There are words that trip you up as you try, with varying degrees of success, to survive your days. You know what I’m talking about: you’ll be scrolling on Twitter and unbeknownst to you, hidden somewhere in the avalanche of self-deprecating humor and trendy-nihilism, will be that particular phrase, that particular word. It will rear up at you like muddy water splashed across that small portion of road ‘for pedestrians’ —that’s not so much a sidewalk as the rumour of one— by some inconsiderate who has to pretend at being in a hurry.
My word is ‘grit’. If we were being honest the original title of this attempt-at-an-essay was: A Growing List of Words I Hate. But then I caught myself. Barely. And here we are, with a different title so if anyone asks I can claim I was objective. But as is the rule here, I digress.
Grit is one of those Silicon Valley words right up there with other popular ready-to-hate-phrases like we-all-have-the-same-24-hours. The written form of a migraine. I disliked it almost instantly, intuitively, how I imagine if I lived out my days in some far-flung wilderness I would detect poisonous plants. You understand? A truly visceral reaction against it.
But, hey, I consider myself a reasonable person who does not fall back on ‘I just don’t think I like it’ when confronted with the question: ‘what exactly is the problem with it?’ And I can also acknowledge that I generally dislike catch-phases from this particular subculture: ‘team no sleep’, ‘grind till we die’ and now, in the new and improved version ‘grit’. I don’t know, it could be that I am simply lazy and trying to intellectualize it. It could, I don’t disagree, but I think it’s far more likely that I’m justified in calling bullshit.
As I was saying, I consider myself a reasonable person (well, at least after 9.00 a.m, before that I can’t be held responsible for the version of me you get). So I did the decidedly reasonable thing and read the research that propelled a largely innocuous word into global stardom. The elevation of grit into a tagline for the voluntarily sleep-deprived can be credited to Angela Duckworth.
So two things worth highlighting, I quite like Angela, she’s interesting and genuinely loves what she does, has that infectious passion that makes you believe you too can quit your job to teach. (She also does this very cool podcast with Steven Dubner called No Stupid Questions. I am now an incurable podcast junkie because why read when people want to just tell you things?)
Second: her work on grit is built on a solid foundation of research, it is not that unfortunate genre of ‘self-help’ which is based on whims, chance and the sighting of unicorns. Which is funny because at the end of this essay I fully intend on turning into a motivational speaker, offering my unsolicited opinion grounded nothing but vibes and the hot Nairobi air. But someone once said (in one of those podcasts I now imbibe) that one secret to happiness is a little benign hypocrisy. This is probably not something I needed to hear as I’ve now amassed a stunning collection of those: benign hypocrisies.
I’m going to grow up to love my work as much as you love yours. I won’t just have a job; I’ll have a calling. I’ll challenge myself every day. When I get knocked down, I’ll get back up. I may not be the smartest person in the room, but I’ll strive to be the grittiest.
Part of the reason Angela wrote grit, at least from my understanding of the book, was how pervasive the idea of being gifted or talented was in her home. That, in fact, those who succeeded needed just that: talent, a gift, something that set them apart from the average person.
The importance of this is to issue a disclaimer: the theory itself of grit is, in the right sort of lighting, not too bad. In fact, if I were to stand in the same lighting, I too would print out a sticker, all caps ‘GRIT’ and stick it on my laptop. (For that added boost when the internet acts like the coddled American’s Jonathan Haidt holds so much disdain for).
What this theory [of Grit] says is that when you consider individuals in identical circumstances, what each achieves depends on just two things, talent and effort.
It says so right there in the book, but as Baldwin so eloquently put it ‘talent is insignificant. I know a lot of talented ruins.’ Angela is more or less making the same argument, that effort can come in and make up for the lack of talent. That if you put in the work consistently and deliberately you won’t need to fall back on talent. Talent in that frame can be rendered insignificant.
My basic argument with grit, is that the sun just does not, in a manner of speaking, also rise here. The wind does not blow at everyone’s back. Every idea, you must understand, has its audience. Before printing the t-shirts and changing our gods, we must ask ourselves, for whom was this written? And I can say to you with near-perfect certainty that this theory was not written for you (that is, you living in the ‘global south’).
Talent is how quickly your skills improve when you invest effort. Achievement is what happens when you take your acquired skills and use them. Of course, your opportunities—for example, having a great coach or teacher—matter tremendously, too, and maybe more than anything about the individual. My theory doesn’t address these outside forces, nor does it include luck. It’s about the psychology of achievement, but because psychology isn’t all that matters, it’s incomplete.
Angela acknowledges this, both in the book as we see and even on the podcast I mentioned earlier. She says that when she wrote Grit it was really with America in mind, or as I see it, with a country that has working systems. (Well, theoretically at least, let’s ignore the mess that was the Capitol mob and the even bigger mess of the raging misogynist they elected as President), Need I say it? I digress.
So the first problem? As it reads: grit is broken down into perseverance and passion which lead you to that biblical land of milk and honey: success. Yes, that simple. You can see why it caught on. Yet hidden (I hate to say it but I’m allowed one cliche per piece) in plain sight is a caveat: the equation is full proof as long as external factors are held constant. And here I drown, you drown, we all drown in question marks. What does it mean ‘if all external factors are held constant’?
