Review: Grit

Grit

Grit: The Power of Passion and PerseveranceAngela Duckworth. Scribner: New York, 2016.

Summary: Contends that those who achieve outstanding success combine purposeful passion with perseverance–in other words, they have grit.

Angela Duckworth came to a realization as a psychologist that psychology had no good theory of achievement. Talent, IQ, test scores, fitness–none of these were reliable predictors of who would achieve high measures of success. An answer began to emerge as she and colleagues studied those who survived “Beast Barracks,” the first two months of training of cadets at West Point. It came down to the fact that cadets who made it simply did not give up. This led to her developing the first “Grit Scale” which turned out to be the first reliable measure of which cadets would make it through. Duckworth has become convinced that most attempts to assess potential end up getting distracted by talent. The real issue is effort times two. Effort develops talent into skill and effort turns skill into achievement. Perseverance in effort, though, is fueled by purpose. Clarity in top level goals and ruthless evaluating low and mid-level goals in their light is critical. Duckworth concludes this discussion with the example of Robert Mankoff, who had nearly 2,000 cartoons rejected by The New Yorker before getting one accepted in 1977. The real key was determining that he was funny and loved doing this more than anything. From 1997 to 2017, he was cartoon editor, and now is an ongoing contributor.

There is hope for all of us. Duckworth offers a Grit Scale readers can take. Her research suggests that grit can grow over a lifetime as we define a sense of purpose and learn to pick ourselves up after failure and keep going.  It starts with identifying and developing an interest–noticing where our mind goes when it wanders, noticing what we enjoy in a task. Then we develop an interest, exploring its nuances, what keeps making it even more interesting. Practice is key. Gritty people not only practice more but they practice deliberately. They have goals and focus in their practice. Ultimately interest arrives at purpose, a sense of calling, of why one is in the world. Purpose in turn needs to be sustained by hope. Here, one of the key insights is the idea of attribution retraining–the conclusions we draw from events good or bad–are they focused on success or growth. Success says “your a natural. I love that.” Growth says, “you’re a learner. I love that.” Success says, “this is hard. Don’t feel bad if you can’t do it.” Growth says, “this is hard. Don’t feel bad if you can’t do it yet.

Duckworth discusses not only how we cultivate grit, but how others can cultivate it “from the outside in.” Parents cultivate grit by combining high support and high demands. She talks about the Hard Thing Rule in her family: 1) everyone has to do a hard thing, 2) no quitting is allowed until the season or term or whatever interval to which you have committed yourself is over, and 3) each person picks their own hard thing. She studies the “cultures of grit at J.P. Morgan Chase, with the Seattle Seahawks under Pete Carroll, and at West Point. One of her most valuable insights comes from Carroll–the commitment to finish strong in everything.

Duckworth explains her research by examples from her own life and from clients she has worked with and studied across the spectrum of human endeavors. I loved her insights on practice. One of my “hard things” is music, something I’ve picked up late in life. It has been enriching to apply her ideas on deliberate practice to my practice of a major choral work we are performing later this month. Instead of just going over a part, I will work on pronunciation, or counting time to get my entrances down rather than listening to other parts (which usually makes you late). One practice session, I’ll focus on dynamics. Another time, I’ll go over the sections I don’t have “down” until I do.

I’m also fascinated by the high demand-high support culture that creates gritty performance–whether it is parents, sports teams, or businesses. There is both empathy and care, and the relentless demand to keep improving, keep growing, keep stretching. Finally the relationship between perseverance and purpose is intriguing. Perseverance both realizes and expands purpose, and purpose sustains perseverance when it is grounded in hope.

It strikes me in reading this that all of us are capable of more than we think we are. Duckworth’s book suggests that we have hard work to do in two areas. One is in paying attention to the things we really care about and relentlessly focusing our lives around them. Then there is the hard work of turning a talent and a passion into a skill, and the further work of using those skills with determination and focus to achieve worthy goals. That’s grit.

 

Review: Is There Purpose in Biology?

is there purpose in biology

Is There Purpose in Biology?Denis Alexander. Oxford: Lion Hudson, 2018.

Summary: An exploration of the idea purpose in biology, the association of purposelessness with the randomness and chance of evolution and whether this is warranted, and how a Christian perspective may both be consistent with what may be observed, and how Christian theology may deal with questions of pain and suffering in evolutionary processes.

One of the common conclusions advanced with the support of evolutionary theory is that there is no inherent purpose evident in the natural world. Much of this is predicated on a process in which life arises through chance and randomness, and that any apparent purpose is illusory.

Denis Alexander, a researcher in biochemistry and Emeritus Director of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, argues in this book that this is not necessarily a warranted conclusion. First, though he is careful to distinguish between Purpose and purpose. He will not be trying to show evidence of metaphysical Purpose in biology, but that the processes of evolution do evidence purpose in the sense that outcomes were not strictly random, either at a genetic or macro level, but are constrained in certain directions consistent with “purpose.”

