As a child, one of my favorite books was The Little Engine That Could. For those who are unfamiliar, it is the story of a small train that accepts the task of towing a broken down freight train to its destination. Several large trains capable of assisting refuse to help the freight. Yet, the little engine immediately offers its services. In the most pivotal moment of the book, the little engine encounters a mountain that is seemingly impossible to climb. Instead of stopping at the base of the hill, the little engine begins to encourage itself by repeating the mantra “I think I can, I think I can.” After several stumbles on the way up, the little engine is successful and makes its way triumphantly down the hill chanting “I thought I could, I thought I could.”
In a recent article in The Atlantic, Olga Khazan argues that as a society we place too much value on grit and perseverance, and we should place a higher value on quitting when the forecast is not promising. In the first sentence of her article, Khazan frames grit in a negative light by proclaiming “grit is good,” a nod to the fictional Gordon Grecko’s “greed is good.” By portraying grit in the same context as something as sinister as greed, Khazan seems to view grit as a completely unwelcomed quality. In contrast, I would argue that grittiness is an essential trait to have, especially in times of tribulation.
Khazan cites psychologist and philosopher William James as a proponent of grittiness. Having thoroughly examined James’s work in my American Pragmatism course, I am inclined to agree with his arguments.
In James’ The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life, he maintains that the moral philosopher (his version of the most successful type of person) is responsible for finding ideals and mediating compromises between opposing groups in power. In the macro-sense of today’s world with the ever-growing trend towards globalism, grittiness in finding a solution is an absolute necessity for nations to become thriving entities in the future. On a more day-to-day level, grit is necessary if one aims to achieve a particular goal that may not be easily accomplished.
Khazan supports her argument by citing a series of tests conducted by the Journal of Research in Personality, which found that people who rated themselves as more gritty were less likely to be successful at a given complex task. However, it is worthy to note that each task rewarded success solely with some sort of monetary value.
In assessing these results, it is imperative to consider the motivating factors in an organization. In his TED Talk titled, “The Puzzle of Motivation,” Dan Pink explains how extrinsic motivators (e.g. money) narrow one’s focus and creative thinking in a complex task, though they can be beneficial for simple tasks with a clear-cut path to achieve a certain result.
Inherently, gritty people tend to possess a high amount of intrinsic motivation to complete for most tasks. Thus, I would argue that the design of this study has a pre-conceived bias in favor of those who are motivated by extrinsic incentives, resulting in lower success rates for self-described gritty people when compared to less or not at all gritty people.
Khazan mentions the way the results of the study’s computer-game test indicate that the gritty people felt more optimistic even when they were losing. It seems that Khazan views such optimism as blinding and counterproductive, but I feel that such optimism is necessary for success.
One the most well known examples of such ruthless optimism is Thomas Edison’s continued “failure” in constructing the light bulb. It is believed that Edison made over 1,000 attempts at the light bulb before being successful. Imagine if Edison had stopped at 100 attempts, because he felt the costs and the odds were too high against him—we would have either never had a consistent, safe source of lighting or Edison’s name would not be the one read in history books or referenced in movies starring Nicholas Cage.
As a gritty person and ruthless optimist, I have a hard time accepting grit as a worthless endeavor. I know that without my grit I would not have worked as hard as I did in high school to get into a school as reputable as BC. I know without my “costly perseverance” my future goals would not be attainable. Most importantly, I know that without my optimism I would lack the will and the confidence to even dream in the first place. Therefore, Ms. Khazan “I think I can” confidently say that the costs of grit will always outweigh the benefits of complacency.