Reporting in the New York Times, David Epstein tells us about the work of Angela Duckworth, a psychologist who conducted extremely useful research into the business of quitting. Her work, originally with the Army, was intended to predict who, among the freshmen intake, would drop out and who would stay. The regime through which they were grilled was, to put it mildly, rough. It required them to withstand bullying, pointless orders and a physical programme that would daunt an Olympic Gold. At the intake those apparently most likely to survive were identified by their record to date and their high achievements. They were not always the stayers.
Those who have mentored rising stars know the syndrome. Flashing youth achieves confidence older people will envy. The medals, approbation and adulation come quickly. Some will fall at this point because they become overconfident. They have been spoilt. They are not this problem. After a period of reflection, probably bad behaviour and maybe even brushes with the law they will either pull themselves together – with the help of others – or go under maybe for the rest of their lives
When I say they are not the problem I don’t mean they aren’t one. Of course they are. But they are different from the problem Duckworth was trying to unwrap – the problem mentors come across frequently. It is the bright youngster who found it easy to excel, who gets legitimately promoted to a top opportunity and who then fails, even as his or her equally, or even less successful colleagues go on to make the grade.
Why are those of apparently equal abilities so different when it comes to quitting?
There is a clue from some advice my father gave my sister and I, then aged 6 and 8, during WWII. Dad was committed all day and most of the night to run the North Atlantic convoys being attacked by German U-Boats (submarines). We were left on our own much of the daytime, often when bombs were falling. He told us that if we found ourselves alone at a disaster scene we should look for someone of modest stature, not someone outstanding. A humble man would look after us first, he said, whereas a superior-looking fellow would first care for himself.
It was good advice and it explains the essence of grit, of the determination to see things through regardless of personal danger. In helping high-flyers maintain their achievements we seek people who are outward-looking rather than inward-looking. The one concerned with other people will win every time. S/he cares less for personal glory than for helping others achieve success. The long-distance runners may be lonely but they will be persevering. A self-centered sprinter will quit when the going gets tough. (Of course there are many non-self-centered sprinters!)
There is a further twist to the subject of grit. Let’s return to those who fall and maybe never get up again. We see many of these, too. They suffer from despair, the opposite of grit. Their lives are dominated by self-pity, often fully justified but deadly in how it destroys a personality. Not for them the Alcoholics Anonymous embracing hug or the drug rehabilitation centre’s persistent understanding. They feel abandoned, left to disintegrate. They see skid row as a prelude to peace even though they don’t want to die. To help rescue one of these is such a privilege.
What is the first lesson? ‘You are on your own’ however many people you have supporting, loving, caring for you. ‘You are on your own.’ Until you determine to stand on your own feet you have no chance of getting up and getting on. You give people this message as fast as they can take it, no faster. But you do give it to them. Meanwhile you must seduce them back to life. I don’t mean you have to sleep with them. The seduction of which I speak is a subtle mixture of encouragement and genuine love that only a person can give.
No process is capable of this. No system can achieve it. Once you have hit bottom you know what it is like. It is a reflection of a deeply felt care that carries with it enough expectation of success but not too much, enough offer of friendship but not too much, enough genuine love but not too much. We have seen many people go on to achieve outstanding success. The challenge these people present is formidable. The reward – first for them, but also for us – of succeeding is too remarkable to be able to describe. It is as if a candle has been lit that will never go out again.
You may not need to light a candle like that but someone near you does. As we think of others during Christmas or the Mid-Winter Festival, see if you can find someone who is badly down. Rescue them along the lines I have suggested.
Forever after, Christmas will mean more to you than you could have imagined.
And unbelievably more to them.