Several years ago my daughter and grandchildren were visiting my home during their summer vacation. We saw the sights around town during the day and usually settled in to watch a movie in the evening. I noticed a film that I knew nothing about called Hachi: A Dog’s Tale. It is a movie based on the true story of a famous dog in Japan named Hachika who was so loyal to his master that even after the man had suddenly died, the pup waited for him each afternoon at the train station just as he always had. Hachika continued his loyal watch for nine years and in the process became a celebrity of sorts in Japan. The movie transfers the story to the United States but the theme of the pup’s undying commitment to his human companion is the same.
I’ve always been fascinated by tales of determination to reach a destination or accomplish a skill or a certain task. I have the highest regard for people who refuse to give up even when failure seems inevitable. Literature is replete with heroes like Ulysses who kept their eyes on goals of one kind or another. Whether fictional or factual the individual who creates a goal and sticks with it regardless of obstacles is a source of great inspiration to me.
I suppose that I might be considered to be a bit of a romantic when it comes to life, not so much in the sense of finding a true love, but it the belief that each of us is capable of accomplishing great things if we are steadfast in our willingness to keep trying even in the face of failure and disappointment. Sometimes the most remarkable people are the ones who initially appeared to be fools for believing that they might achieve something that seemed beyond their grasp.
In the world of education we call this kind of determination “grit.” I’ve seen that grit is one of the best indicators of future success. The young man who struggles with mathematics but works tirelessly to finally understand may not have the most natural talent, but he has something even better. He is a person who will hit a wall and then find a way around it. This is someone who will ultimately succeed while others are simply accepting what they see as their fate.
I was often the last person to turn in my tests. It made me question my intelligence because my brain seemed to work so much more slowly than others. Sometimes my fellow students would even groan a bit as they had to silently wait for me to finish my work. I had to learn to ignore not just the implied pressure being place on me, but also my internal doubts about myself. I took my time and allowed my mind to work at its own unique pace. I always did well, but the lingering thought was that somehow I just was not as bright as the people around me. It took me years of growing in confidence and studying how humans learn to realize that I was not less than, just different.
As a society we have a tendency to rank almost every aspect of life. We like to quantify everything from intelligence to happiness. In doing so we forget that numbers really cannot define an individual. While swiftness is critical for a race, it should not be a metric for determining the value or rank of a person. What does it rally matter if someone is able to learn how to simplify radicals in ten minutes or ten days as long as each person ultimately understands the concept? Some of my very best students, who are now also the most successful adults among their peers, were the ones who chose to come to every one of my tutoring sessions because they had been unable to master concepts during the confines of a single lesson.
One such student became the valedictorian of her class. Graduated with high honors from college and slowly but surely worked to earn a PhD. I still remember other teachers commenting that she wasn’t the brightest person in the class but was simply someone who worked hard. Somehow they made her deliberate determination sound like something bad. Instead it was an early indicator that she is a person who is willing to push herself no matter how difficult the going may become. Isn’t that how we should actually be urging everyone to be? Having a willingness to work hard to accomplish something is the most noble of goals. Our loyalty to excellence should demand that each of us pushes ourselves just a bit more and then a bit more with everything that we attempt to do.
I see the faces of students who overcame bonafide learning difficulties, poverty and even abuse by never becoming complacent. Some of them may have taken years to earn college degrees but they never gave up. Then when they found jobs their willingness to work harder than anyone else just as they had always done became a valued trait. They spent so much time learning that they never stopped and eventually even in a world of ranking, they emerged at the top.
When we see the child who struggles in the beginning, but refuses to simply cease the effort, we need to commend him/her. In fact, that person is demonstrating exactly the kind of grit that makes leaders, inventors, creators. Watch for them in your midst and treasure them, for they are the ones on whom our future depends.