Brain Pickings

Grit and the Secret of Success

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How to cultivate the character quality that predicts excellence more than any other.

“Inspiration is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work,” Chuck Close scoffed. “A self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood,” Tchaikovsky admonished. “Show up, show up, show up, and after a while the muse shows up, too,” Isabel Allende urged. “You have to finish things,” Neil Gaiman advised aspiring writers. But while our cultural history may brim with creators who intuited the importance of doggedness in success, it wasn’t until recently that psychologists were able to ascertain the science behind this intuitive observation. We now know that genius-level excellence takes enormous dedication and that the impetus to reboot from autopilot is crucial to reaching such a level, but arguably the most significant work in the field comes from pioneering psychologist Angela Duckworth, who came up with the notion of “grit” — that very doggedness essential for success — and went on to receive a MacArthur Genius grant for her research.

In a recent success-themed episode of NPR’s TED Radio Hour with Guy Raz — which, by the way, is absolutely spectacular and well worth subscribing — Duckworth challenges us to reconsider our culture’s definitions of “success” and shares her findings on the character trait that appears most essential for attaining it. Duckworth’s work is a centerpiece of Paul Tough’s remarkable and incredibly important book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character (public library), and is also a prominent part of Sarah Lewis’s fantastic meditation on creativity, mastery, and the gift of failure.

Grit is the disposition to pursue very long-term goals with passion and perseverance. And I want to emphasize the stamina quality of grit. Grit is sticking with things over the long term and then working very hard at it.

Grit is living life like it’s a marathon, not a sprint.

A few years ago, I started studying grit in the Chicago public schools. I asked thousands of high school juniors to take grit questionnaires, and then waited around more than a year to see who would graduate.

[…]

Half of the questions on the grit questionnaire are about perseverance, right. “I am a hard worker.” “I finish whatever I begin.” The scale is five points. It goes from “very much like me” to “not at all like me.” “Setbacks don’t discourage me.” “I don’t give up after disappointment.” And “I’m diligent.” The more you say, that’s very much like me, then the higher your grit score. Turns out that grittier kids were significantly more likely to graduate even when I matched them on every characteristic I could measure. Things like family income, standardized achievement test scores, even how safe kids felt when they were at school.

One of Duckworth’s most important points, from both a practical and big-picture point of view, has to do with her advice to parents and educators about cultivating grit in kids — she points to Carol Dweck’s seminal insights about “growth” vs. “fixed” mindsets as the key:

So far, the best idea I’ve heard about building grit in kids is something called growth mindset. This is an idea developed at Stanford University by Carol Dweck, and it is the belief that the ability to learn is not fixed. That it can change with your effort. Dr. Dweck has shown that when kids read and learn about the brain and how it changes and grows in response to challenge, they’re much more likely to persevere when they fail because they don’t believe that failure is a permanent condition.

Dive into Dweck’s pioneering work here, and see How Children Succeed for the broader implications of this research, not only in cultivating gritty kids but also in our everyday grownup lives.

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March 28, 1941: Virginia Woolf’s Suicide Letter and Its Cruel Misinterpretation in the Media

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A humbling reminder that self-righteousness is the enemy of compassion and judging another human being’s private struggle is a disgrace to our own humanity.

On March 28, 1941, shortly after the devastating dawn of WWII, Virginia Woolf filled her overcoat pockets with rocks and walked into the River Ouse behind her house never to emerge alive. A relapse of the all-consuming depression she had narrowly escaped in her youth had finally claimed her life. She left behind a remarkable body of work — from her poignant diaries to her magnificent essays to her little-known children’s books to “the longest and most charming love letter in literature” — and a cohort of heartbroken friends, but the most stirring thing she left behind was her suicide letter to her husband Leonard:

Dearest,

I feel certain I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don’t think two people could have been happier till this terrible disease came. I can’t fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can’t even write this properly. I can’t read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that — everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer.

I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been.

What made the letter especially heartbreaking, however, wasn’t just that it embodied so excruciatingly modernity’s tragic epidemic but also that its fate reflected the ugliest aspects of media and journalism. In Afterwords: Letters on the Death of Virginia Woolf (public library), scholar Sybil Oldfield notes that after Woolf’s letter was made public, members of the British press took it upon themselves to bestow upon the beloved author a last judgment — a painfully ungenerous one. On April 27, a month after Woolf’s death, The Sunday Times ran the following self-righteous evisceration by a Mrs. Kathleen Hicks, wife of the Bishop of Lincoln:

Sir, — I read in your issue of Sunday last that the coroner at the inquest on Mrs. Virginia Woolf said that she was “undoubtedly much more sensitive than most people to the general beastliness of things happening in the world to-day.” What right has anyone to make such an assertion?

If he really said this, he belittles those who are hiding their agony of mind, suffering bravely and carrying on unselfishly for the sake of others. Many people, possibly even more “sensitive,” have lost their all and seen appalling happenings, yet they take their part nobly in this fight for God against the devil.

