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Grit and the Secret of Success

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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The Taste Gap: Ira Glass on the Secret of Creative Success, Animated in Living Typography

“The most important possible thing you can do is do a lot of work.”

The question of what makes someone successful has occupied some of history’s greatest minds. For Alexander Graham Bell, success was bound to befall the person “who carefully advances step by step, with his mind becoming wider and wider.” For Henry David Thoreau, success was a matter of living with presence. According to scientists, it belongs to those who are already winners as success breeds success, and psychologists attribute it to grit. But some of the greatest wisdom on the subject comes from none other than the public face of public radio.

Many moons ago, I featured a short and lovely kinetic typography animation of Ira Glass on the secret of success in creative work, in which he offers indispensable advice that puts in more poetic terms what psychologists call the “growth mindset” essential for success. Now, photographer and visual storyteller Daniel Sax has adapted Glass’s timeless wisdom in this beautiful short film a year in the making, using living typography to illustrate Glass’s words. The result is doubly fantastic.

Nobody tells people who are beginners — and I really wish somebody had told this to me — is that all of us who do creative work … we get into it because we have good taste. But it’s like there’s a gap, that for the first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good, OK? It’s not that great. It’s really not that great. It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not quite that good. But your taste — the thing that got you into the game — your taste is still killer, and your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you, you know what I mean?

A lot of people never get past that phase. A lot of people at that point, they quit. And the thing I would just like say to you with all my heart is that most everybody I know who does interesting creative work, they went through a phase of years where they had really good taste and they could tell what they were making wasn’t as good as they wanted it to be — they knew it fell short, it didn’t have the special thing that we wanted it to have.

And the thing I would say to you is everybody goes through that. And for you to go through it, if you’re going through it right now, if you’re just getting out of that phase — you gotta know it’s totally normal.

And the most important possible thing you can do is do a lot of work — do a huge volume of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week, or every month, you know you’re going to finish one story. Because it’s only by actually going through a volume of work that you are actually going to catch up and close that gap. And the work you’re making will be as good as your ambitions. It takes a while, it’s gonna take you a while — it’s normal to take a while. And you just have to fight your way through that, okay?

Complement with some equally fantastic advice on courage and the creative life.

Quipsologies; portrait of Ira Glass by Stuart Mullenberg

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The Art of Centering: Potter and Poet M.C. Richards on What She Learned at the Wheel About Non-Dualism, Creative Wholeness, and the Poetry of Personhood

“Centering is a verb… an ongoing process… a way of balancing, a spiritual resource in times of conflict, an imagination… an alchemical vessel, a retort, which bears an integration of purposes, an integration of levels of consciousness.”

The Art of Centering: Potter and Poet M.C. Richards on What She Learned at the Wheel About Non-Dualism, Creative Wholeness, and the Poetry of Personhood

Looking back on the first thirteen years of Brain Pickings, I termed my thirteen most important life-learnings “fluid reflections on keeping a solid center.” But how exactly do we locate our center and master its osmotic balance between fluidity and solidity?

That is what poet, potter, and manual philosopher M.C. Richards (July 13, 1916–September 10, 1999) explores in her 1964 counterculture classic Centering: In Pottery, Poetry, and the Person (public library) — an inspired inquiry into “how we may seek to bring universe into a personal wholeness,” “to feel the whole in every part,” which popularized the now-commonplace notion of “both… and” as the non-dualistic, parallelistic alternative to the dualistic, perpendicularist “either… or” mindset.

After graduating from U.C. Berkeley, Richards was offered a tenure-track position at the University of Chicago, but was soon disillusioned with the hyperfocus on standardized achievement, competitive and vacant. Just after World War II, just before her thirtieth birthday, she made a radical leap of faith and joined the English faculty of the experimental Black Mountain College.

Mary Caroline Richards at Black Mountain College (Getty Research Institute. Photographer unknown.)

One of the school’s most beloved teachers, she founded Black Mountain Press with her students, teaching them the fundamentals of typesetting and publishing, and soon rose to head of faculty. She forged close friendships with John Cage, Merce Cunningham, and the famed Black Mountain Poets. Many decades before neurologist Oliver Sacks extolled the healing power of gardening, she lived with mentally handicapped adults in a working community based on biodynamic agriculture — the precursor to organic gardening and farming.

