Sunday, October 26, 2014

It's True: Grit.

In college, I never ascended above the status of second-best trumpet player. Lebanon Valley College was, and is, a very good music school that attracted exceptional music students from throughout the Northeast and beyond. Still, if second sounds pretty good to you, I'm going to guess that you're not a trumpet player. Despite having a certain amount of talent for it, and some measure of desire to win, I never quite made it to number one.

Department lore had it that the guy ahead of me would frequently practice trumpet for three hours a day. While I was known to sometimes hang out in the practice rooms for three hours at a time, I usually spent much of that time talking to a pretty girl if I could find one (I married one of them, so I maintain that I actually won in the end). It became prevailing wisdom that there were two top trumpet players in my class--one who worked, and one for whom things came easily. Contributing to this narrative, the other guy was dyslexic. For him the very act of reading music (or anything else) was significantly harder than for the rest of us. To celebrate the efforts he'd made to overcome his difficulties (or maybe because we were jerks), we would write his name backward (MOT NODDES) on the black board--sort of like a SmartBoard, but not as colorful--in the band room. We'd list it among the other pieces we were scheduled to play in that rehearsal, just to see if anyone would notice. This guy has since earned his doctorate and landed a professorship at a distinguished institution of higher learning. So, it seems that, despite obstacles, beating me at trumpet was to be the least of his accomplishments.

Speaking of talent (but otherwise unrelated), my high school had one of those families that probably exist in most communities. There were five children, all of whom were physically beautiful, athletically dazzling, engaging writers, and math and science whizzes. Consequently, they were star athletes, prima ballerinas, prom kings and queens, and valedictorians of their respective classes. Though each worked very hard in a variety of arenas, it was difficult to shake the perception that they were swimming in a different talent pool (did I mention that they also won races in pools?) from the rest of us. If they're starting to sound like the vampires in that book, maybe picture something like that, but not rich. Or douchey. Or homicidal.

They have followed a wide variety of degree and career paths, as well as some more eclectic pursuits. Among them are a few post-graduate degrees from Duke and MIT, a published doctoral thesis,  residencies at summer arts incubators, write-ups in the New York Times, and appointments to the faculties of fine institutions of higher learning. Conventional (i.e. boring) accomplishments like these are mixed with more eclectic triumphs, including a stint teaching Greek...in a Jesuit school...on a lovely little island; building an off-grid farmstead from the ground up; and playing in a rock band successful enough to play weekend nights(!), in bars with doors on the bathroom stalls(!!). None are doctors, or lawyers, or business executives, but any of the five could have been any of those things if they'd chosen to go that way.

It should therefore have come as no surprise when the youngest of the children recently become suddenly famous for her novel, The Girl in the Road. Unlike the smattering of self-published efforts that likely pollute your Facebook feeds, this is a real deal book with a reportedly six-figure advance, and an even more enviable accomplishment--being blurbed by Neil Gaiman (yes, that Neil Gaiman). 


I started to wonder how she did it, in case I ever complete my NaNoWriMo book. I've read lots of books that have made lots of money. I know lots of smart people, some of whom have written professionally (or amateurly with professional quality). Yet, I have never personally known anyone who reached the point at which he or she could conceivably make a living writing fiction. I toyed with the idea of asking her how she managed it, but luckily hadn’t followed through before she told us all. Slacker tendencies rescued me from yet another embarrassment.

In a piece originally posted to her blog, and later run as an article in the Washington Post, Monica detailed how she got so “lucky.” You are welcome to read it—in fact, avid Slacker Guide readers will wonder where the other 1,200 words are—but even more succinctly summarized: she developed the book over many years and then submitted it (along with a number of other pieces) over and over to agents, contests, publishers, festivals, and so on. Along the way was rejected nearly as often as she submitted. She enriches the story told by her spreadsheet by differentiating those rejections that involved some sort of personal interaction, like something scribbled in the margin of an otherwise boilerplate rejection letter--in other words, she parsed out the failures from the failures with an asterisk. Her rejection rate was something like 96% (not even close to a B-), and yet she has achieved tremendous success by any measure.

Monica’s book, not coincidentally, is clearly the output of a worker. It is the product of extensive research, a background in science (a graduate degree at MIT, no less), and deep and extensive rewrites. She describes the technology of the story's time period in such vivid detail and technological plausibility that you sometimes wonder if you could stop by Best Buy and pick up a few of them. Monica demands similar work of her readers: two protagonists with nearly identical names; two seemingly unrelated story lines—rich with back-stories of their own; and a Tolkien –esk geographical footprint that makes Middle Earth seem like a suburban backyard. Okay, Monica’s universe actually exists, but it’s all the way over there on the back side of the globe. Who can be expected to know their way around those places?

Monica's Washington Post piece is a stern reminder that her success wasn’t merely the result of her considerable talents. As previously mentioned, if her family's potential were translated into money it would be in the range of a moderately sized hedge fund. She was also blessed with the flexibility to travel for research (and eat food, and live indoors) while enduring all of those rejections. In the end, though, it seems she succeeded by way of that ever-so-trendy personal attribute: Grit.

We’re talking about Grit a lot in education these days. There are studies that demonstrate that students who can pass the Marshmallow Test, or are willing to work longer on math problems that are impossible, experience outsized success in their lives. Look it up if you want (here, for example), but studies show that Grit is a better predictor of all sorts of measures of success than the SAT, or even I.Q. Once they develop a standardized test for Grit we may finally be permitted to drop all of the others. Therefore, it would seem a simple matter of installing Grit as an optional plugin to students' operating systems. However, it would fly in the face of the entire concept of The Slacker’s Guide to School to allow this become a “try harder” post, so let’s see what we can do.

I submit that Grit, like height, is partially something you’re born with (or not). It is heresy to suggest that hard work comes from anything other than superior moral fiber, but why is it that we believe that hard work, and moral fiber for that matter, aren’t subjected to the same kind of have- and have-not distribution as all of God’s other gifts?

People with talent are sometimes defensive about how their talents contributed to their success. They resist being called geniuses or prodigies (see also: here, here, and here). MacArthur Fellowships are more often called "'genius' grants" than "genius grants," and when did you last hear the word "savant" without its prefix "idiot"? The truth is, while people of enormous talent sometimes work very hard, sometimes they don't (which is, sort of, the thesis statement for this blog). If you want to see someone who has accomplished great things freak out, complement him on his talent. If you want to see her truly lose her mind, suggest that her very capacity for hard work is in itself a talent. If his/her talents include the language arts, you can achieve similar results by using the word "literally" figuratively (see also: here).

I'm inclined to do it anyway--maybe because of all of that, to tell the truth. Thinking of Grit as a talent moves it out of the virtue column and in to the personal attribute column. We do have some control over our personal attributes--I've spent twenty years trying to convince myself that I'm a morning person, for example--but we are always working in concert with, or in conflict with, our natural tendencies. Smart, talented people work from a certain advantage. Stick-to-it-ive people from a certain advantage. It may be more possible to escape the powerful Slacker genes, than those of diminutive height, good looks, husky build, or fabulous hair, but we're not all working with the same raw materials. Taking note of our gifts and deficits isn't license to never improve, but it may be helpful in recognizing our own personal starting line.