Book Review: Grit

This blog was supposed to document the year I spent learning how to code in an online bootcamp.  That documentation didn’t happen because I was so busy juggling coding, my full-time volunteer gig as a PTA president, and taking care of my kids that I didn’t have the time or energy to write about what I was doing.  But I did have time to process my experience learning how to code, usually in the middle of the night when my preschool-aged son appeared suddenly next to my bed, begging to cuddle up next to me.

Coding is…fine.  I’m glad I know how to do it, but I’m even happier that I’ve landed a full-time job that has nothing to do with technology.

In the middle of my coding course (probably when I was learning React, because React is the worse), I got extremely frustrated with the project I was working on.  I told my husband, who’s been a software engineer for nearly twenty years and who pushed me to enroll in the coding bootcamp (thanks, honey), that I hated React.  I hated coding.  Nothing would make me happier than to just quit.

My husband looked at me for a moment.  “If you really don’t like it,” he said, “it’s okay to quit.”

“Well, of course I’m not going to do that,” I grumbled.  It wasn’t just that we’d spent $8,000 on the coding bootcamp, although I am a penny-pincher and my soul thrilled in horror at the thought of walking away and wasting thousands of dollars.  More importantly, I refused to quit because I was learning something new and different and hard, and I was proud of myself for taking on something so difficult after years of being a stay-at-home mom, even though I didn’t like coding very much.

Which brings me to a book I just finished reading: Grit, by Angela Duckworth.  I read this on the recommendation of my husband (thanks, honey, for real this time).  Duckworth became curious about the kind of people who accomplish really, really difficult tasks, like surviving their first few weeks at West Point or winning an Olympic gold medal.  Is it pure talent that propels people to success, or is there something else going on? And, if there is something else going on, what is it and how do we measure it?

Duckworth concluded that many successful people have grit, and lots of it.  When something gets difficult — especially when something gets difficult — successful people keep going.  It’s less about how talented they are, and more about their ability to persevere.  And the cool thing about perseverance, according to Duckworth, is that we can get better at it.

Duckworth provides a few solid tips on how you, the reader, can become grittier and how you can also encourage grittiness in your children.  Here are the ideas I walked away with that make sense to me and that I’ve started trying to incorporate into my own life:

1.) Make a list of your professional goals.  There will probably be a lot of them.  Identify your overarching goal: the thing that gets you up in the morning, the thing you want to do with your life.  Align the other goals under that, so you end up with an upside-down tree-looking goal chart.  Cut any goals that are distractions.  Knowing where you’re going makes it easier to be gritty about your goal.

2.) Practice deliberately.  As a former high school band nerd, I knew exactly what Duckworth was talking about with this.  Every time I got a new piece of music, I would take it home and play through it, identifying all the difficult parts.  Then, night after night, I’d play through the hard runs, going faster and faster every time.  I’d get feedback on my performance in class during the day, and I’d incorporate that into my practice at night.

I never became a world-class clarinetist, but I did go from playing in the lowest band my freshman year of high school to playing in the high school symphony and orchestra my senior year.  I also made section leader and became band president.

So, yeah, deliberate practice works.  Here’s what deliberate practice looks like, per Duckworth:

“— A clearly defined stretch goal

— Full concentration and effort

— Immediate and informative feedback

— Repetition with reflection and refinement” (p. 137)

3.) Tell yourself you’re a gritty person.  Say it often enough, and it’ll become true.

4.) Have your kids participate in extracurricular activities.  It should be something that they enjoy, but that also pushes them in some way.  They aren’t allowed to up and quit when the going gets tough, either, although they can switch over to another activity they’re interested in once they come to a natural ending point for the first activity.

5.) Set boundaries for your kids and stick to them.

6.) When talking to your kids, don’t focus on what they did wrong, but instead encourage them to do better.

Clearly, I thought there was a lot of good information in Grit.  Be warned, however, that the tone can get annoyingly preachy: there are several sections in the book where Duckworth seems to be saying that she can’t believe there are people who don’t have a single, burning passion in their lives that guides them toward greatness.  There was also an anecdote in the book about Duckworth’s four-year-old daughter giving up on opening a box of raisins, and how Duckworth saw this as a sign that her child was destined not to be gritty.  As the parent of a four-year-old, I caught myself muttering, “For God’s sake, just open the fucking box of raisins for your kid.”

So, in summation: this is an interesting book, and it was more practical than I thought it would be going in, but if successful people coming off as snotty about how awesome they are gets your goat, then the author’s tone is going to bug you.

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