Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Failure isn't always epic. Or permanent.

This is an idea that's been discussed a lot, because of the article "What if the secret to success is failure" in the NYTimes.

Prof Mondo discusses it

The concept that there's a difference between failure and defeat is important. And I admit, it was something I struggled with as a kid - I was good at a lot of stuff, I earned good grades. Then I got to college and I had a few hard lessons: one semester, I had a very tough chem prof, who didn't follow the textbook (and didn't tell us where he was sourcing his material, until one day he let it slip that he was following Fermi's discussion on thermodynamics... I ran to the big bookstore (the big old flagship Borders, which I'm sure is dead now, and it makes me sad to think of that) and found a Dover reprint copy for $4 - and then I could pass the class after reading it). I earned D on an exam from him. My first D ever, I think. (Even in phys ed, I managed to pass, even though I couldn't climb up the rope and was a failure at field hockey).

One thing I learned was that that D could be recovered from - I studied my ass off for the final exam, earned an A- on it, and that brought my grade up to an acceptable B. (Of course, there was collateral damage: I didn't have as much time to study for Genetics, and so my A in that class dropped to a B+ after the final. But, oh well, at least I didn't have to repeat Chem II.)

I think "grit" is a very good shorthand for what kids need to learn. I see "grit" as a certain resilience, an ability to keep going even in the face of things not going well. Persistence is part of it. Part of it is what I described a long time ago as the tinkerer mentality - someone who is stubborn enough to say, "I will not let this beat me, I will keep trying things until something works."

I think this "grit" is probably best taught by parents. I know I learned my "grit," however much I may have, from my own parents. My mom came from what would today be called a working-class family. She was the first of her family to go to college (and she went on to earn a Ph.D) She has that "you do what it takes" mentality - she told me MANY times in my childhood about how she worked for "thirty-seven and a half cents an hour, plus tips" (I will NEVER forget that phrase) as a waitress in the summers in order to pay part of her way through school. She also sought out scholarships and even though, like me, she's someone who hates asking people for stuff, she went around and asked for departmental work to earn extra money during the school year. She lived in a co-op house that was mostly for lower-income women, they were expected to do all the cooking and housekeeping and such...but that was what it took. And my dad, while his family was better off, he worked in a foundry in the summers, and at places like the USPS (he had some interesting stories about them). Because he needed to.

While I had a considerably softer time of it in school (I worked, but only a few hours a week, and that was to have money to go to the movies and stuff), I still had that mentality of "I can't let this beat me."

Even more so, in grad school. I had times when the analysis software wouldn't work, or I got bad results, or something went wrong. And while I admit there were many instances where I did sit down and have a good cry for a few minutes (grad school can be stressful), at the end of that I'd get back up and go, Okay, what do I have to do now?

And I figured it out.

And I still do that. I may get momentarily overwhelmed by "stuff" (as I also said earlier, one of the keys to success is to know when you're about to lose your stuff and need to walk away from the situation for 20 minutes or something), but then I go, "This is stupid and I won't let it beat me." I think that's actually another summing-up of grit: recognizing that most of the problems we have in this life are not insurmountable, and in fact, a lot of them are really quite stupid.

But I see more than my share of people who just shut down in the face of problems...just have Complete System Failure and can't go on. And I don't know how you learn "grit" as an adult, or if you even can.

Again, I think this comes back to being a thing like morals and ethics and treating other people with respect: it's something you gotta learn at home, when you're young. And sadly, there seem to be parents out there who are abrogating their responsibility on any of those things, and when the people who don't learn persistence or treating others respectfully or not to damage other people's stuff grow up, they become holy terrors that are hard for all of the rest of us to deal with. (At least the no-grit people aren't as terrorizing as the others, and it's mainly themselves they hurt.)

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