Of Grit and Grace

Much has been said about persistence and perseverance: how, if you are only forceful and determined enough, you could achieve whatever it is that you set your mind to.

A wall of photos and business cards (Vietnam, 2014)

Malcolm Gladwell, in his bestselling book “Outliers”, argued that it takes 10,000 hours to master any particular skill. (However, he does clarify that this is an oversimplification.) A permutation of that argument is echoed by Angela Lee Duckworth in her TED talk, wherein she mentions how grit is powerful in determining a person’s success.

We’ve been told the same thing since childhood: Quitters never win. We’d like to think that the only thing separating one from achieving one’s dreams is their tenacity: any person, as long as they are stubborn and passionate enough, can, to use that trite expression, “make things happen”. If we only turn our personalities into metaphorical fists punching through walls, anything can and should be achievable. We can conquer anything and everything!

To be truthful, a part of me believes in that. Maybe it is a form of self-delusion. After all, scientists and philosophers have argued that free will may actually be inexistent. Perhaps my stubbornness in believing in the capacity for self-determination could be innate programming, or something embedded by experiences.

Lately though, I’ve been thinking about how persistence cannot wholly account for the successes in one’s life.

(To digress, what spurred this reflection is how I’ve been mulling over the impact of individual action versus large structural changes. In particular, the whole climate crisis has made me consider that our little actions like changing lightbulbs and having fewer children, while no doubt useful, pale in comparison to institutional reforms which are necessary to create immediate impact to reverse this potential apocalypse.

I was also thinking about how Greta Thunberg has been advancing the discussion on climate change, and getting people to actually listen. She is perfectly situated in the right place, at the right time, to have become the best spokesperson for this pressing issue. Consider that in 1992, a teenager has also spoken before the United Nations—Severn Suzuki—but her act hasn’t created this massive, energized wave of conversation and pressure.)

What if, despite how we try to force something to happen, things can only happen at the proper timing?

The writer of Ecclesiastes summarized the idea succinctly (I find some books in the Bible to be really interesting literature, frankly put):

“There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens:

A time to be born and a time to die;
A time to plant and a time to uproot,
A time to kill and a time to heal,
A time to tear down and a time to build,
A time to weep and a time to laugh,
A time to mourn and a time to dance,
A time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
A time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
A time to search and a time to give up,
A time to keep and a time to throw away,
A time to tear and a time to mend,
A time to be silent and a time to speak,
A time to love and a time to hate,
A time for war and a time for peace.”

Should that excuse us from not doing things, in anticipation that a future event will correct the course of our histories? I don’t think so.

But I think some people are better equipped to make some things happen. (Those are the same people we tend to create myths and stories around, as well, believing that fate has favored them.)

In the future probably, when some supercomputer could run all possible simulations using different data points and see how the trajectory of events will unfold for everyone, we would know how everything would all pan out until the end of the time. (Although the terror of knowledge could lead us to self-destruct, perhaps?)

Honestly, I think the most we can do, being blind to what the future holds, is to try to figure out how to graciously align ourselves with this blindness. We can only try, and hope for the best.

(Maybe everyone really is doing the best of what they can, with what they have.)

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