September 10th, 2017

I finished Angela Duckworth’s Grit: The Power Of Passion And Perseverance yesterday and for the first time in many years, perhaps decades, I truly came across a new, for me, way to look at planning and goal setting. For most of my life I have relied on the wisdom of Charles Hobbs as recorded in his book: Time Power.

Hobbs taught me to think of planning in terms of my immediate (daily) goals that are informed by my short-term goals which are informed by my intermediate goals which are informed by my long-term goals which, at the highest level, are informed by my universal principles. This pyramid structure, for me, resulted in a myriad of goals spreading out from no less than 11 UPs.

Duckworth has taught me that truly successful people, those, in her terms, with Grit, function with a Life Philosophy, a single idea (or possibly two ideas: professional and personal) that informs all that you do. What spoke to me was her reference to a Sport’s Illustrated interview with Hall-Of-Fame pitcher Tom Seaver. Duckworth writes:

When he retired in 1987, a the age of forty-two, he’d compiled 311 wins, 3,640 strikeouts, 61 shutouts, and a 2.86 earned run average. In 1992, when Seaver was elected to the Hall Of Fame, he received the highest-ever average of votes: 98.8 percent. During his twenty-year professional baseball career, Seaver aimed to pitch the best I possibly can day after day, year after year. Here is how that intention gave meaning and structure to all his lower-order goals:

[Pitching] determines what I eat, when I go to bed, what I do when I’m awake. It determines how I spend my life when I’m not pitching. If it means I have to come to Florida and can’t get tanned because I might get a burn that would keep me from throwing for a few days, then I never go shirtless in the sun. If it means when I get up in the morning I have to read the box scores to see who got two hits off Bill Singer last night instead of reading a novel, then I do it. If it means I have to remind myself to pet dogs with my left hand or throw logs on the fire with my left hand, then I do that, too. If it means in the winter I eat cottage cheese instead of chocolate chip cookies in order to keep my weight down, then I eat cottage cheese.

The life Seaver described sounds grim. But that now how Seaver saw things:

Pitching is what makes me happy. I’ve devoted my life to it…. I’ve made up my mind what I want to do. I’m happy when I pitch well so I only do those things that help me be happy.

What I mean by passion is not just that you something you care about. What I mean is that same ultimate goal in an abiding, loyal, steady way. You are not capricious. Each day, you wake up thinking of the questions you fell asleep thinking about. You are, in a sense, pointing in the same direction, ever eager to take even the smallest step forward than to take a step to the side, toward some other destination. At the extreme, one might call your focus obsessive. Most of your actions derive from their significance from their allegiance to your ultimate concern, your life philosophy.

Grit is about holding the same top-level goal for a very long time. Furthermore, this life philosophy is so interesting and important that it organizes a great deal of your waking activity. In very gritty people, most mid-level and and low-level goals are, in some way or another, related to that ultimate goal.

Previously, I’ve thought that such narrow focus, such obsessiveness, was the purview of people who are uber successful in one area, but total losers in every other aspect of their lives—Lance Armstrong is the example I most often raise—and I recognize that that still may be the case. Duckworth, however, tempers her position this way:Like Seaver I have one goal hierarchy for work: Use psychological science to help kids thrive. But I have a separate goal heirarchy that involves being the best mother I can be to my two daughters. As any working parent knows, having two ultimate concerns isn’t easy. There seems never to be enough time, energy or attention to go around. I’ve decided to live with that tension. As a young woman, I considered alternatives—not having my career or not raising a family—and decided that, morally, there was no right decision, only a decision that was right for me.

As a young man, I very consciously made the decision to not be a father because I know myself well enough to realize that my own goals would be more important than meeting the needs of any children. I love children, my nieces and nephews and students are wonderful people, but they are all the primary responsibility of other adults far better inclined and equipped to see them to adulthood than I would ever be.

Duckworth concludes her book with one final thought, an examination of a great writer, one of my personal heroes, Ta-Nehisi Coates. In 2015, Coates received a MacArthur Foundation Genius Award. Duckworth extracted the following from Coates remarks in the video included on his MacArthur Foundation page, and framed them as a poem:

The Challenge of writing
Is to see your horribleness on the page
To see your terribleness
And then go to bed.

And wake up the next day,
And take that horribleness and that terribleness,
And refine it,
And make it not so terrible and not so horrible.
And then go to bed again.

And come back the next day,
And refine it a little bit more,
And make it not so bad.
And then go to bed until the next day.

And do it again,
And make it maybe average.
And then one more time,
If you’re lucky,
Maybe you get to good.

And if you’ve done that,
That’s a success.

Duckworth ends with this:

If you define genius as working toward excellence, ceaselessly, with every element of your being—then, in fact, my dad is a genius, and so am I, and so is Coates and, if you’re willing, so are you.

I always carry a number of special pencils with me that I give to my students. I also keep several at hand for my own use. The black pencils have the following printed in gold letters down their length: Genius is doing the work, NOW!

The rest is easy.

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