In the 1950s, she returned to Black Mountain College not as a teacher but as a student — of pottery. The beautiful consonance she found between her two arts inspired a larger inquiry into the creative process, in a work of art and in the work of personhood.

M.C. Richards: Four Virgins of the Elk Dance (Courtesy of Black Mountain College)

Governed by her conviction that “poets are not the only poets” and that artists don’t leave their art at the studio, Richards explores the poetry of personhood through the metaphor of centering, drawn from the craftsmanship of pottery — a potter brings the clay to the center of the wheel, then begins the process of giving the amorphous spinning mass the desired shape. She writes:

Centering is a verb. It is an ongoing process… Centering is not a model, but a way of balancing, a spiritual resource in times of conflict, an imagination. It seems in certain lights to be an alchemical vessel, a retort, which bears an integration of purposes, an integration of levels of consciousness. It can be called to, like a divine ear.

[…]

Centering… is the discipline of bringing in (i.e., of sympathy or empathy) rather than of leaving out. Of saying “Yes, Yes” to what we behold. To what is holy and to what is unbearable. But my experience tells me now that there is an important crucial stage of saying Yes to a No. For resistance also must be embraced. Not only accepting resistance but practicing it.

This non-dualistic assent to other universe in all of its expressions is at the center of centering; it is also the lever by which we turn the negative into a generative place, in our individual experience and our collective aspirations. Richards writes:

The hardest and most rewarding lesson has been to learn to experience antipathy objectively, with warmth. For antipathy follows a gesture of separating, and the goal, which is to be both separate and connected, requires that one move inwardly in opposite directions. Toward self-definition and toward community. Toward ethical individualism and toward social justice. It is this fusing of the opposites that Centering enables.

[…]

In centering the clay on the potter’s wheel, one centers down, yes, and then one immediately centers up! Down and up, wide and narrow, letting focus bear within it an expanded consciousness and letting a widened awareness (empathetic) have the commitment to detail of a focused attention. Not “either… or,” but “both… and.” You can perhaps feel the inner movement of a Centering consciousness that plays dynamically in the tides of inner and outer, self and other, in an instinctive hope toward wholeness.

Art by Bhajju Shyam from Creation — a collection of illustrated origin myths from Indian folklore.

In its active practice of non-dualism, centering is thus a deepening of our understanding of reality, consonant with Nobel-winning physicist Frank Wilczek’s observation that “you can recognize a deep truth by the feature that its opposite is also a deep truth.” And yet, Richards cautions, centering must not become an item on the checklist of existential achievement — the moment it ceases to be a practice and becomes an object of striving, it becomes subject to corruption and distortion:

“Center” and “centered” have come to be fairly widely used. They tend to imply a connection with the navel, with one-pointedness, on the way to bliss, realization, and inner peace. But these are not the goals of the Centering process. For it is a continual engagement with experience, not a withdrawal from it. It begins with pain and ends with paradox. It wrestles with evil and the daimonic as it does with angels and repentance. It is an activity of consciousness, not a stage of spiritual achievement.

[…]

I have found that Centering, like clay, … bears the future within it. For it contains a space for ongoing development and differentiation. In other words, it proves to be an open image, a vessel, holding a content that is life itself.

Art by Olivier Tallec from This Is a Poem That Heals Fish by Jean-Pierre Simeón.

Writing in the early 1960s — an era marked by the scar tissue of WWII and the new-growth optimism of civil rights and women’s emancipation, of space exploration and the decoding of life’s helix — Richards sees in the notion of centering an emblem of cultural evolution, as relevant to her own time as it is, after a half-century turn of the cultural wheel, to ours:

We find on so many fronts now, political and artistic as well as religious and economic, an imaginative thrust that goes not toward competitive violence and adversary motifs, but toward new social forms. Imagination is more and more recognized as a form of cognition.

