The deadly, gilded sins of grit
Nobody wants to tell you the truth about success. Sure, hard work matters. So does commitment. And focus. And perseverance in the face of failure. And blah, blah, blah. But you know what helps the most? A fountain of cash. If you don’t have that, you’ll have to borrow it.
Sometimes at very high interest rates.
You see, the real secret to success is how long you can accumulate debt. And how well you can manage it.
The average TED Talk ignores this bleak reality. Entrepreneurs and character coaches create smokescreens with words like grit. They know how easy it is to inspire people by telling them to practice harder, or wake up earlier. As if life were that simple, or fair.
Coined by educational theorists about a decade ago, grit refers to the idea of commitment to a single goal for long periods of time. It means navigating setbacks and failure.
People with grit don’t give up easily.
To some folks, this trait matters more than talent and intelligence. Although grit started in education, that and other buzzwords have leaked out into pop culture. You see them at airport bookstores now.
Even Dwayne Johnson likes telling us that hard work trumps everything else. That kind of attitude plays well in Under Armour commercials. Hey, I like The Rock. But I’ve lost count of how many times someone’s stood in a gym and given a cool pep talk about failure.
Trendy words like grit ring hollow for people who already have it. We realize how much more it takes when you start out with less. Some of us already knew how to study every night for hours. How to balance school with a shitty part-time job. How to write a term paper when the rest of our family’s screaming at each other outside our bedroom door.
We knew you couldn’t land your dream job by sitting around in your underwear, watching The Bold Type on Hulu.
What we needed wasn’t grit, but something else.
That something is perfectly embodied in this 2008 Japanese film, Departures. A young guy works his ass off to become a cellist in a symphony orchestra. But the orchestra loses its funding and dissolves. Now he’s stuck with huge amounts of debt. He has to take the most stigmatized job in his culture — mortician. At first he hates the isolation and discomfort.
But it pays super well. So he learns to adjust. On a side note, he also rediscovers his love for the cello eventually. But he doesn’t redeem his career. He just plays the thing on weekends.
More Americans should watch this movie before making their grand plans. We might have less of a student loan crisis on our hands. By the way, it’s pretty bad. The total amount of student debt exceeds 1.5 trillion now. The average college student graduates $28,000 in debt, and the Brookings Institute predicts that 40 percent of graduates will default on their loans by 2023. We’re literally putting our dreams on credit.
This won’t end well.
I’m not saying avoid school. But for the love of god, let’s stop pretending like grit and passion are enough. They used to be. Not anymore.
Grit versus cutting your losses
What we need more than grit is to recognize the unfair advantages that our successful friends had. Like mentally and emotionally stable parents. Like ACT coaches. Like the money to take a college entrance exam five times. Like the money to buy — or at least rent — a decent cello.
Otherwise, you can’t practice every night for three hours.
Ariana Gonzalez Stokas writes about this point in a 2015 issue of Educational Theory. She points out that grit works fine as a general guide, but only if you account for privilege. Educators, including self-help writers, can do more harm than good by promoting grit by itself.
When you tell someone how hard you worked to achieve your dreams, but you forget to tell them about your rich uncle, you’re giving them a complex. They’re going to work their ass off, and blame themselves when things go wrong. Even if they’re working against systemic disadvantages. Maybe med school really is out of their reach, not by their fault. So maybe they should apply their talent and grit elsewhere.
Americans hate this mindset, especially the rich ones.
They count on everyone believing this increasingly bullshit idea that anyone can be anything. As long as we believe that, then we’ll keep working long hours instead of protesting for fair wages and equal pay.
When you actually don’t have money, then you face weird paradoxes that grit gurus never seem to think about. For example, your parents might not pay for your violin or private music lessons.
But you’re gritty. Right? So you get a part-time job at Kroger. You work five-hour shifts every other day.
Great. Now you have money for your violin, and your lessons. But guess what? Your boss doesn’t give a shit about your music career. He schedules you to work during your lessons. And your concerts.
