To get stuck in the trunk means to not move forward, to not aim at growing a single length in the face of a realistically limitless potential.
To become paralysed by the paradox of choice and end up frozen, caught endlessly in the loop of turning back and forth between the many paths, is both a symptom and a cause of gritessness. The boy’s manifested through the form of his faith. He had been taught that his own choices were meaningless in the light of God’s for his life, that the ultimate responsibility lay not with him, but with an outside entity that in truth represented his emotionally unavailable parents. Thus, he maintained no responsibility for his own life or for changing it when it began to fall apart. For many others paralysis forms due to a fear of failure, a doubt in one’s own abilities, or a lack of conviction. The second has been addressed above in this article, the other two will be dealt with in future pieces.
The second Gift of Grit, then, is Responsibility. Specifically, the responsibility you have over your own life to make the changes that will help you grow. The responsibility is a gift, and a weight, but it doesn’t necessarily deliver blame. Understanding the process of what makes humans hold onto some ideas and forget others is a complex science. An idea may need to pass through your mind 100 times before it will change your behaviour, or only once depending on how open or how primed you are to receive it. That is, while the responsibility for each individual’s own life exists within themselves, they have not curated to the point where the best outcome will occur for them, nor have they necessarily had any choice in their genetics, current biological reactions, or their upbringing and thus their priming. As such, while there is hope for the boy, and he has the responsibility for the revolution of his own life (the future), it is at the same time not his fault that he has so failed (the past). He has the ability and the means if he simply searches, but lacks the proper priming. Such is the nature of disadvantage – one who is unaware cannot make themselves aware without outside influence of some kind that primes their mind for a new branch of discovery. Now, one may argue that the choice to prime oneself also exists, and while this may be true, someone unprimed to prime themselves will be very unlikely to begin this process (that being of wanting to want to change, or improve, or self-reflect).
Another related factor when comparing the disadvantage issue with the Gift of Responsibility is that of learned helplessness introduced by psychologist Martin Seligman. An individual who is abused, whose actions have no impact on the cessation of their abuse, is far less likely to pull themselves out from the belief in their own helplessness than is an individual previously taught the knowledge of their own capacity to make change in their situation . However, those who learn helplessness are not lost, they just need to be taught that their actions will have a measurable effect in the direction they desire. Again, the learned helplessness of the boy demonstrates his poor position. Again, again, hope is not lost for him, particularly with external help and perhaps internally with some luck.
The final point rests upon him, however. Responsibility over your own life means the acceptance of failure, and if the failure is not or cannot be accepted by the individual as a necessary part of the process, this is a lesson they must learn. That is, if they have a strong belief that they can do something and yet they don’t for lack of belief in their responsibility to themselves or ignorance, the bottleneck becomes realisation and acceptance. The acceptance of this Responsibility, once achieved, gives them the freedom to further fulfil themselves, and combines with Self Confidence as the first two Gifts of Grit, tools as a means to craft oneself and one’s future.
My mother’s father died of lung cancer. Prior to his death, though he was horribly ill from the chemotherapy, he continued on with his many hobbies. He was often seen sitting in his chair or the hospital bed, learning the Italian language, playing online trivia games or writing. He wrote a small pamphlet entitled ‘the funny side of lung cancer’ whose cover depicted the smiling tongue emoji superimposed on the image of anatomically correct lungs. The kind of person who continues to learn a language, or that laughs at his own ailments, especially when so severe, is one with Grit, and is one with Hope – the third Gift.
My grandfather lived most of his youth in the instability of war, witnessing deaths, rapes, starvation, bombings and fear. Those closest to him died and he had little to no control over many things in his life. Eventually he escaped, at points on foot, from a ravaged and tear-filled Europe. As far as I know he never personally experienced abuses nor hatred, but these, if they occurred, were perhaps left from his autobiography.
The atrocities of war experienced by my grandfather, while incomparable to the abuses of my father and in a wholly different context, yet still create a useful juxtaposition for the purposes of this exploration. What separates this man and boy, one who refused to give up until he died, and one who gave up still with up to 35 years of life left? Grit separates them. Specifically, the Hope in a future that might turn out better than expected. The man realised that every moment, despite the moment that came before, was a chance for something more, was an opportunity to make the most out of life, was a reason to be thankful. The boy was resigned to his lot in life, and one that predicted constant failure and unhappiness. It’s obvious that both contexts and predispositions have resulted in different reactions – war is less difficult to hope your way out of than is the belief in your intrinsic worthlessness, and yet what follows gives hope. Hardship of any kind is not enough to stop you living a good life, a life of Grit. For every person that reacted like my father to their hardship, there is another that reacted like my grandfather. For every person stuck in their own turmoil, there is another that is desperately pulling themselves from the quagmire of life, falling back in, and pulling again. The process will never be short, nor will it be easy, what it will be is worth every fucking second. Every second you fight using Grit is an extra second stolen from your weakness and your desires to stay the same. Fear isn’t the enemy, it’s comfort. Life should be lived for its own sake, but sometimes we need reminding of that, and that is the role of Grit.
My father has neither Confidence in himself, Hope for his future, nor the acceptance of Responsibility for that future. Thus he does not have Grit. You may be wondering how it is that Grit, merely the ability to persevere, can provide such powerful qualities in its wake. The Gifts of Grit, however, are not given by Grit, they provide it. The true gift is the Grit itself, and its ability to take the values I have described, and others, and amplify them from simple beliefs into powerful forces. While the cycle might begin with understanding your own enormous capacity, the charge of your own life, and the limitless positive possibilities of the future, it continues when Grit emerges. When Grit takes your potential and demonstrates that when you believe you can keep going, and you do, the flourishing of your internal self can proceed. You realise that when you act, you change, and when you keep acting, you make change.
This is what Grit means to me. This and a lot more things. It’s the belief in others more than the belief in myself, the desire for them to strive and reach for that next moment, to push themselves into the jubilant oblivion of a perfect challenge, to expand in the mold until it bends and breaks to hold their form. More than anything I want to give people the tools to change, to be different to my father, to discover themselves every day. Life is not about the rewards or milestones you pass, it’s the burning eyes at 3am, screaming thighs on the mountainside, and the long tear-filled sessions of writing that break you down and rebuild you each time they happen. I want to see you cry, sweat, scream, fume and sob. I want you to see yourself doing those things, and then standing up, cleaning off and continuing.
Suffering is temporary, but the results are not. The experience creates you. I don’t want there to be more people in the world like my dad because those people take, they give themselves up to life and then they sit down and just take. Unnecessary bullshit. I want to see you give, and then give again and again and again, and then when you pass the point where you think you’ve given everything you realise that fucking hell, you’re only half done giving. I know you can, that’s the point. This isn’t just some motivational thing to read when you’re tired of procrastinating, it’s a reminder that you can, regardless of if you think you’re tired, or it hurts, or you’re scared. Don’t worry, that’s what should happen. It’s a heartfelt and rational push that you can feel IT as much as I can. You now know why it’s so important to me, and hopefully you can feel why it should be important to you. Here’s something to look forward to: growth and pain becomes normal. Give it time, do it long enough for it to settle as a habit, and then realise that it feels normal. That’s what you’re looking for, because when that happens, it tells you it’s become too easy, and you’ve got to give again.
Remember to fail, learn, and then keep going. Relish every opportunity to begin again, because that’s every single moment that passes.