Richards defines the creative mind as the “mind that makes connections between things ordinarily thought to be different” — an embodiment of “the highest human capacity”: the capacity for metaphor. Echoing the stunning speech on poetry, power, and freedom that John F. Kennedy delivered in 1963, just as she was finishing her book, she writes:

This is what fires our hearts, is it not? To feel ourselves free to love and to live. Unbullied and unbullying. Unhaunted by a conscience made guilty by social pressures and expectations. To act from source freely.

The moment we begin to act freely, we come into contact with the unknown — contact that can be a shattering shock if we are hardened, or a shape-shifting revelation if we are fluid enough to embody new forms of understanding, of meaning, of being. Centering thus becomes the locus of fluidity:

Centering… brings us what we don’t already know… We may find, yes, that yesterday is over, and we do not perpetuate old confusions. We do not cling to the savagery of nationalisms, or the shame we feel for being as we are. We stand on the shore of an ocean and the pure wind blows us fresh and we wake out of an anguish of inner conflict into a deep breath that lets us rise to our feet and in a new levity we dance. It could be said that fidelity to the processes of Centering is a path to full breathing, to a balance willingly at risk.

[…]

The deeper we go into these realms, the more contact we make with another’s reality. The sharper the sense of pain and bliss as they interweave through the heartbreak and luck of life, the more the line between self and other may dissolve.

Art by Lia Halloran for The Universe in Verse. Available as a print.

In a sentiment evocative of Wendell Berry’s short and lovely poem about how to be a poet and a complete human being, Richards considers what drew her to the metaphor of centering and what it reveals about the poet in each of us:

I am an odd bird in both academic and craft worlds, perhaps because I am a poet, and thus, by calling, busy with seeing the similarities between things ordinarily thought to be different, busy with feeling the sense of relatedness grow through my limbs like a smoke-tree wafting and fusing its images, busy with the innerness of outerness, eating life in its layers like a magic cake made of silica sounds shapes and temperatures and all the things that appear to be separated stacked together in transparencies of color, and it is perhaps my vocation to swallow it whole. The expanding universe. The resilient appetite. The continuous play. The changing, changeful person, mobile and intact, finding his way on.

[…]

For life — I am sure of this — is not transforming energy, but transforming person. Energy is the means. Being is not what but whom. It is Presence in whom and before whom we show ourselves. Let us ride our lives like natural beasts, like tempests, like the bounce of a ball or the slightest ambiguous hovering of ash, the drift of scent: let us stick to those currents that can carry us, membering them with our souls. Our world personifies us, we know ourselves by it. Let us then speak to each other in our most intimate concern.

Centering is an intimate, universal, revelatory read in its timeless totality. Complement it with Susan Sontag’s astute distinction between being in the middle and being in the center, then revisit Richards’s close friend and collaborator John Cage on the inner life of artists and their contemporary E.E. Cummings on what it really means to be an artist.

BP

Marcus Aurelius on Embracing Mortality and the Key to Living with Presence

“The longest-lived and those who will die soonest lose the same thing. The present is all that they can give up, since that is all you have, and what you do not have, you cannot lose.”

“When you realize you are mortal you also realize the tremendousness of the future. You fall in love with a Time you will never perceive,” the great Lebanese poet, painter, and philosopher Etel Adnan wrote in her beautiful meditation on time, self, impermanence, and transcendence. It is a sentiment of tremendous truth and simplicity, yet tremendously difficult for the mind to metabolize — we remain material creatures, spiritually sundered by the fact of our borrowed atoms, which we will each return to the universe, to the stardust that made us, despite our best earthly efforts. Physicist Alan Lightman contemplated this paradox in his lyrical essay on our longing for permanence in a universe of constant change: “It is one of the profound contradictions of human existence that we long for immortality, indeed fervently believe that something must be unchanging and permanent, when all of the evidence in nature argues against us.”

Two millennia earlier, before the very notion of a universe even existed, the Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius (April 26, 121–March 17, 180) provided uncommonly lucid consolation for this most disquieting paradox of existence in his Meditations (public library | free ebook) — the timeless trove of ancient wisdom that gave us his advice on how to motivate yourself to get out of bed each morning, the mental trick for maintaining sanity, and the key to living fully.

