Angela Duckworth is an American psychologist and winner of a MacArthur Fellowship. In a highly viewed TED talk, Duckworth defines grit as a combination of perseverance and passion for long-term goals. We might also think of it as a form of bravery or courage to face what is difficult: a difficult conversation, a difficult decision, a difficult challenge.
Grit has become a popular word that is foundational to success and has made its way into the language of education. You want a kid with grit in your classroom. You want to teach grit so that kids learn how to pick themselves up and develop the resilience to face a life that can be, at times, punctuated with disappointment. It's not about getting a bad grade that limits your love of subject or capacity to do well in a class. It's about getting that bad grade and then opening the book again and again. You may never develop subject mastery, but you will gain something more important: determination. It will serve you as one of your best life-skills.
"What matters most in a child's development," according to author Paul Tough in How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, "is not how much information we can stuff into her brain in the first few years. What matters, instead, is whether we are able to help her develop a very different set of qualities, a list that includes persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit and self-confidence." Tough continues elsewhere, "Pure IQ is stubbornly resistant to improvement after about age eight. But executive functions and the ability to handle stress and manage strong emotions can be improved, sometimes dramatically, well into adolescence and even adulthood."
There are many anecdotes about celebrities and writers and athletes who fail and fail again and then get up and get up again. They give us hope and inspiration, even though they may also frustrate us because they force us to question our own attitudes to failure. Do we have what it takes to fall down and stand up and will this attitude to rejection help us eventually reach success or just mire us in depression and a sense of personal failure?
Tucked in the book of Proverbs, a master text of wisdom, we find a small pearl. "A righteous person can fall down seven times but rises again..." The verse is speaking not about a star or a larger-than-life-personality but someone known for personal piety. In the arena of spirituality, people can also fall multiple times. Those who aspire to goodness, to righteousness, to kindness, to softness, to holiness, to intimacy with God may have the best of intentions and still fail and possibly fail spectacularly because they set the bar very high.
The modern Israeli compendium of interpretation, Olam Ha-Tanakh, sees this verse as following he generally optimistic strand in the book of Proverbs that supports the eventual rewarding of the righteous. Piety does not always provide immediate spiritual gratification. With ascent comes descent, often multiple times. But know that reward will come in the end, and God will be near, echoing a verse from Psalms: "If God delights in a person, he will make his steps firm. Even if he stumbles, he will not fall, for the Lord will hold him up by the hand" (37:23-24).
The text uses seven as the number of times this righteous person trips up. Seven is a number we usually think of in the framework of holiness. It is a number representing perfection and completion. Could this verse be suggesting that there is something almost holy about resilience and the willingness to fail and fail well? Faith involves grit. Mastery over the self involves grit. Doing good and doing right involves grit.
Maybe if we realize that the things that matter most require vigilance and resilience, we will come to see the act of falling as an educational blessing. Maybe we'll even come to love the fact that we can stumble and get up again. Actor Daniel Day-Lewis seems to feel that: "I like things that make you grit your teeth. I like tucking my chin in and sort of leading into the storm. I like that feeling. I like it a lot."