Career Reads: Grit by Angela Duckworth

The heavy rain pounded on the window. As I stared at the laptop for the past thirty minutes, a clutter of thoughts ran through my head. My mind was restless as I sat unmoving, both hands on my temples. I closed my eyes, searching my mind for a clear answer after asking myself what I truly desire to pursue in life. “Everyone has his thing. What’s mine? What’s mine?” This wasn’t the first time. In fact, it was a recurring situation that never really concluded in resolve.

What I once thought to be a strength appeared to be a curse in that moment–my genuine desire for learning and growth, my openness to ideas, my being in the moment has left me with far too many interests, a heavy to-do list, and a number of fleeting desires that are rekindled by the slightest reinforcement that leads to another short pursuit that ends up neglected. What was my aspiration? It was only clear that I wanted to contribute to society, but I still haven’t figured out how. On one day, I was to start a foundation. In another, I was to build a start-up empire. Part of my options is to devote my life to coaching and mentoring future leaders. Those are only some of my many life missions, and pondering upon how I was to conquer each of them, I’d shrug off the difficult question and say, “I don’t know yet but I’ll be okay, as long as I’m growing” or go “I’m too young to worry about this, let me just focus on what’s in front of me and life will take its course.”

If you find yourself in a similar situation, you might find it reasonable to respond in that manner. But here’s the thing: it’s easy to coast through each day when things flatten into a routine, or when life is always never boring for us. But when something uncomfortable happens and shakes things up, we wonder to ourselves, “Is this all worth it?”, and when the answer is negative, we come to the conclusion that we’re settling. Then comes the void, the unhappiness, the guilt, and anything that follows it becomes suffering. And when the pain lifts off, either from arriving at a resolution or simply a passing of time, we go on again and find ourselves in a dead end–with a passage we couldn’t access until we look beyond temporary emotions and consider what we really want to pursue.

Is it an individual problem, or is it generational? Millennials are commonly looked down on as ‘short-termers’, with our decreased attention spans and our ‘entitled’ mindset, which may be due to a world full of choices, connectedness and ease as a result of technology. The rest of the world may have reason to be disappointed, for we often bob our heads to the rhythm of every new interesting thing that comes along, telling ourselves to be happy, happy, happy, mostly when we’re just having fun, when we’ve escaped to the other side of the world to feel alive, when we’ve achieved something worth acknowledging on social media to feel important.

A modern-day classic, Grit demystifies the psychology of success and the facets that revolve around this significant quality. The author, Angela Duckworth, shares her discoveries along with her personal encounters with grit, and her goal to use tried-and-tested concepts to prove assumptions. Diligently researched, the author herself has displayed tremendous passion and perseverance to put together a book that helps struggling career-nomads like me discover (and choose) their calling and grow it. The book is highly practical, and I hope that the reader of this essay might benefit from a short understanding of its essence after reading my key takeaways.

DEFINING GRIT: PASSION + PERSEVERANCE

Passion may be an intense desire to fulfill a deed, which often begins with interest. Passion may not be a singular moment of enlightenment, rather a gradual desire built over time or, in such cases as mine, a confusing and tedious process. It is that which gives reason to perform beyond perceived limitations, but without the other component, it is merely a fickle fire that burns out.

If we want to attain grit in this regard, we must have the perseverance to pull through what we started in the first place. The book cites anecdotes upon anecdotes of well-known role models of grit who do not merely display a desire for something, but the discipline to achieve that desire. Passion must come hand-in-hand with perseverance. Both of these qualities may not come in easy for most, for we are either unclear about passion, or unwilling to persevere.

TALENT OVEREMPHASIZED

As a kid, I was valedictorian of our senior nursery batch, a model student in kindergarten, and a straight-A student until second grade. On top of those, I’d participate in singing contests and give speeches in Mandarin. My mother played a big role in pushing me to achieve; as an educator, she was tough on my grades. Little did I know that this outside pressure was what led me to acquire all those accolades. Come third grade, her stern attention to my test results slipped away after she bore my twin brothers, which gave her four little tots to raise. In her neglect, I felt no pressure to do excellently in school. I started slacking off in the years that followed, which left me with low test scores, no accolades or points of pride. I went off to college as an average student, acing tests every now and then as a result of erratic studying patterns and a fickle mind. Generally, I didn’t have any desire to do better, perhaps as ‘learned helplessness’, regarding myself as a mediocre mind and nothing more.

Throughout my life I’ve seen how hard work has allowed me to get somewhere. I started an online shop in high school, and another one in college. I would join bazaars, take on sponsorships, and screen business opportunities. All with little inborn talent, mostly because I woke up and got out and pursued, relentlessly.

