Grit is Good. (right?)

As a mother of a three year old, I catch myself reading every article about childrearing that comes across my Facebook timeline. Lately, there has been an increasing focus on what it takes to raise resilient and thus successful children. Research from the Duckworth Lab at the University of Pennsylvania explores the idea that grit and self-control are predictors of lifelong personal achievement.

As I read these articles, I start to consider if these same traits predict success in academe, or rather I realized that I had been taught that these qualities would ensure job security and some modicum of fame in our little corners of the academic world. (Though this narrative of hard work and success has certainly shifted along with declines in funding for institutions of higher education, and the tightening of the job market. See recent news out of the University of North Carolina, LSU, and Iowa for the latest horrors.)

According to the Duckworth Lab, grit is the tendency to “sustain interest in and effort towards long term goals” and self-control is the ability to control impulses. My initial interest in these articles stemmed from an interest in what I can do to help my son develop the ability to self-regulate his emotional needs, and commit to and pursue long-term goals. Inevitably however, I turn inward and begin questioning whether I have these developed these skills well enough to pass them along to my son.

In these moments, I flash back to endless college nights sitting in a computer lab, grinding away on final papers (long before we had cell phones or Facebook to provide endless distraction). I am reminded of longer days in my windowless write-up office in graduate school, composing against a deadline – pushing towards a post-doc that awaited me that Fall. These experiences must have served as the training runs for the marathon that is the academic job search process and tenure track, no?

So it’s clear, I have grit. We are resilient. No women I know in academe are lacking these qualities. Most of us have enough extra grit that we could hand out some to those in need. I get the benefits of grit – I chose not to walk away from a few challenging situations (changing field sites after pilot research, switching graduate advisers, changing institutions while on T-T) – and I am slowly crafting a career that reflects an intersection of my personal passions and intellectual interests. But what is the cost of this kind of dogged pursuance of our professional goals?

What have I lost as I pursued these goals? If I am honest, I can name a few things: several hours of sleep, relaxing down time, the ability to attend my friends’ weddings, the sight of my cousin graduating from college having survived evacuation during Hurricane Katrina, among other things. I wake up sometimes, and cannot fall back asleep – not because my kid is keeping me awake – but because I lay in bed thinking about looming deadlines and upcoming projects. This happens too frequently, and I know I am not alone. Several of my friends have casually mentioned that the same thing happens to them. And I think I read somewhere that this cannot be good. I also sit too much, and don’t work out enough (though I used to run all the time…).

Perhaps the most troubling thing is that I don’t get to build and support my familial relationships and friendships. I communicate with my friends via Facebook, text, and sometimes over the phone. I see them at conferences, and on rare occasions – in person at non-professional events. The irony is this: I study social and kin networking in contemporary human populations. So I know all too well the value of these interpersonal connections for the maintenance of good mental and physical health.

But you know what? I have grit for days.

And grit is good, right? Well great,  I can check that off now. I also heard that balance is something I should be striving for…I think I saw an article on that somewhere…


6 thoughts on “Grit is Good. (right?)

  1. I know grit & resilience were two of the REALLY BIG themes of my upbringing. My parents “handed” me very little, and you know, nowadays this trend seems to have reversed itself in a majority of families… at least the ones I know of. Beyond the essentials- food, clothing, medicine, education & shelter- I was most often required to get the rest via my own effort. So for example, I learned to love fishing when my father taught me how to do it, and he took me along almost all of the time. As I matured, I realized the equipment he provided me was not optimal per the effort, because much better performing products were available. When I asked him to purchase better stuff for me, he said, “if that’s what you want, then go out and earn it”. So I spent a summer with a boyhood friend collecting discarded car batteries. When we turned them in and received $1.25 apiece, we both had enough to upgrade our tackle. Another example was when my mom & dad assigned me a 250 sq ft garden plot at the age of 10. I was told I needed to CONTRIBUTE to the functioning of the household, and by golly, I did. I also learned to love doing it almost immediately. So I think to answer your question about teaching your children grit & resilience (and I bet you are already doing this)- giving them real life responsibility goes a long long way!

  2. I think just about every academician could echo your observations! You have expressed it well.
    Several disjointed [but maybe not] comments here:
    (1) There was a rather serious and extensive study ~5 years ago looking into what factors best predicted ultimate success in those who started a PhD program actually finishing the doctorate. I wish I had the reference (a former Dean passed it out to us), perhaps someone else does, The single greatest, most significant predictor was not GPA or GRE scores, but, basically, “grit and self-control”- the ability to “keep one’s eyes on the prize” and be persistent for the long term and not be deterred by bumps in the road by sustaining effort towards long term goals.
    (2) You wrote, “I wake up sometimes, and cannot fall back asleep – not because my kid is keeping me awake – but because I lay in bed thinking about looming deadlines and upcoming projects. This happens too frequently, and I know I am not alone. Several of my friends have casually mentioned that the same thing happens to them.” Again, you’ve expressed it well, and I think most of us in academia could echo that. However, to be fair, this is not unique to academe. My college and hometown friends who did not follow me into academia, but became entrepreneurs, corporate executives, attorneys, etc. have the very same experiences- they lay in bed thinking about next Monday’s board meeting, their client’s legal trial that is about to go to the jury, whether the small business they own will have to lay off some valued employees at the end of the month, etc.: it’s endemic to being an executive or manager. To paraphrase one of them said to me when we were reuniting over drinks, “we could have become blue-collar workers instead, and had none of those worries, we’d sleep much better at night and have far more time for our families.” I think he’s right.
    (3) And to tie these together, it may be that “grit and self-control” is what it takes to succeed overall, in academe, in almost any profession, as a human.

  3. I am guilty of perpetuating this idea. When a student is thinking about joining my lab I tell them that in order to succeed they will need to be resilient. I think that grit and self control are needed to successfully pick yourself up and dust yourself off in order to keep going in academia. I’m trying to focus my efforts in preventing my trainees from being knocked down in the first place or explaining to them that it happens to everyone and isn’t their fault and shouldn’t be internalized.

  4. Like the others said, well put! I think about this pretty often. I am a postdoc in the midst of deciding where my career should go from here and the mother of a 3 year old and a 10 month old. Like you, I want my children to have enough grit to succeed in life. But at the same time, in my own life, I look at the downsides of sticking to it, just as you have described, and I’m not sure that it is worth it.

  5. I’ve been thinking about these posts, and my life and that of people around me. I think that those who are passionate about what they are doing are those who will stick it out through thick and thin, because they can see the gleaming goal at the end (or they just appreciate the view along the way – at least some of the time). This applies to anything. So, maybe we should be giving our kids opportunities to find out what they like, or what they are good at (and these things of course will change as they grow up). Then, when they are older, encourage them to forge a path of their own choosing, something they think is worthwhile and/or they like doing, and to do that to the very, very best of their ability. That way, we don’t need to push “grit” or “endurance” onto them from outside, but just encourage them to make sure they do the things they choose properly.. or at least as properly as they can manage to do them. And it doesn’t matter if it is a career, or sport, or music, or caring for family ….or whatever. As long as it is something THEY think is worthwhile in the end, and the end may be a long way away.

  6. Pingback: Defense, retreat, and home. | Sarah w Polsce

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