Share Your Story and Inspire Grit

My client sat back, her eyes fixed on a corner of the room but her mind fixed on the past as she described walking through a pasture and quietly contemplating how to support her family after her husband’s progressing illness forced him to quit work. “I thought to myself, What would Annie Mauk do?” – a reference to her Texan grandmother who raised about a dozen children and fed numerous farmhands and neighbors during the Great Depression.

I imagine psychology expert and executive coach Caroline Adams Miller would say Annie Mauk — and her granddaughter — had “grit,” that ingredient necessary to setting and completing long-term goals by overcoming obstacles, accepting criticism and learning from failure.

It’s a quality lacking among many millennials entering the workforce, Miller, author of Getting Grit (2017), told an audience yesterday at a Bethesda Chamber of Commerce event in Maryland. “Millennials have grown up with an inability to take risks,” she told the gathering of more than a hundred local small business leaders. Yet “grit is now considered the key to success,”.

Why don’t many of these young people take risks? Miller pointed to a world in which young people are “being forced to recognize — sometimes against their will — everyone as a winner.” Children earn trophies not for winning a competition, but for simply participating. They grow up with constant applause, grade inflation, safe spaces at colleges where they are protected from views opposing their own.

“I don’t believe they’re fragile, but we’ve told them they’re fragile,” Miller said.

Miller’s book lists a number of steps to cultivate grit (yes, she says, it can be cultivated, in yourself and others). Among the steps are finding a passion, setting hard goals, cultivating patience, being humble, praising wisely.

But Miller also encouraged the audience to cultivate grit in younger people by sharing their own stories of failure and adversity. “There is such a thing as post-traumatic success,” she said, where one finds the tenacity to move forward even after a great setback.

The idea of forging “grit” in future generations by sharing family or ancestral stories isn’t a new one. Several studies have shown the importance of passing along family narratives in order to build resilience. Dr. Marshall Duke, a psychologist at Emory University, helped explore the importance of the family narrative and participated in a 2006 study in which the authors concluded: “Narratives provide understanding, evaluation, and perspective on the events of our lives. Through narrative interactions about the shared past, parents help shape children’s understanding of who they were, who they are now, and presumably who they will be in the future, both as individuals and as members of the family.”

Dr. Duke’s wife Sara, a psychologist working with children with learning disabilities, told a New York Times reporter in 2013, “The ones who know a lot about their families tend to do better when they face challenges.”

And just yesterday, wealth advisor Bingham C. Jamison wrote in Forbes Magazine: “So why should we continuously leverage the lessons of the past?  It’s not just to avoid the doom of repeating it, as the adage goes.  We look to the past, instead, as a source of inspiration and gratitude; for fortitude and belonging; and for wisdom and experience.  We look to our elders, and to those that have gone before us, for direction and guidance, which gives us a renewed sense of purpose and the confidence to pursue it.”

My own sense of determination and resilience, I believe, in great measure came from my knowledge — although limited at the time — about my father’s lifelong accomplishments in the face of many hardships presented during his upbringing and later.

Working with clients on their personal histories, I invariably uncover not just a list of accomplishments, but the stories of their journeys along the way. The hard road of trial and error, failure upon failure, or hard life choices that don’t always lead down the right path initially — or maybe ever — are what often make the story not just interesting, but valuable to future generations.

And as I dig deeper into the client’s reasoning, typically what I uncover is their recollection of their parents or grandparents’ stories of hardship or success that inspired them to work hard. Or sometimes it’s the admiration of a favorite mentor, sibling or other family member’s journey. It’s the story of how they learned to cultivate their own grit.

And it’s the story of “grit” that more and more companies want to hear from young people, Miller says in Getting Grit.

In her research, Miller discovered firms had been “increasingly coming up with unique ways to discern which candidates would bring a strong work ethic, good sense of teamwork, and likeability to their company, and not problems that would necessitate firing these employees later,” she says. “Instead of focusing on GPAs and summer internships, they wanted people … who had nursed a passion for years, and stuck with the activity even when it was difficult and, often, the only reward was the satisfaction of not giving up.”

“I think we can all agree that the world is facing challenges that are daunting and even unprecedented, and that a call for resilience of the highest order is facing us,” she says in the book. “We need resilience, optimism, and determination to overcome setbacks that threaten our flourishing and peace, and we need to arm the next generation — the first in U.S. history predicted not to have the same standard of living as their parent — with the science of happiness and the tools to persevere toward their best and most meaningful lives.”

By Christina L. Lyons

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