What makes some children succeed while others fail? More generally, what drives some people to great achievement while others languish, their dreams unfulfilled? That is the question that intrigued American writer Paul Tough. His answer is contained in his book How Children Succeed, published last month.
Tough discovered that what makes the difference is not intelligence, skill or native ability. It isn’t cognitive at all. The difference, he argues, lies in character, in traits such as discipline, persistence, self-control, zest, gratitude, optimism, curiosity, courage and conscientiousness. One dimension, though, matters more than all the others. He calls it grit: the ability to keep going despite repeated failures and setbacks. People with grit grow. People without it are either defeated by life’s challenges or – more likely – become risk-averse. They play it safe.
I am fascinated by the stories of people who had grit, who overcame repeated failures and rejections. I think of the lonely single mother, close to destitution, who sat in coffee bars writing a children’s novel to earn some money, only to find that the first twelve publishers to whom she sent the manuscript rejected it. She kept going. You’ve heard of her. Her name is J. K. Rowling.
I think of another writer of a book about children who suffered even more rejections, twenty-one in all. The book was eventually published. It was called “Lord of the Flies,” and its author, William Golding, was eventually awarded the Nobel Prize for literature.
The most famous failure of our time was the late Steve Jobs. In his magnificent commencement address at Stanford University he told the story of the three blows of fate that shaped his life: dropping out of university, being fired from the company he founded, Apple, and being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Rather than being defeated by them, he turned them all to creative use, eventually returning to Apple and developing three of the iconic inventions of the twenty first century, the I-pod, I-phone and I-pad.
The house of the Chief Rabbi happens to be close to a street called Abbey Road. Fifty years after the group that made it famous had their first hit, you can still see crowds of tourists being photographed on the world’s most celebrated zebra crossing. Their first audition has passed into legend. They performed for a record company only to be told that guitar bands were on their way out. The verdict, in January 1962, was: “The Beatles have no future in show business.”
J.K. Rowling, William Golding, Steve Jobs and the Beatles were not, as far as I know, religious people. Some people just have grit. It is part of their nature. But what about the rest of us? Can you learn grit? Can you acquire it if you were not born with it? I am not sure there is a general answer to that question, but here is a personal one.
I have known my share of failures. Early in my career I was turned down for almost every job I applied for. It took me two years after qualifying as a rabbi to find a congregation. From the age of twenty, one of my ambitions was to write a book. I tried and failed for twenty years. I still have a filing cabinet full of books I started and did not complete. Finally, energized by a statement of George Bernard Shaw that if you are going to write a book you had better do it by the time you are forty, I completed my first at that age and have written one a year ever since. I learned to embrace failure instead of fearing it.
Why? Because at some point on my religious journey I discovered that more than we have faith in God, God has faith in us. He lifts us every time we fall. He forgives us every time we fail. He believes in us more than we believe in ourselves. He mends our broken hearts. I never cease to be moved by the words of Isaiah: “Even youths grow tired and weary and the young may stumble and fall, but those who hope in the Lord renew their strength. They soar on wings like eagles, they run and don’t grow weary, they walk and don’t grow faint.”
The greatest source of grit I know, the force that allows us to overcome every failure, every setback, every defeat, and keep going and growing, is faith in God’s faith in us.
(First published in The Times)