Book Review: GRIT, the Power of Passion and Perseverance
As I prepare for my upcoming one-man show on June 20, I am digging deep into my past to find answers to questions that concern us all:
• Am I the same as, different from, or a mix of my parents?
• What have been the key turning points of my life?
• How have I overcome early negative self-assessment?
• Who were the key people who helped me grow beyond my early conditioning?
Against the backdrop of these questions, across my desk comes a new book: GRIT, the Power of Passion and Perseverance by psychologist Angela Duckworth.
Duckworth explores the question of natural talent vs. hard work. She estimates that hard work or stick-to-itiveness is twice as important as natural talent. She serves up a rich stew of research data mixed with success stories of talented and not-so-talented people.
I am halfway through the book, so I can’t tell you how it ends. So far, I am stimulated by this idea that determination trumps IQ and talent. The one thing I disagree with Duckworth about is the importance of not giving up. We’ve all heard this tired old aphorism, “Winners never quit and quitters never win.” What nonsense.
My experience says the opposite. Knowing when to quit and move on is one of life’s most valuable skills. Nothing is sadder than someone, who, at 50, is stuck in a career because of a decision they made, or one that was forced on them, at a young age.
Parents: “Bob, you are good with your hands and good at science. You should go to dental school.”
Bob: “But I’d rather be a sculptor.”
Parents: “You can’t make a living doing that.”
Bob: “Guess you are right. OK.”
Twenty years out of dental school, Bob attends a weeklong session at Esalen on finding your passion. He comes home wanting to quit dentistry.
Parents and wife: “Oh no, Bob. You have put in so much time and training, you can’t quit now. Besides, you are making really good money. You know, little Bobby Jr. goes to those expensive private schools.”
Dr. Bob: “OK, guess you are right again.”
Now 50, Bob feels like he is a beast of burden in harness for his family. He is sick of looking in people’s mouths all day. He drinks too much and is depressed. But Bobby Jr. has attended the best schools and his wife doesn’t have to work.
In my own life, I have quit three possible professions and flourished in profession number four. What happened? As I look back and connect the “dots” of my life and see the times when I had major “turning points,” a pattern of quitting emerges.
My early academic work was mediocre. In the bottom half of my high school class, I got into college on the recommendation of the principal due to my being a class and school officer. I was admitted on the condition that I had at least a ‘C’ average in the first semester.
Something clicked. I loved being in college. The professors turned out to be role models for me. In my first semester I had a ‘B’ average, and off I went. All good so far, right? Unfortunately, my self concept as a slow reader and a slow learner continued to dog me (even to today). Those early images are not easily changed.
“The past is not dead. In fact, it’s not even past.”
Four turning points, four careers.
1) Medical school. With all the “GRIT” Duckworth describes, I worked with an intensity like I had never experienced in my life. No holidays, no movies, just work. I even read chemistry flash cards while sitting on the toilet. Result? I got really good grades in science. In a class of 60 at SF State I had the top grade in organic chemistry. My medical school admission test scores were good. I almost got into two different schools. But then my interest waned.
2) Psychology Went back to school for a masters and a PhD. Professionally, I taught (my favorite), consulted, and practiced psychotherapy. Finally, I got bored with it and went into business.
3) Hewlett Packard / Amdahl After a five-year career in the technology business, I found the hierarchy and politics of corporate life did not agree with me.
4) PowerSpeaking At age 46, I started the company I worked in for the next 30 years. No quitting. No waning interest. Totally engaging. World travel. Meeting and working with interesting people.
So what have I learned through all these changes?
Being a quitter can be a good thing – at least it was for me.
I am not a natural healer. I don’t care much about others’ suffering. Going to medical school to show my first-grade teacher (long dead) that I’m not stupid is not the right reason to become a doctor.
I never found my place in psychology, though I loved the teaching. I needed more practical application and more money. Time to move on.
The technology business world was interesting and challenging, but too political for me. Also, I cared nothing at all about spreadsheets and Moore’s Law. Time to start my own business.
Each of these experiences flowed together to give me the diverse skills I needed to start PowerSpeaking. Beyond that, my varied life experience gave me the tools I needed to develop Speaking Up, where I gained the trust of many of Silicon Valley CEOs.
All of this depended on two things.
First, I was willing to quit when it didn’t feel right. I saw no reason to doggedly soldier on.
Secondly, I had no family. In the early years out of college, supporting only myself, often with low paying jobs, I had the freedom to indulge my interests. Later, I was not the sole breadwinner in my family, so I could continue taking risks.
Bottom line: I recommend Duckworth’s book. It may help you understand the zigs and zags of your life. Take with a grain of salt her notion that winners stick with it no matter how intense the pain.
My own rewriting of the above aphorism:
“Winners often quit, and quitters often win”