Though talent is important, it may be overrated. This finding is incredibly helpful to people like me who find ourselves plotted somewhere in the middle of the bell curve. We may not have the intrinsic characteristics that deliberately carve a bright future, but there is still great hope for us to advance.

INTENSE PRACTICE, & FLOW

In the book, there are two phases in every hard thing one pursues. There is deliberate practice, and there is a state of flow. During deliberate practice, one is in a cycle of moving out of the comfort zone in each activity, followed by an active analysis which precedes improved performance. This is the difficult part, where there is little fun and a requirement of strong mental toughness. Such is the case when an athlete follows a rigid training routine, or when a speaker collects feedback and refines his speech over and over, or when a student takes on difficult math problems, all to deliver in a state of flow.

In contrast, flow is effortlessness. Pleasurable. This is when the athlete triumphs in first place, the speaker receives a standing ovation, and the student aces his exam. All find it easy to perform, because they have rehearsed painfully, eliminating the loose ends and simply coasting through the enjoyable short while of performance they’ve spent countless of hours preparing for.

To summarize properly, let me quote the book, “Deliberate practice is for preparation, and flow is for performance.” And in connection, “Gritty people do more deliberate practice and experience more flow.”

FOCUS IS GRIT

Whether you’re a type-A or a type-B, you can always benefit from self-reflection and a mapping out of your life plans. The book illustrates a highly beneficial step-by-step process in figuring out one’s passion, and crossing out all distractions which may make it difficult for us to go after our ultimate goal with depth. In a world filled with choices, it is almost impossible to zero in on just one pursuit. We find ourselves in a hallway full of doors, and if one embraces discovery like me, one might just take too much time in an empty room.

Angela takes inspiration from Warren Buffet when he asked his pilot to write down twenty-five of his goals, circle the top five, and avoid the latter twenty at all costs, pointing them out as distractions. She enhances his advice by ranking the twenty under mid- and low-level goals which may ultimately serve one uniting top-level goal. Meaning, all our smaller interests may help us realize that which may be most important to us. And when we finally figure out what it is, she suggests to stick to only that and nothing else.

PURPOSE

That focus which paragons of grit carry in their top-level goals are almost never self-satisfactory, but are always other-centered. In the book, purpose is defined to be ‘the intention to contribute to the well-being of others’. Think about it: the people we most admire are usually those with a strong sense of purpose, that which drives them to be extraordinary as a whole; but upon further inspection, we realize that they only carry out mundane tasks with tremendous excellence.

Now, I know that not everyone is a fan of ‘living beyond the self’. There are a number of gritty people who practice their passion and perseverance on selfish motives, which I strongly disagree to. If one thing is certain, it is the finitude of life, and such is best spent serving something outside ourselves.

HOW TO BUILD GRIT

It was mentioned that grit is not heavily correlated with genetics, or that success isn’t defined by talent alone. Time and time again we are reminded that our future is greatly in our hands–our will, as one may call it. If you are as confused as I was, it might be handy to start in one of the two ways suggested in the book:

a. Growing grit from the inside out. This requires an internal fortitude that is maintained by introspection and carried out by self-discipline. In this method, we are reliant on ourselves, finding no excuse to lose focus. Each day we fight a battle within us and proceed with willpower.

b. Growing grit from the outside in. External factors influence and reinforce our choices and actions in seeking our aspirations, in the form of trusty colleagues and mentors, an environment of motivation, exposure to impactful media, and many others. This may be a principle in fostering a culture of grit at work or at home.

Best if one can have both, of course.

Empowered by strong science and the stories of incredibly gritty famed figures, and after assessing my own level of grit and choosing a growth path, I now carry a clearer vision to live by. Setbacks and discouragements no longer disillusion me from the pursuit of my goal; rather they serve as a humble reminder that I am well on my road to fulfilling the purpose I was set out to do.

At the end of the day, I still couldn’t let go of my craving for novelty. The sight of an unfamiliar scene, the thrill in discovering a new experience, the pleasure in meeting people of different facets, interests and personalities, and being actively appreciative of the world’s beauty still tugs at my heart strongly. It’s easy to think of genuine curiosity as a fitting occupation; but if I keep on like this, I’d probably be switching jobs like it’s the only thing I do best.

Wandering around aimlessly (and by this I do not mean literally) may be exciting and adventurous, but upon looking at life as a whole, it lacks meaning. To live for only pleasure or comfort isn’t so neat and lovely, and I don’t want to be left with that thought on my deathbed. I’m able to better enrich my affinity for new adventures through the lens of that which I love the most, that which brings color to mundanity; and after a long day of fleeting discovery, there is always something I can come back to–that passion which my heart calls home.

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