I was talking to my good friend Rachelskirts about this new blogging adventure, and I commented how surprised I was that I had made it through 8 whole days in a row of blogging. Typically, my blogging exploits are a flurry of posts, then none for months or years. But so far, this time has felt different to me, and I think I know why. But more on that in a second.

In that conversation, she mentioned the idea of “grit,” and that certain stick-to-itiveness that some people seem to have, regardless of their intelligence. She mentioned she heard about it on the (excellent) podcast Back to Work with Merlin Mann and Dan Benjamin. While I haven’t been able to listen to Episode 87 where the topic comes up, I did take a look at the show notes, which links to the third part of a deeply thoughtful article by Grant Wiggins. The article is lengthy, but it is 100% worth the read. So. Go read it. This post will still be here when you’re done.

Grit, then, is a character-based quality that allows successful people to be successful. If you’ve got grit, you’ll be okay. If you don’t, you won’t reach your potential. This is completely separate from intelligence, which is—more or less—the metric people look as they try to predict success. No, intelligent or not, without grit, you won’t succeed. This is the premise of the book which started this whole discussion, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough.

Now, I must also admit I haven’t read the book. Before yesterday, I didn’t know it existed, but that’s not what struck me about Wiggin’s response was his harkening back to one of the most revered educators of the modern age, John Dewey. I, like Wiggins, will quote Dewey himself:

The principle of the social character of the school as the basic factor in the moral education given may be also applied to the question of methods of instruction,—not in their details, but their general spirit. The emphasis then [must fall] upon construction and giving out, rather than upon absorption and mere learning.

We fail to recognize how essentially individualistic the latter methods are, and how unconsciously, yet certainly and effectively, they react into the child’s ways of judging and of acting. Imagine forty children all engaged in reading the same books, and in preparing and reciting the same lessons day after day. Suppose this process constitutes by far the larger part of their work, and that they are continually judged from the standpoint of what they are able to take in in a study hour and reproduce in a recitation hour. There is next to no opportunity for any social division of labor. There is no opportunity for each child to work out something specifically his own, which he may contribute to the common stock, while he, in turn, participates in the productions of others. All are set to do exactly the same work and turn out the same products.

The social spirit is not cultivated,—in fact, in so far as the purely individualistic method gets in its work, it atrophies for lack of use.

It’s this idea of purpose, of social giving, or social interaction, and interconnectedness that struck me. And I think it might be a key component to this thing called “grit,” or at least, a key predictor of whether or not a person will be successful. I don’t have any studies. I’m not a psychologist or an educator. All my evidence is anecdotal. So don’t take this as science or proof. This is philosophy.

I know, for myself, I do not feel fulfilled when I don’t understand the utility of an action or a project, I have a hard time getting into it. I have trouble focusing on it, or keeping motivated to continue doing the work. “What’s the point,” I think when I can’t find that purpose, when I feel like the work I’m doing is in vain, I hit this wall. I struggle to make progress. The whole thing is just hugely burdensome.

On the other hand, when a project has meaning (real or imagined), I become almost insatiable. I pour myself into it. I research and work, and do anything I can to grok the matter at hand. I produce and produce and produce, just to make sure it gets done well.

An example: before I moved to this domain, I wrote a post about same-sex marriage. That was a labor of love, of purpose. I believe that people ought to be accepted as people, not according to who they choose to love, so I was motivated. It took a fair amount of research, and a fair amount of effort and critical thinking to formulate a novel approach to the idea, and a reason for which the pending legislative battle was raging. I did this because I saw the purpose. Because I saw the potential good, the potential value add to society.

Purpose and utility are extremely important. It gives us that reason to press on doing those things that may not be inherently enjoyable, but in the moment, can give us significant and lasting satisfaction. Satisfaction in ourselves, in our work, and confidence to continue doing more of the same.

But this is only half the equation. The other half of purpose is collaboration. The sense of togetherness, an interconnectedness between ourselves and our peers. That’s, I think, the more important half.

I’ll tackle the idea of collaborative purpose tomorrow, though. In the meantime, at the very least, give the Grant Wiggins article a read. If nothing else, it’ll make you go, “Hmm.”