Grit, or the lack thereof, has become something of a pet peeve of mine. I find that I am happiest when I'm grittiest. My moments of inspiration always come when I am focused on finishing something. Inspiration comes after the point when I want to stop working or focusing. If I stop at that point, I don't get inspired. But if I keep going, my urges to go the bathroom every fifteen minutes, to have a snack, to check e-mail all give way to my urge to work on what I'm doing.
Case in point: Spring, 2007, finishing my biology honors thesis. I stayed up late. I really got in the groove. Suddenly, making that last figure with those sequence alignments was exciting, a finishing touch, rather than just something to put off. I was not thrilled by the thesis I turned in minutes past the deadline that day. It wasn't great. It had mistakes. I was really disappointed with it, in fact. But having to meet that deadline made me realize what I really wanted my thesis to be.
Between the time I turned in the thesis to the committee and the day I had to turn in the thesis for printing, I was truly inspired. I got lots of exciting scientific ideas and added them to the document. I made some new figures. I wanted to work on my thesis all the time. The act of preparing the thesis for the committee and focusing on the thesis allowed me to achieve that next level of inspiration.
I remember that after I'd turned in the thesis, I believe for printing, I had quite a high. Before sleeping that night, I did a statistics assignment and got really "into it." The next day, I cleaned my lab, organized my tubes, and did the lab dishes. Then my advisor came and helped me rinse dishes, and we had a nice conversation. Things had been awkward with my advisor during the period before my thesis got going. I worried that she was unhappy with my progress. But this the opposite. I'd done a fabulous job on my thesis and was now icing the cake by doing a chore without being asked. I was so happy! I was on a roll.
Back to the main topic of this post. I do think that grit is something that has to be taught. I think that these Tools of the Mind programs have the right idea. Grit must be taught because it is counter-intuitive. In my case, to be truly inspired, I had to do what I'd been putting off. I had to work past the point when I wanted to give up. In the end, persevering made me ecstatic. What I really want in life is that ecstatic feeling, that inspiration. In order to reach that point, I had to resist doing what I wanted (sleeping, or anything to procrastinate, really) in order to focus and persevere. Because it requires momentarily resisting one's urges, grit and the resulting inspiration is unlikely to come accidentally. It's unlikely to come without some external pressure, like a deadline or a teacher's instruction. That's why I think grit is something that should be taught in school.
I worry that children in un-schooling "programs" will not learn grit. Un-schooling is a kind of home-schooling in which children follow their own interests, rather than a curriculum. I think that these programs lack the external pressure that makes people focus enough to really get somewhere.
On the other hand, children do seem to be able to focus remarkably well. Maybe they do have some innate grit. My niece, who is being un-schooled, is the epitome of focus as she reads a book at the kitchen table, ignoring her food and the people around her. She could read a book during a hurricane. I remember when I had the reading bug, and my friends have similar memories of reading in the early grades.
But will she voluntarily focus on memorizing the amino acid structures (which are nice to know but not fun to learn)? I don't think so.
The Tools of the Mind program emphasizes focused play as a way to teach grit. Throughout my life, I have been privileged enough to engage in a kind of focused play: study of the arts. Ballet classes are focused dancing. In them, you don't just dance the way you feel like dancing, you focus on doing prescribed exercises. By the end of class, you feel great, perhaps even inspired. You might not have felt great, though, at the end of the barre exercises. You might even have wanted to quit at that point. Luckily, the structure of the class forces you to persevere past that point of discomfort. If you then go and dance freely, your warmed-up body can do wonderful, inspired things.
Practicing an instrument is also focused play. At lessons, the teacher leads you through exercises that you later are expected to practice on your own. You learn to go through the exercises by yourself. You develop an internal pressure to focus. When I practice violin, I don't fool around. That's something I learned from taking music lessons as a kid.
It would be great if schools also taught children to focus. It's something everyone, not just privileged children, should learn. It's something particularly important to learn in this day and age, the age of the evil iPhone.
I think that the iPhone is grit's nemesis. It's the evil distraction, the Devil on your left shoulder. It inspires people to drop what they're doing to check e-mail or send a quick text message. I've read that kids nowadays are often caught texting under the table at family dinners. Not only does a phone's constant pestering distract people from what they're doing, it also prevents them from later having a reason to sit down and write a thoughtful letter synthesizing the information they have been texting and twittering all day long.
On the subject of "this day and age," let's think about a former day and age. I recently read a book about growing up in the 50's, Bill Bryson's The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid. In this memoir, he described how kids used to be at a loss for things to do. Their parents would tell them to go out and play and they had to find something to do. They would almost focus on something because they couldn't find anything else to do. Bryson knew his town inside and out because he had nowhere else to go. He would read a magazine cover to cover because it was the only thing he had to read at the moment.
In our time, in this part of the world, anyway, one is never at a loss for things to read. There's an information overload. Focusing may be more difficult than it was in the past, but it's just as rewarding.
Now let me make one last point. I do fear that being able to instantly publish one's writing in the form of blog posts can deprive one of that moment when a piece of writing, after extensive editing, really blossoms. Blog posts can be flighty things. Blog posts don't requre grit, ironically, and they often lack focus. However, I do focus when I am writing a post like this one. I didn't check e-mail for the whole two hours I was writing this. It's not focus on a grand scale. This is not my magnum opus. But it was a good exercise, and it did keep my attention. So there.