On grit, repentance, and changing one’s mind

In our First Year Seminar at Hanover College, we spend the start of the fall semester with our first-year students discussing the merit of “grit,” often assigning a TED Talk with Angela Duckworth. Our hope for the students is to provide them with an alternative framework to perfectionism, suggesting that they can interpret the mistakes and failures of their academic career as part of a “long game,” or as a necessary step in their growth as human beings.

Duckworth has been criticized for her “grit” work, citing the deceit in the Noble American Lie that “hard work, endurance and drive” will somehow always pay off, despite our many systems of oppression and absurdly unequal distribution of opportunity. In a recent podcast with Brene Brown, however, Duckworth has noted that most of the criticism she has seen of her work is better aimed at what we have thought she has said, or in our meritocratic interpretation of her studies. From her own perspective, the development of “grit” is the capacity to persevere through mistakes, failures, and changed mind(s). It might mean determining that something is clearly not for us, and changing path(s) accordingly, rather than “forging ahead” towards something that will bring us neither joy nor life: “hard work” in this instance is certainly not valorized for its own sake.

In my own understanding of “grit” as I have attempted to share the concept with students, I wonder if it might also be framed as the capacity to acknowledge inadequate patterns of thought, or to jump off into the deep sea of theological content, to repent from where one has been. If we return to its Greek origins, to “repent” is an act of “turning around,” or determining to take a different course than what has been done before. For those identifying as followers of Jesus of Nazareth, this is at the heart of vocational life. 

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Reflections on the Camino: Letting Go of Expectations

The mountain village of O Cebreiro full of pilgrims

As sociologist Tim Clydesdale’s research has shown, one of the most promising and important outcomes of students’ engagement with the concept of vocation is the grounding of idealism through the preparation to face setbacks and reality checks. In other words, students develop what Clydesdale calls “holy grit.” Perhaps it doesn’t hurt, then, for those of us working in the field to encounter some of those setbacks and reality checks ourselves.

Going into the Camino, I had my own idealistic vision of what the trip would be. I had trained as much as one can during a wet, cold Wisconsin spring, so I saw myself hiking swiftly and happily throughout the countryside. I imagined walking alongside students, literally, as they pondered life and unpacked their journey across northern Spain. I would also take time, of course, for my own spiritual reflections on life’s big questions.

I should have known that all would not go as planned.

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Resilience and “holy grit”

EmotionalSuccesscover.jpg
Published in January 2018

A recent piece in the Chronicle (“We’re teaching grit in the wrong way,” March 18, 2018) suggests that by focusing on the development of self-control, we are missing the importance of the cultivation of virtues such as compassion and gratitude as these may go further (or is it deeper?) in helping students achieve the needed “grit” to succeed in college and beyond. The author, David DeSteno, is a professor of psychology at Northeastern University who works on “the science that underlies human virtue,” and the piece seems to promote the key claims of his new book, Emotional Success: The Power of Gratitude, Compassion, and Pride (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018). Not surprisingly, given his discipline, DeSteno’s analysis emphasizes the psychology of self-control, yet in nudging us to consider gratitude and compassion something even more fundamental (or is it more encompassing?) seems to be missing. In DeSteno’s hands, developing strong interpersonal relationships and the ability to cooperate helps ensure “long-term success.” Students will have increased perseverance as well as a reduction in stress and loneliness and “enhanced well-being” when they can work toward a long-term goal.

Does the content or substance of the goal matter? What are they working toward? And why? Continue reading