It’s Not About Grit. It’s About Circumstance.

By missioncontrol | 3 comments

Tyrone C. Howard, associate dean for equity and inclusion at UCLA, recently noted that “It can be irresponsible and unfair to talk about grit without talking about structural challenges.”

This is something that has struck me a lot. Most of the talk and writing about the need for grit and resilience is done by parents, employers and educators, and young adults who are reasonably well off—and bemoaning their lack of grit. (Like Paul Toughs’ bestseller, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character) We fear the impact of the helicopter parent, churning out generations of young adults incapable of meeting their own (let alone other’s) needs.

And the truth is–we all know those people! I am reminded of the story of a friend of mine who is a senior college recruiter. She was embarrassed and frustrated when her new (millennial) team member showed up 20 minutes late for a 40-minute presentation. The allotted time was finite and their presentation was cut short—and it reflected badly on them and the college they represented.

She passed on the feedback, as any good boss would have, noting that tardiness was neither professional nor endearing. Imagine her surprise when later that day the team member’s mother called in. “I hear you’ve been telling my daughter off…well, I simply won’t have it…”!

There are also the rare example of the child, who against all odds, finds a way to rise above poverty, circumstances, neglect and lack of opportunity to attain education, employment and social mobility.

Somewhat enamored with these ideals —-we cling to the idea that if only we could teach ALL children resilience and grit—that would be enough. But that’s missing the point.

The infamous Marshmallow experiment has some interesting things to say on the subject. 15 years ago, at business school, I learned about an experiment that could predict with a high degree of reliability which children would go on to succeed in college and career success. Children who could wait in a room for 5 minutes without eating 1 marshmallow (on the promise that they would get 2 upon return), were consistently more likely to succeed. So the reasoning went — these children who could delay gratification, understood something about the important ideals of hard work, and effort.

Yet it wasn’t until a few years ago, that I read about some follow up research. Yes, there were many children who were unwilling to wait. Yes, those children often had poor long term outcomes. But in many of those cases—those children had already experienced trauma in their lives. A child who has been told before by a parent or caregiver that “they’ll be right back”, only to have the person prove unreliable, is much more likely to refuse the deal and accept what is in front of them. It’s completely rational. If you had a boss who did the same — what would you do? Take the money now or wait for the raise that never came? You’d take the money now.

I get tremendously frustrated when policy makers and thought-leaders ignore three important things. First—that people who live in situations of tremendous trauma are behaving rationally in response. Second—the idea that the poor are not already resilient, is mind boggling. I can cite numerous examples of parents who work multiple jobs, while living in a shelter and getting their kids to and from school, feeding and clothing them. Barbara Einrich captures the story of many families like these with real insights in her book Nickle and Dimed. What craziness to talk about a lack of grit. Poverty is some of the hardest work of all. Third—our willful ignorance of the facts that in the US the child who “succeeds against all odds”, is just that, at odds with the trends. They are the outliers. It is a fool’s errand to base policy on the hope that every person can become an outlier.

Circumstances matter. The biggest predictor of long term income in this country is the income of the zip code into which you were born. The US is no longer socially mobile. We need to stop talking about issues which face the children of helicopter parents, and start talking about children who lack basic rights — a home, healthy food, clean spaces to move around in, and parents whose work affords them a living wage.

3 thoughts on “It’s Not About Grit. It’s About Circumstance.”

  1. I agree with your thinking. Maslow’s first level.

    In Australia we have a public debate about a $17 minimum wage. That’s AUD, and the debate is about how much weight should be given to the frequency of a second income earner in a household.

    In contrast the US minimum wage has been stuck on US$7 an hour since 2009.

    If national wealth cannot be shared at the end of the minimum wage; a whole lot of other things are going to fail. Safety nets alone wont fix it.

  2. Liam’s, you are right on. We think
    resilience is the all lofty goal. Without some experience of children to obtain resilience, without parents who never learned that either, we have to take these children by the hand and guide them like we would our own children. Public school teachers and counselor scare doing all they can, but need help from society and the government.
    In small ways many of us are helping. I do workshops for children in summer camps where for the Red Cross we give children the tools to be able to withstand bullying or adverse experiences so they have something on their own tool bag to use to withstand pressures. Thank you for all you do!!

  3. Absolutely agree, Liana. The same is true in Australia, where I see far too often that resilience training becomes a cheap substitute for the legal, economic and structural changes that are required to address the complex, adaptive problems faced by children living with multiple disadvantages and histories of abuse and trauma.
    In many ways, what began as interesting positive psychology observations has become another channel for victim blaming.
    Thanks also for your critique of the second marshmallow. Correlation is not causation!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Social Icons

Take Control Today, Download the first Chapter of MISSION CONTROL


Want to get more tips & tricks on succeeding as a social sector leader?

Sign up below!

You have Successfully Subscribed!