Eons before the modern invention of self-help, the Stoics equipped the human animal with a foundational toolkit for self-refinement, articulating their recipes for mental discipline with uncottoned candor that often borders on brutality — an instructional style they share with the Zen masters, whose teachings are often given in a stern tone that seems berating and downright angry but is animated by absolute well-wishing for the spiritual growth of the pupil.

It is with this mindset that Marcus Aurelius takes up the question of how to embrace our mortality and live with life-expanding presence in Book II of his Meditations, translated here by Gregory Hays:

The speed with which all of them vanish — the objects in the world, and the memory of them in time. And the real nature of the things our senses experience, especially those that entice us with pleasure or frighten us with pain or are loudly trumpeted by pride. To understand those things — how stupid, contemptible, grimy, decaying, and dead they are — that’s what our intellectual powers are for. And to understand what those people really amount to, whose opinions and voices constitute fame. And what dying is — and that if you look at it in the abstract and break down your imaginary ideas of it by logical analysis, you realize that it’s nothing but a process of nature, which only children can be afraid of. (And not only a process of nature but a necessary one.)

Art from Duck, Death and the Tulip by Wolf Erlbruch, an uncommonly tender illustrated meditation on life and death.

In a sentiment Montaigne would echo sixteen centuries later in his assertion that “to lament that we shall not be alive a hundred years hence, is the same folly as to be sorry we were not alive a hundred years ago,” Marcus Aurelius rebukes our pathological dread of death by demonstrating how it ejects us from the only arena on which life plays out — the present. Long before Rilke made the countercultural, almost counterbiological observation that “death is our friend precisely because it brings us into absolute and passionate presence with all that is here, that is natural, that is love,” he adds:

Even if you’re going to live three thousand more years, or ten times that, remember: you cannot lose another life than the one you’re living now, or live another one than the one you’re losing. The longest amounts to the same as the shortest. The present is the same for everyone; its loss is the same for everyone; and it should be clear that a brief instant is all that is lost. For you can’t lose either the past or the future; how could you lose what you don’t have?

Remember two things:

1) that everything has always been the same, and keeps recurring, and it makes no difference whether you see the same things recur in a hundred years or two hundred, or in an infinite period;

2) that the longest-lived and those who will die soonest lose the same thing. The present is all that they can give up, since that is all you have, and what you do not have, you cannot lose.

Art by Sydney Smith from Sidewalk Flowers by JonArno Lawson — a lyrical illustrated invitation to living with presence.

He concludes by summarizing the basic facts of human life — a catalogue of uncertainties, crowned by the sole certainty of death — and points to philosophy, or the love of wisdom and mindful living, as the only real anchor for our existential precariousness:

Human life.

Duration: momentary. Nature: changeable. Perception: dim. Condition of Body: decaying. Soul: spinning around. Fortune: unpredictable. Lasting Fame: uncertain. Sum Up: The body and its parts are a river, the soul a dream and mist, life is warfare and a journey far from home, lasting reputation is oblivion.

Then what can guide us?

Only philosophy.

Which means making sure that the power within stays safe and free from assault, superior to pleasure and pain, doing nothing randomly or dishonestly and with imposture, not dependent on anyone else’s doing something or not doing it. And making sure that it accepts what happens and what it is dealt as coming from the same place it came from. And above all, that it accepts death in a cheerful spirit, as nothing but the dissolution of the elements from which each living thing is composed. If it doesn’t hurt the individual elements to change continually into one another, why are people afraid of all of them changing and separating? It’s a natural thing. And nothing natural is evil.

Complement this portion of the altogether indispensable Meditations with psychoanalyst Adam Phillips on what Freud and Darwin taught us about how to live with death, neurologist Oliver Sacks on gratitude, the measure of living, and the dignity of dying, and philosopher, comedian, and my beloved friend Emily Levine on how to live with exultant presence while dying, then revisit two other great Stoics philosophers’ strategies for peace of mind: Seneca on the antidote to anxiety and Epictetus on love, loss, and surviving heartbreak.

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