Does it mean if a flood does not come in and lay your land to waste?
Or does it mean if you could hold off drought for a few lifetimes so all your cows don’t die of starvation in sing
Or does it mean, barring any potentially life threatening illnesses that could have you bound to a hospital bed in a nation with terrifyingly bad healthcare?
Yes, my eyebrow was raised while reading this because one cannot simply wish away ‘external factors’. One cannot simply hold them steady like water levels in an aquarium (or my friend’s fishbowl, yes an actual fishbowl). Or can you? Yes, yes you can. It’s called having systems that work.
A system that works. A system that works for you makes such a bold equation not only attractive, but entirely plausible. A system like that offers very much needed cushion against the larger and more ravaging of life’s trials. A system that works guards you against floods and droughts, or rather, guards you against their effects. A system that works has affordable, quality healthcare that lets you keep a modicum of dignity even while under treatment. A system that works doesn’t have officers targeting barely-men in slums for the sin of their birthplace.
So here it is: my instinctive and fully-confirmed repulsion with the word ‘grit’. At its heart: a well-intentioned theory on how to wring the most from life. But at its worst, an almost silent reprimand against those who cannot, in-fact, calmly blur out their externals and the weight that bears on their lives.
Coming back home? Anybody will tell you that there is no person more hardworking or with greater perseverance than the woman out in the village tiling the land. Having watched my grandmother do it, then my aunts and done my own painfully-educative stint planting, weeding and harvesting maize (which confirmed to me if I ever had a doubt, that I was not built for farming).
I can tell you that that is the very definition of grit. There is nothing redemptive to be said of it: it is back-breaking, repetitive labor that offers at the end of each cycle only the beginning of the next one. Well, maybe it’s not grit. Not grit if passion has to make an appearance in the equation. But passion, like other words, can mean many things, passion to avoid squalor is as good as any other kind of passion. You can be passionately avoidant of the straits of poverty. Or maybe the word passion rests in another ideal realm: one where we choose our lives, where, we happen to the world and the world does not happen to us.
Perseverance? Those women define it. Resilience? Embody it. But success? Oh my friend, if a life spent bent over maize and beans and pulling up weeds for shamefully low prices is success then sure. But I think not, not by any stretch of the imagination. It is only a long, sustained, borne-with-resignation existence.
Of course Angela is not to blame if 57 years post-independence we have propped up mediocrity after mediocrity that floods and droughts are still life altering events. She is hardly to blame if we have, complacently, allowed politicians-pretending-at-leadership to pilfer and plunder any seemingly lucrative resource for their own gain. Angela could hardly have counted for the question of failure of a proportion that by its existence mocks her elegant equation. It is hardly Angela’s fault.
The qualities that make up grit are all very well and good. They will guarantee that the work that you put out into the world is leaps above mediocrity, it could even be excellent. But success? Elsewhere, perhaps. In different lighting. I almost envy Angela in a way, that she can write of externals with a flippancy that makes them almost negligible. In a world like that, I too would be a grit believer. But here, now, grit? Not in my country.
Okay, that was a long-exhale of almost-cynicism. I attended a poetry workshop recently—interesting experience but a conversation for later— and one of the things I got from the lovely Ladan Osman was ‘don’t take all the beauty away’.
I like that. I think it’s true, that we shouldn’t take all the beauty away. So here’s something else I got from Prof. Duckworth.
The challenge of writing
Is to see your horribleness on page.
To see your terribleness
And then to go to bed.
And wake up the next day,
And take that horribleness and that terribleness,
And refine it,
And make it not so terrible and not so horrible.
And then to go to bed again.
And come the next day,
And refine it a little bit more,
And make it not so bad.
And then to go to bed the next day.
And do it again,
And make it maybe average.
And then one more time,
If you’re lucky,
Maybe you get to good.
And if you’ve done that,
That’s a success.
This was from an interview by Ta-Nehisi Coates of Between the World and Me. Which I must now admit I’ve not read yet and have no credible reason why other than that time is short and life is long. Or something close to that.
I like grit because it allows us a sense of control. I accept that I may be, at best, a finger’s breadth above mediocrity as a writer. Maybe not even that. But you know what I am? The type of writer to look through a draft 10, 20 times. So it doesn’t matter if the first pass is trash, after the 10th revision it may still be trash but best believe it will be shimmering, sparkling, glowing trash.
That for me is where the beauty of grit is. Not where it leads (it may lead nowhere) but in the way it allows us to master our own craft. To say that we took something rough and lumpy, kneaded, molded and worked it until before us it grew into something that allowed us to believe. Not in success perhaps, but in something better, or that we could be, as Baldwin puts it, better than we are.
I think I’m a long way from not wincing internally when someone uses ‘grit’ as advice. But I can, I think, comfortably smile and allow them their belief.
She believes in the Virgin the way I believe in the mountain,
though in one case the fog never lifts.
But each person stores his hope in a different place.
And I guess it is allowed.