Tuesday, May 17, 2016


“The three great essentials to achieve anything worthwhile are, first, hard work; second, stick-to-itiveness; third, common sense.”

                                                                                     Thomas Edison 

The word "grit" is trending these days.  It describes a quality Americans have admired for hundreds of years.

President Obama either revived the term or ratified its revival in his 2013 State of the Union address:

"Tonight, thanks to the grit and determination of the American 
people, there is much progress to report."

Since then, educators have been talking about how essential it is to cultivate grit in elementary school students.

Newspaper columnists extol grit as the quality that distinguishes successful people from unsuccessful ones, usually without bothering to define success.

Then, of course, there was a TED talk about grit.

This month came the release of a much-anticipated book titled, "GRIT: The Power of Passion and Perseverance," by psychologist Angela Duckworth.  And yes, it does have the imprimatur of Malcolm Gladwell.

I recently posted on theidiosyncratist.tumblr.com an article about the development of NFL quarterbacks; an essential ingredient, after talent, seems to be two generations of familial grit.

There is much to admire in people who have developed habits of rigor and perseverance -- sometimes to the point of stubbornness -- that allow them to keep going through difficult moments or years and in the face of opposition.

The Passion Thing

My only quibble here is the association of "passion" with grit.  To me, passion is a personal obsession.  It can involve lust, an absorbing hobby, a career, a field of research.

Grit, on the other hand, is a personality characteristic that is developed and observed even in the mundane matters of life.  Grit can come in handy if you have an abusive boss at work or if you volunteer to do menial tasks for a worthy charity, but passion not so much.

Think of career military members who rise in the ranks.  Such success certainly requires grit, but I bet soldiers and officers would be more likely to speak of duty or commitment to their units than passion.

I'll digress and go a little further here: I think we're generally sloppy with the P-word.

A supermarket in my town promotes itself as "Passionate about food," a phrase that always makes me want to chuckle.  From the mission statement:

It’s very simple, but it inspires everything we do. From the rarest foods to 
the freshest produce, we constantly look for the finest items—specially chosen 
for our customers. Every trip to ___ is a chance for you to experience 
the sights, sounds and aromas of something special.

Can a company be passionate?  The store is perfectly fine, but mostly it is a place that charges an extra couple bucks for a carton of milk.  "Passionate about profits" may be the more apt phrase.  

Back to Grit 

The word "grit" has been with us for centuries.  It is used to describe everything from road gravel to the speck of sand in an oyster that develops over many years into a pearl.

The quality of grit may be the most ingrained trait in the idealized American character.  Its elements of personal responsibility, initiative and honor have been with us since the Pilgrims.

I don't know when we started using the word "grit" to describe those qualities, but I did find it in a 1907 article from a publication for millers, people who ground whole grains into edible flour.  It may be that millers of the day developed a respect for grit, the adversary they had to demolish to produce a salable product. 

Here, from the article:  

     It certainly requires grit even to make a start to become a miller, and the further one goes 
     on the milling road the more grit is required. It requires real grit for a young man to go into 
     a dusty mill to work twelve hours a day at oiling, dusting, sweeping, packing, sewing and 
     the multitude of other duties that fall to the lot of the miller's apprentice.  But if he went 
     there for the purpose of learning the trade, he will have to dig up all the grit in his nature, 
     and dig it up many times over, to enable him to rough it out, for the trade is not learned in 
     a few days, weeks, months, or even years, and a fellow must have grit if he ever expects to 
     be a miller.  That is the way we all learned and that is the way we must all learn. . . .

     Grit is the essential trait in everyone from the time he leaves the cradle until he reaches the
     grave, and without it no one can succeed in any calling in life.  When one starts out to
     acquire an education, it requires grit to get it, and if more people had more grit there would
     be more educated people.  We often hear people speak of a certain man as being a 'self-made
     man,' which means nothing more nor less than that he possessed grit.  He had the courage to
     overcome obstacles and to make himself a man in spite of them.  This courage and
     determination to succeed in spite of all hindrances is, when summed up for quick expression,
     simply grit.

Next:  Grits

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