Many of you have probably heard of The Greatest Generation, or the people who lived through World War II. And when I say Rosie the Riveter, you can probably even strike the iconic pose for me, with or without the red polkadotted head scarf. For at least the past few decades, we have romanticized the 1940s and the Greatest Generation who lived then, with their cute A-line dresses, sausage roll hair-dos and dashing military uniforms. And while I won’t deny that their fashion was more iconic (what is happening with fashion right now? are we doing 90s again? I am a Project Runway and Next in Fashion watcher, but I can’t say I ‘get’ what the aesthetic is in 2020), I think what really earned them such a place in history was their grit.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve been reading the book Grit by Angela Duckworth. In it, she presents compelling research that it’s the pairing of passion and perseverance, what she calls grit, that makes a person successful rather than pure talent.

“In sum, no matter the domain, the highly successful had a kind of ferocious determination that played out in two ways. First, these exemplars were unusually resilient and hardworking. Second, they knew in a very, very deep way what it was that they wanted. They not only had determination, they had direction. It was this combination of passion and perseverance that made high achievers special. In a word, they had grit.”

Even though we all love a ‘natural’ and give this as a complement to people who seem really successful at a certain skill, talent alone doesn’t ensure success. It’s the effort that you put in to hone your talent that creates a skill and it is continued effort at improving that skill, what Duckworth calls ‘deliberate practice’, that creates achievement.

I would argue that it’s this double dose of effort that we’re going to need to ensure our success as a society not only during but as we rise out of our current situation. Let’s think back to the Greatest Generation example once again. These people had perseverance by the boatload. When food was scarce and needed for the troops, they started victory gardens. When taxes alone weren’t enough to pay for the war effort, those who could also bought war bonds. When more metal was needed, they had tinfoil drives. Even kids got in on the action, or at least I am led to believe such things by Molly from the American Girl books I read as a kid.

An assortment of WWII ads for victory gardens.

But would perseverance alone be enough to drive people to such action? To sacrifice self-comforts, needs and wants? I don’t think so. I think they also had a clear and unwavering passion for what it meant to be American: the promise of freedom and a better life for anyone who was gritty enough to try. It was not ok with them that this freedom was being stripped from an entire group of people half a world away. So they fought, in every way that they could, for as long as they needed to.

So now, I say to you, employees of Denver, and local government servants everywhere, do you have the grit it’s going to take to serve our community better, more fully and in ways you’ve never had to before? If not, Duckworth provides some great suggestions on how to grow your grit. You’ll need to read the book to really wrap your mind around these, but below is a Meg’s Notes version:

  • Interest – In order to have passion for your work, you need to do something you have a personal interest in. But initial interest isn’t enough. Grit paragons keep learning new things to deepen their interest in and passion for their work.
  • Practice – Continuous improvement, deliberate practice, a stretch goal, undivided attention, great effort and seeking feedback on what to improve are all a part of the gritty person’s practice.
  • Purpose – “What ripens passion is the conviction that your work matters.” Reflect on how your current work offers a positive contribution to society and think about small, meaningful ways to change your job to add more of this. Find inspiration in a purposeful role model.
  • Hope – This ‘rising-to-the-occasion kind of perseverance’ is needed as you move through all of these grit-growing stages. Build a growth mindset. Practice optimistic self-talk to increase your perseverance over adversity and ask for a helping hand.

The current pandemic has taken a lot away from us, some more than others. If you’ve lost a loved one, or your livelihood, it’s hard to see anything positive about what’s happening right now. We also know that communities of color are experiencing these hardships disproportionately, which brings even more of a spotlight to the inequities of our current systems. Let’s use this as more passion and purpose to get gritty about lasting solutions. Hard times are where grit is born and where it is needed most. If we believe that, then our current situation has given us is the opportunity to be The Grittiest Generation. To turn this devastation into a chance to meet our community’s needs more equitably, passionately and successfully than ever before.

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