grit and bear it

knowing when to grit and when to quit

At the brink of midnight and a mid-semester breakdown, four lecture-captures into studying for my second physiology exam, a Facebook notification disturbs my academic focus. I minimize the Canvas tab and check my feed. Everyone at Brown apparently has had the same idea, and the page fills with posts and photos from peers venting about professors or lamenting their own procrastination. I glance at them half-attentively, pausing to watch a few shared videos of fall recipes or cute animals. Among them, a TED Talk video from 2013 has strangely reentered circulation—a few friends must have raked it back from the depths of the internet. In an effort to escape my misery, I turn the mute off and watch the six-minute clip.

Against the classic red-lettered backdrop of the TED Talk stage, Angela Lee Duckworth, a professor in psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, passionately describes her journey to find the true determinant of success in individuals. A former management consultant turned high school teacher (and eventually college professor), she explains that she was very interested in uncovering why some of her students, despite having high IQs or a lot of talent, seemed unable to get good grades in her course. Conversely, she hoped to find out why others, with lower IQs and less talent, were able to succeed. Her investigations eventually went beyond the classroom, as she looked into success within military training camps, national spelling bees, and even stressful workplaces. She explains to the audience that she uncovered the factor most important to the achievement of goals in all those areas: grit, which she defines as “passion and perseverance for very long-term goals.” It is tolerating a current, imperfect state of living in order to reach an intangible, improved future state of living. Duckworth asserts that those with grit were able to work through failures, persisting in their fields until success was reached, and concludes the talk by asking the audience to work harder to develop grit within themselves and those around them.

I close my computer and hop off my bed to make a cup of tea. As the water warms I overhear the stress-induced ramblings of fellow students in my dorm, their voices heavy with exhaustion and suppressed (or maybe not-so-suppressed ) tears. Someone has to finish a CS project, someone might fail a midterm, someone can’t figure out a concentration. Their collective dejection resonates in my chest, and I find myself fighting back sobs. Could I be Angela’s gritless failure?

Success and failure are intimately evident in every corner of College Hill and in every competitive, insecure, brilliant student it hosts. Internships, fellowships, jobs, grades, research positions, and acceptances into prestigious graduate schools function like flashy indicators of the university’s best and brightest, whilst everyone scrambles to be extraordinary. Between classes, people debate who really has the most rigorous concentration, is taking the most difficult class, is doing the best or the most in relation to coursework and extracurriculars. Even personal activities like keeping up a fitness routine, having a social life, and participating in self-care become incorporated in the campus-wide parlay of accomplishments and one-upmanship. Coupled with this, of course, is the crippling, cultural fear of being the person who couldn’t pass the class, who couldn’t handle the pre-med or pre-law or pre-whatever track, who didn’t have enough grit to stick it out.

When I was accepted to Brown University, I stubbornly believed I would concentrate in a STEM field or would double-concentrate in a STEM field and a humanities field. I speculated the prospects of biochemistry, chemistry and English, cognitive science and visual arts, biology and literary arts. I planned my future classes countless times over to see what my path at Brown might look like, how I would manage all the requirements and graduate on time. Whenever friends or family were apprehensive, I firmly assured them that it was the best and only option for my academic future. However, almost a year and a half into my education,  I’ve realized that while I love many STEM classes and subjects, they’re not where I want to spend the majority of my university career. Moreover, I’ve realized how much time I have spent trying to convince myself they were. I struggled with everything from individual classes to difficult subject structures to unwelcoming departments. In spite of simply not having helpful, positive experiences, I tolerated or ignored my difficulties in STEM because I was not a quitter. I was sure that I was the problem and not the fields, and that if I just studied enough I could find my place there. Still, even though I’m much happier knowing I won’t be trapped in a concentration that makes me unhappy, I am a failure, and a failure in STEM at that (which at Brown is synonymous to a failure in being an employable human being). Furthermore, I’ve given up on my own goal to concentrate in STEM, something I was once so determined to do. Not very gritty at all.

The problem with the notion of grit, both in Duckworth’s talk and Brown University’s culture, is that it rarely takes circumstance into account. Sure, people who accomplish things never gave up on those specific achievements, but who’s to say they didn’t give up on other things before that? Does grit really have to be an all-or-nothing characteristic that one applies to every facet of life? If I stuck to every commitment I’d made, I would be really good at a lot of things that I don’t find fulfilling, like soccer or piano or ballet. Choosing not to continue with those activities granted me the freedom to find other activities that I truly enjoyed. Indeed, even the decision to drop a second concentration was made in part because it would allow me the flexibility to take more electives and explore other facets of myself and my education. Duckworth’s theory about grit doesn’t seem to acknowledge that it costs opportunities, keeping people from growing into new passions that could be more fulfilling.

The insistence on desperate exhibitions of grit is not without merit of course, as most success requires continued effort and time to be achieved. Furthermore, dealing with unpleasant situations is an inevitable part of life, and the culture of grit develops tolerance of such situations. The opposing notion of self-care, which strives to keep students from overexerting themselves, is ineffective in this way because it conveys a sense that projects do not need to be seen through. Furthermore, self-care can limit personal growth, because it keeps people in a relative comfort zone where skills or character cannot be fully utilized. Is there, then, some delicate balance, some precise amount of negativity that justifies throwing in the towel or fighting through the pain? Furthermore, is it the same for everyone?

My tea finishes steeping. I weigh continuing work over calling it quits for the night, then grab my mug and return to the collection of notes and textbooks on my bed. Deep breaths. Grit and bear it. I press play on the lecture capture.