Grit is overrated; the hardest worker never wins

The people with the most grit are really poor or really neglected and they overcome those circumstances. But why aspire to that? We glorify it like life is one big Horatio Alger story.

Working smart is the opposite of grit
We also glorify the idea of persisting through hardship. There’s the Seth Godin book of grit that everyone loves: It’s The Dip. He says everything worth doing has a really tough moment where other people stop but you keep going. However his idea is really about recognizing patterns, and it’s best in the business world where there are rules for success and everyone is basically a sheep trying to get the same thing: higher sales, new markets, more funding, etc.

In Godin’s scenario people are not engaging in grit so much as getting a leg up. A great example: My friend who imported a violin teacher from Bulgaria so her daughter doesn’t have to fight to get the best teachers in Boston.

Crazy passion is not grit, it’s craziness
The other type of grit is the person doing something totally new. There is no dip because there is no established upswing. And it’s the upswing that makes the downswing a dip rather than an endless path to hell. In the cases where people are not sheep– where someone is really truly doing something new – there is only a terrifying abyss.

A good example: Herman Melville writing Moby Dick. His family starved and he kept writing even though there was no established market or precedent for what he was writing.

But a more disturbing example is Charles Goodyear in the mid 1800’s:

After learning about rubber he convinced himself he could make his fortune by turning it into useful objects like waterproof shoes. All attempts ended in disaster and his life became a catalog of misery. His shoes melted in the summer, six of his children died, and his family lived in poverty. But Goodyear was determined. When debts landed him in jail, he asked his wife to bring him a rolling pin and some rubber and he carried on inventing in his cell. He made his breakthrough when he accidentally dropped a piece of rubber on a hot stove. It cooked and shriveled into a hard black mass that Goodyear immediately spotted as the thing he’d wanted all along. This is how he developed the tough black rubber we use in tires today by a cooking process now known as vulcanization.

America’s economic edge comes from entrepreneurship, invention, creative thinking. (Political side note: it’s what you get from being the great melting pot where new ideas smash up against each other all the time.) But it’s also crazy people who somehow figure out something great, in spite of themselves.

Grit is working hard because hard work is an end in itself
But that doesn’t come from grit. Grit is the Protestant work ethic and it’s fundamentally conservative and stifling. The Protestant ethic is about enforcing society’s values on the potentially wayward so that people kept building houses, having children, and populating towns (to fight Native Americans and take their land). The Protestant ethic espouses hard work as an end in of itself.

But we know that doesn’t get people anywhere. It’s why the kids at Stuyvesant who test at the very top end up underperforming as adults. It’s why the huge successes in Silicon Valley are not actually about people failing and trying again. They are outliers who are a little bit crazy and build something no one can even understand until after it’s built.

The value of an end result is not about how much work it took but how good it is. And this is why Alfie Kohn has a ten-point tirade about why grit is not a productive means to a creative, innovative society.

Grit presupposes a male outlook on life
The Protestants who celebrated work so heartily did not celebrate women’s work.

Who is most likely to come up with an idea without spending years working on it? Women. Because they don’t have time to fail and fail and fail again. Women can work full speed ahead until  30, then they have to start having kids. So women can’t risk having five businesses before one takes off. There is no time.

And women who can’t be sheep in the workplace because the paths the sheep take to food and water are for men. For men, time is linear. They head toward a goal and how they function each day defines them: what do you do? is the ubiquitous workplace question. And flow is the ultimate goal: how much do you love your work? How engaged are you?

I have thought for a long time that all the time management gurus are men because men have huge chunks of time uninterrupted by children. And the workplace is organized for time productivity, whereas the home is organized in a non-linear way that segments time into lots of small chunks interrupted by emergencies/breakdowns/crying etc. The workplace is about using time to get money. The home is about using time to get a nap.
Flow vs. confetti
Brigid Schulte talks about  women’s time as being like confetti; little chunks float by in an unorganized way and you take them as you can. There’s no grit here; it’s just trying to stay ahead of the next problem. There is no flow because dinner would burn. There is no engagement because cumulative sleep deprivation of raising kids shifts focus to just keeping them alive.

Grit is bad for women like school is bad for women. Both are fixed games women can’t win. You go to school “to get a good job” and even though we know most educated women want to be home with children, we never tell those girls that growing up to take care of kids is valuable. And we tell kids that grit is what makes adult life good, but we don’t tell those kids that hard work measured by number of consecutive hours and intensity of engagement is not something that can happen in a house full of children.

The patterns women work in today — moving in and out of the workforce depending on their stage of life – is antithetical to grit. Women are working smart and planning ahead and accomplishing their goals with fragmented hours and alternative careers.

We are far past celebrating grit. Let’s celebrate shrewd and crafty workarounds. Let’s measure results instead of process. That’s how we’ll crate equality in the workforce.

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  1. Barbara Taylor
    Barbara Taylor says:

    “Let’s celebrate shrewd and crafty workarounds. Let’s measure results instead of process. That’s how we’ll crate equality in the workforce.”

    This is one of the best things you’ve ever written. Absolute truth!

  2. MB
    MB says:

    There is a John a businessman who has spent 10+ years doing business in the field, and there is a Jane who has dedicated her life doing research in the same field…Now, they both made a statement each, and unfortunately their statements are contradictory to each other’s….now do you really expect me to believe in John’s statement who knows some business tactis over Jane’s statement who is absolutely master of the field…I hope you can correlate my question and your post title…and I also believe that “never” is not really the word you want to use in the title.

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