Grit, as it pertains to behavior and motivation, has been a popular buzzword in the education world as of late. Perhaps the reason that it has taken center stage is the fact that today’s adolescents are overwhelmingly lacking in grit. Merriam-Webster defines grit as “firmness of character; indomitable spirit.” Grit, however, is much more than sheer determination. Furthermore, grit should not be misconstrued as a trait of stubbornness. This characteristic is substantially more complex than the unwillingness to accept failure, and yet, it has a great deal to do with one’s failures. As Angela Duckworth, who’s garnered a following after her TED talk on grit, claims: grit should be defined as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals.”
With such an emphasis on grit, or rather, the absence of it among today’s youth, it is an essential topic of discussion for parents. What does grit look like? What is the danger of an absence of grit? Since it is such a crucial attribute, how can we ensure that our children and teens develop grit?
A world without grit:
If we were to describe today’s young people in one word, including my own fellow millennials, our generation and those that have followed could be considered “soft.” Coddled, entitled, and sheltered also come to mind when I think about young people today. Some may not know it, but this “softness”—this inability to persevere or handle setbacks—is indicative of a lack of grit.
The unfortunate (and terrifying) truth is that many of today’s recent high school graduates, though perfectly capable applicants on paper, are abysmally ill-equipped to thrive on their own at the university level. Most likely, much of primary school was smoke and mirrors—students were given an A for effort, innumerable opportunities to reassess or resubmit assignments, and gratuitous applause. While it is important to reference the value of self-esteem, the pendulum may have swung too far in the direction of sensitivity.
Parents need to be aware of this lack of grit, because teachers, professors, and employers certainly are. What we are seeing now is that the slightest difficulty, obstacle, or discouragement renders today’s teens completely helpless—any effort or motivation that they may have had for their end goal becomes dashed by fears of failure the moment they sense anything less than perfection on the horizon. Teens are so used to unwarranted praise or the metaphorical “participation trophy” that they are incapable of picking themselves up by their bootstraps, getting back on the horse, dusting off to try again, and any other euphemism alluding to grit. We are raising the “1-and-done” generation, who would rather sell themselves short than experience a nanosecond of discomfort, failure, or rejection.
Without grit, teens become young adults that, while dutiful followers, will never risk failure for a leadership opportunity. They will choose predictable or comfortable stability over spirited, or self-determined, trailblazing every time. They will blame any setback or perceived rejection on the “powers that be” or anything outside of their control. They will consider any criticism as an attack, as opposed to an opportunity to reflect and grow with that knowledge. Students lacking grit become adults who only explore inside the box, and only play when the odds are in their favor.
One of the most “gritty” writers said it best:
“Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way…It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.” J.K. Rowling
Read on to find out more about the correlation between grit and failure, as well as tips for encouraging grit at home and in school in Part II of Developing Grit: A Guide for Parents.