You also have less time to practice. Maybe you try staying up late. But then your chemistry teacher calls you out the next morning because you’re falling asleep. A vicious cycle begins. Your grades drop. Your parents accuse you of doing drugs, because “you’re not normally like this.”
So you tell your family what’s really up.
And they call you a fool for ever thinking you could become as good a violinist as your friend Melanie, whose parents pay for all her shit.
So maybe you should quit. You say “Fuck it,” and focus on a cheaper interest — like writing. That’s not exactly grit. That’s cutting your losses.
Finding piles of cash
It’s not enough to work hard and stay focused. Because you still might get screwed over. See above example, about music lessons. The moral of that story wasn’t about hard work, or persistence, or failure. It was about means. Giving up a dream out of necessity. Shifting ambition.
Above all, it was about money.
You might achieve your dream job, but at a huge cost. And that’s what matters more than grit, drive, talent, or intelligence. What you’re willing to give up — even if they’re things other people take for granted.
For me, my dream meant giving up a big slice of financial security for the foreseeable future. My entire life, I’d been trying to find some way to pursue one of my interests without going bankrupt. So I stopped trying. It was a trade off, and I chose diminished wealth.
People with money never imagine how much it actually costs to pursue a career, a degree, or even a hobby.
One of my friends literally had a rich uncle who died. Lucky her, she spent her inheritance on grad school. Now she’s fine. She’s got everything she wants, debt free. At least she’s up front about it.
Another one of my friends was “gifted” ten thousand dollars by her grandparents. She used it to travel.
You see, the average middle class family can afford to support a child’s dreams. They don’t have a parent who somehow lost an entire life’s savings, on top of racking up steep medical bills from psychotic breaks. Health insurance companies don’t like crazy people.
This is the kind of story people should hear. Not about hard work and persistence. Duh. Let’s talk about the insane risks we take to compete with the well-off, and whether that’s worth it.
You can always find a single parent who battled the odds to become a CEO. You can use those stories as proof that your buzzword approach to life actually works. But I’m skeptical. My own “success” story isn’t half as neat or tidy. But maybe I just did it wrong.
A story of rags to riches on loan
In grad school I accumulated a wealth of debt. You see, the best colleges in my field gave us full tuition waivers and — hold your breath — a stipend of about fifteen grand per year. Out of that, we had to pay fees not covered by remissions. That left us with about twelve to live on.
The path to a PhD runs through a lot of hidden costs. You have to buy expensive academic books, ones shelved only by a handful of libraries in the entire world. Thank you, Amazon Prime. You have to spend thousands of dollars traveling to conferences.
You try to survive without the Internet in your apartment. But it’s kind of hard to download and read articles about Foucault in a Starbucks, especially when that startup dude’s having a conference call on his bluetooth.
He’s chasing his dream, and taking a piss on yours. Now that’s what I call multi-tasking. You try the library, but it’s just as loud.
So you break down and start giving Comcast or AT&T a sizable chunk of your monthly income. You are not a digital nomad.
You are a digital hermit crab.
You try splitting an apartment with someone. But she moves out before the lease ends, and sticks you with her half of the rent. Ironically, it makes you realize how much better you work when she’s not around.
When you finish out the lease, you move into a studio apartment. Which doubles your rent expense. But it’s worth it. You’re doing you!
And that’s how you accrue sixty grand in debt over four years. By using student loans to supplement an income that a barista would laugh at. You’re working 60 hours a week, and you signed up for this. You’re even proud of yourself. Because someone said you had grit. But the truth is, you had way more than grit. You had desperation.
Congratulations. Enjoy the next decade of stay-cations while you give a third of your income back to the corporation that funded your dreams. I’m just kidding. But not really.
Even now, I realize my own privileges. Advantages I enjoyed that others don’t. So I’m not about to give anyone a speech on hard work or grit. You might have very good reasons for giving up on something. Those reasons might have nothing to do with you. Maybe the worst thing you can do is keep grinding yourself down for a dream that’s really a fantasy.