Friday, April 18, 2014

When you should tell someone to quit a dream

Got dreams? You'll need this
In honor of all those athletes who will realize their long term goal of running in Monday's Boston Marathon, it seems fitting to write today about "grit". 

And quitting.

About a year ago, Angela Lee Duckworth, a management consultant-turned educator-turned -University of Pennsylvania psychologist  gave a Ted Talk about the concept of "grit". It is here.

In her presentation, Dr. Duckworth talked about successful kids and the usual correlates:  talent, upbringing, socioeconomic station, etc. Her conclusion:  even more than intelligence, a significant predictor of success is "grit": The tenacity of motivated people to pursue a long term goal without quitting.

This month, an essay writtenby Alfie Kohn, author of "The Myth of the Spoiled Child" has been appearing in different publications. In his argument, he debunks and characterizes the concept of "grit" as a trendy, wrongly accepted link to success, one he fears will turn parents into task masters and their children into frustrated, disappointed worker bees trying in vain to meet impossible goals.

Here is an excerpt:

"The problems with grit... To begin with, not everything is worth doing, let alone doing for extended periods, and not everyone who works hard is pursuing something worthwhile. On closer inspection, the concept of grit turns out to be dubious, as does the evidence cited to support it. Persistence can actually backfire and distract from more important goals."

I have a problem with all of this massive point-missing.

For  detractors to confuse "grit", which deals with the dreams of passionate people, with "persistence" which deals with the habits of productive people, is to confuse dreams with plans, skills with gifts, effort with drive, and all the other things that separate tenacious super-achievers from hard-working drones.

And for proponents to treat the notion of grit as a "discovery", a link to success, something to incorporate into our psycho-speak and foster in the classroom as teachable behaviors, is as much a failure  to "get" grit and understand its role in the work of very successful people.

First, while many possess strong work ethic, grit is rare. Really, how many thirty-year-old millionaires do most of us have over for dinner? Thirty-year-old millionaires are too busy to eat dinner.

Second, it isn't a single behavior like time-management or careful note-taking.  It co-exists with passion, the way dreams co-exist with imagination. 

Third, it can't be taught any more than confidence can be taught.  You can't go buy it or find a grit expert to talk to the class. You've got grit if you've got other things first, like vision and scary-competitive drive.

Fourth, where it is present, it is involuntary. Grit is as willful in a dream-maker as breathing, and it's foolish to treat this as something that we should, or even can, dial up or down in another person.    

And this brings me to the title of my post: When to tell someone to quit a dream?

Where there is grit, there is passion.  To urge someone away from "gritty" behavior because a passion in our view is "not worthwhile" or, so that they can "pursue other opportunities" is to dishonor that passion. And however gently we do it, to suggest that someone give up on their passion is like asking them to live without a digit, to accept a lifelong feeling of having left something unfinished.  

To live with "might have".

What an insult to people who, fueled by their own spirit, spend years creeping toward a  goal, all while developing the patience and pace and maturity to know it may not - but may - happen at once.

The person who is advised to quit, who quits out of frustration, who must quit out of  necessity may live free of those spiritual muscle cramps that come with journeying toward a long term goal, but dreams die slowly. When it's all over, we only trade those cramps for a limp. I did this. Frustrated over my sluggish success as a published writer, I stopped writing a while back to "pursue other opportunities" and I died a little every day.

When I was able to return to writing full-time, I started publishing like nobody's business.

To be sure, mindful parents should realize when a child is spinning their wheels in pursuit of a goal that will never be met - crappy baseball players will not grow up and play for the Red Sox.  Sometimes there really are opportunity costs and good parents can and should help their kids identify their particular joys and talents.  

And yes,  anyone with a near-impossible dream should have their own plan B, a way to support themselves, an order of priorities that enables them to live independently and not drag dependents if there are any, through a life of skeletal expenses and late notices.

We once joked - sort of - about putting all of our kids through bartending school so that they could always pay the rent, dress for the weather and keep their lights on while they went after-  or didn't - the thing they had to do with their particular talents and spirit.  

Like love, a passionate pursuit doesn't always give back right away. But to be blind to the difference between plans and dreams, to ever nudge someone away from pursuing a passion, is on par with asking why they would bother with love at all - when they could spend their time and energy on something "more worthwhile".

When to tell a child, a friend, a spouse or anyone to quit a dream?



  1. Oh, I SO agree with this post! You are right. Never!

  2. I agree - never tell anyone to quit a dream. I enjoyed your distinction between grit and perseverence

  3. You are so right on, Susan. "Worthwhile," like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Now, I'm a realist--I'm not going to sugarcoat the possible life my daughter might lead if she pursues her dream, with grit, of say being the lead soprano in The Monteverdi Choir. But I would never tell her to give it up. I simply have no right.

  4. Thank you for your comment, Kelly. It appears you've found that middle ground - cheer the dream while supporting the effort to finance it.

    I wonder if the current lead soprano with the Monteverdi Choir came down to breakfast one day and said "Hey, guess what I'm going to be". Probably not.

  5. Thanks for this. I am lucky to have friends who work (successfully) in the arts: musicians, screenwriters, directors, poets, sculptors, composers, novelists, conductors, playwrights. SOMEBODY gets these jobs...might as well be your kid!