Where are our ideals of love and faith? And what shall we all be if we listen to and sympathize with this sort of “I cannot carry on?”

Mrs. Hicks’s ideals of love and faith, apparently, did not include empathy. Upon reading this, Leonard Woolf was so appalled that he immediately sent to the newspaper an emotionally charged fact-check rebuttal:

I feel that I should not silently allow to remain on record that Virginia Woolf committed suicide because she could not face the “terrible times” through which all of us are going. For this is not true… Then newspapers give her words as:

“I feel I cannot go on any longer in these terrible times.”

This is not what she wrote: the words which she wrote are:

“I feel that I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times.”

She had had a mental breakdown about twenty-five years ago; the old symptoms began to return about three weeks before she took her life, and she felt that this time she would not recover. Like everyone else, she felt the general strain of the war, and the return of her illness was partly due to that strain. But the words of her letter and everything which she has ever said prove that she took her life, not because she could not “carry on,” but because she felt she was going mad again and would not this time recover.

But, devastatingly, even Leonard’s rebuttal, too, was twisted out of context. Published under the already misleading headline “I Cannot Carry On” — the then-version of clickbait — the article replaced the phrase “those terrible times,” Virginia’s reference to her first acute bout of depression in her youth, with “these terrible times,” changing the meaning completely and making it a reference to World War II, an interpretation that aligned quite conveniently with the media’s spin of Woolf’s suicide as an act of unpatriotic cowardice rather than a personal tragedy. To make matters even more lamentable, the Times reprinted the misquotation several days later — the then-version of reblogging or retweeting without critical analysis and fact-checking. Similar attacks, some of which were even unleashed on Woolf’s posthumously published work, continued in the press for more than a year.

The incident is particularly unsettling for two reasons: At its root is a testament to what a cruel and indiscriminate predator depression is, capable of consuming even humanity’s greatest minds, yet the uncompassionate response illustrates just how poorly we understand the condition. Above all, however, embedded in the media’s treatment of Virginia’s suicide is a grotesque reminder that the only thing more morally repugnant than passing judgment on another human being’s private struggle and inner world — than choosing self-righteousness over compassionate understanding — is doing so publicly, especially as a currency of tabloidism. What a spectacular failing of the awareness that it’s far more rewarding to understand than to be right. One can only hope this awareness has evolved for us, both as a culture and as individuals, since Woolf’s time.

Afterwords is a moving read in its entirety — sample it with these letters of condolence from some of Woolf’s famous friends, including T.S. Eliot, Edith Sitwell, E.M. Foster, Elizabeth Bowen, and H.G. Wells, then see Patti Smith’s moving remembrance of Virginia.

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How to Criticize with Kindness: Philosopher Daniel Dennett on the Four Steps to Arguing Intelligently

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“Just how charitable are you supposed to be when criticizing the views of an opponent?”

“In disputes upon moral or scientific points,” Arthur Martine counseled in his magnificent 1866 guide to the art of conversation, “let your aim be to come at truth, not to conquer your opponent. So you never shall be at a loss in losing the argument, and gaining a new discovery.” Of course, this isn’t what happens most of the time when we argue, both online and off, but especially when we deploy the artillery of our righteousness from behind the comfortable shield of the keyboard. That form of “criticism” — which is really a menace of reacting rather than responding — is worthy of Mark Twain’s memorable remark that “the critic’s symbol should be the tumble-bug: he deposits his egg in somebody else’s dung, otherwise he could not hatch it.” But it needn’t be this way — there are ways to be critical while remaining charitable, of aiming not to “conquer” but to “come at truth,” not to be right at all costs but to understand and advance the collective understanding.

Daniel Dennett (b. March 28, 1942), whom artificial intelligence pioneer Marvin Minsky has called “our best current philosopher” and “the next Bertrand Russell,” poses an apt question that probes some of the basic tendencies and dynamics of today’s everyone-is-a-critic culture: “Just how charitable are you supposed to be when criticizing the views of an opponent?”

In Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking (public library) — the same fantastic volume that gave us Dennett on the dignity and art-science of making mistakes — he offers what he calls “the best antidote [for the] tendency to caricature one’s opponent”: a list of rules formulated decades ago by the legendary social psychologist and game theorist Anatol Rapoport, best-known for originating the famous tit-of-tat strategy of game theory. Dennett synthesizes the steps:

How to compose a successful critical commentary:

  1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.
  2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
  3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
  4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

If only the same code of conduct could be applied to critical commentary online, particularly to the indelible inferno of comments.

But rather than a naively utopian, Pollyannaish approach to debate, Dennett points out this is actually a sound psychological strategy that accomplishes one key thing: It transforms your opponent into a more receptive audience for your criticism or dissent, which in turn helps advance the discussion.

Compare and contrast with Susan Sontag’s three steps to refuting any argument, and treat yourself to Dennett’s wholly excellent Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking.

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