The Culture of Gritty People
James March an expert on decision making at Stanford University, explains the difference this way: Sometimes we revert to cost-benefit analysis to make choices. Of course, March doesn’t mean that, in deciding what to order for lunch or when to go to bed, we take out a pad of paper and a calculator. What he means is that sometimes when making choices we take into consideration how we might benefit, and what we’ll have to pay, and how likely it is that these benefits and costs will be what we think they’ll be.
But other times March says, we don’t think through the consequences of our actions at all. We don’t ask ourselves:
- What are the benefits?
- What are the costs?
- What are the risks?
Instead, we ask ourselves.
- Who am I?
- What is this situation?
- What does someone like me do in a situation like this?
The Story of Tom Deierlein
On active duty in Baghdad during the summer of 2006, Tom was shot by a sniper. The bullet shattered his pelvis and sacrum. There was no way to know how the bones would knit back together and what sort of functionality Tom might have when they did. Doctors told him he might never walk again.
“You don’t know me,” Tom replied simply. And the, to himself, he made a promise to run the Army Ten-Miler, a race he’d been training to run before he was shot.
When, seven months later, he was finally well enough to get out of bed and begin physical therapy, Tom worked fiercely, unrelentingly, doing all the assigned exercises and then more. Sometimes, he’d grunt in pain or shout out encouragements to himself. “The other patients were a little started at first,” Tom says, “but they got used to it, and then — all in good fun — they’d mock me with fake grunts of their own.”
After a particularly tough workout, Tom got “zingers,” sharp bolts of pain that shot down his legs. “They’d only last a second or two,” Tom says, “but they’d come back at random times throughout the day, literally making me jump from the shock.” Without fail, each day, Tom set a goal, and for a few months that pain and perspiration were paying off. Finally, he could just barely walk with a walker, then with just a cane, then on his own. He walked faster and further, then was able to run on the treadmill for a few seconds while holding onto the railings and then for a full minute, and on and on until, after four months of improving, he hit a plateau.
“My physical therapist said, “You’re done. Good job.” And I said, “I’m still coming.” And she said, “You did what you needed to do, You’re good.’ And I said, “No, no I’m still coming.”
And Tom kept going for a full eight months beyond the point where there were any noticeable improvements. Technically, his physical therapist wasn’t allowed to treat him anymore, but Tom came back on his own to use the equipment anyway.
Was there any benefit to those extra months? Maybe? Maybe not. Tom can’t say for sure that the extra exercises did any good. He does know that he was able to start training for the Army Ten-Miler the next summer. Before getting shot, he’d aimed to run seven-minute miles, completing the race in seventy minutes or less. After getting shot, he revised his goal: he hoped to run twelve-minute miles and finish in two hours. His finish time? One hour and fifty-six minutes.
Tom can’t say that running the Army Ten-Miller — and after that, two triathlons — were decisions rooted in costs and benefits, either. “I simply wasn’t going to fail because I didn’t care or didn’t try. That’s not who I am.”
Indeed, the calculated costs and benefits of passion and perseverance don’t always add up, at least in the short run. It’s often more “sensible” to give up and move on. It can be years or more before grit’s dividends pay off.
And that’s exactly why culture and identity are so critical to understanding how gritty people live their lives. The logic of anticipated costs and benefits doesn’t explain their choices very well. The logic of identity does.
If we can’t be Einstein, is it worth studying Physics? If we can’t be Usain Bolt, should we go for a run this morning? Is there any point in trying to run a little faster or longer than we did yesterday?
In my view, these are absurd questions. If my daughter says to me, “Mom, I shouldn’t practice my piano today because I’ll never be Mozart,”
I’ll say in reply, “You’re not practicing piano to be Mozart.” — Angela Duckworth
Thanks for Reading.