Chapter 1 begins with a survey of the use of the language of Purpose and purpose in biology through history from the Greeks up through the beginnings of science, and the subsequent denial of purpose as the theory of evolution became established. Then chapters 2 through 4 get “into the weeds” of evolutionary science.

Chapter 2 argues that the direction of evolution toward increasing complexity over time may be reflective of purpose and also that body size and plan is subject to “allometric scaling” and cannot simply occur in any form or size. Convergence where different species in different lines under similar conditions evolve similar structures, is another example of this. Chapter 3 observes that similar constraints exist at the molecular level. Chapter 4 then looks at the genetic level, and the idea of random mutations. It turns out that mutations are not purely random but seem to occur at particular places on chromosomes. Likewise, forces of natural selection are not random, but also constrain outcomes in certain directions. These chapters are fairly technical, but offer a good glimpse of the current state of the discussions in evolutionary biology, as opposed to popular caricatures.

In chapter 5, Alexander shifts to theological discussion. He recognizes that in practice, people do introduce discussions of Purpose that reflect their worldviews. What he does is articulate an understanding of “top down” creation at work through evolutionary processes–not in the “gaps” but throughout, a version of theistic evolution. A significant aspect of this has to do with his belief in God’s “immanence” in creation, working in and through evolutionary processes.

Chapter 6 concludes the discussion by dealing with one of the problems of his proposal. To argue that God is involved “immanently” in evolutionary processes makes God in some ways responsible for the pain and suffering implicit for both animal and human species facing natural selection, or dying because of mutations leading to genetic defects or cancer. Alexander dismisses responses of “fallen creation” or attributions of suffering to sin, arguing for a kind of “freedom” in evolutionary processes that necessarily includes pain–that God no more compels creation than he does human beings.

I suspect there is material here in every chapter that someone will take exception to, including the basic theistic evolutionary position Alexander takes. Those who dismiss theism will reject Alexander’s case for purpose. Others will struggle with his theodicy. Some would argue that you can see not only purpose but Purpose in biological science in itself. I would contend that the strength of Alexander’s argument is that it is neither dismissive of evolutionary science nor of a God engaged with creation working out God’s purposes. He shows how the two are at least consonant with each other. He chooses a “messy” explanation to the problem of pain that leaves room for mystery rather than pat answers. For those not interested in an oppositional approach to evolution and creation, Alexander’s work offers a way, or at least hints of a way forward.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Power of Meaning

the-power-of-meaning

The Power of MeaningEmily Esfahani Smith. New York: Crown Publishing, 2017.

Summary: Explores the importance of meaning in one’s life, four pillars upon which meaning rests, and how we might cultivate cultures of meaning.

The question of what a life well-lived is one that philosophers and baristas, young and old alike have considered from the earliest records we have of human musings. Emily Esfahani Smith introduces us to the importance of this in describing the beauty of the Sufi community gatherings in which she grew up and the findings of positive psychologists Martin Seligman and Robert Nozick. At one time, it was at the heart of university education and considering the great ideas was to consider how people through history found meaning. No longer. And yet now as ever, people face a crisis of meaning as they try to answer the question of what they are living for.

Smith does not offer a single answer, recognizing that people have answered this in numerous ways in different religions, philosophies, or ways of living. What she does instead is draw upon contemporary research and a wide range of writers and extra-ordinary people who have grappled with questions of meaning to identify four pillars or necessary elements upon which a meaningful live is built or as she puts it, “crafted.”

  • Belonging. She writes of the close knit community of the Tangier Island watermen and the Society for Creative Anachronism as two examples of communities that foster a high sense of belonging and thus meaning for their participants. From infants to old people, isolation is deadly to health and one’s sense of well-being.
  • Purpose. We meet a young zoo-keeper and an ex-con who launched a fitness enterprise after helping first himself and other prisoners get fit. And she gives the example of the NASA janitor who told President Kennedy that it was his purpose to “help put a man on the moon.” Whoever we are, we need some big goal around which we organize our lives.
  • Storytelling. This caught me by surprise at first.  Yet we all need to be able to see the course of our lives as a coherent narrative that makes sense of the world. She tells the stories of The Moth and the Story Corp projects and how significant the telling of stories are for both storytellers and their audiences.
  • Transcendence. She describes the “Overview Effect,” the experience of astronauts having scene the planet as a whole and not being able to ever approach life the same way again. For many, transcendence comes through some form of religious experience, but whatever it is, it is this sense of being part of something vastly greater than oneself.

Her concluding two chapters are on “Growth” and “Cultures of Meaning.” She writes of how often the discovery of meaning comes through adversity, using the examples of the Dinner Party, a gathering for those who have lost loved ones who are trying to find meaning in the midst of their grief, and Dryhootch, a coffee house for veterans suffering from PTSD founded by a vet whose struggles with PTSD led to a drunk driving accident where he killed another man. In “Cultures of Meaning” Smith describes how people have found meaning in communities emphasizing each of the pillars, ranging from a church to an apparel company.

Emily Esfahani Smith’s approach, as you may be able to tell is to mix a bit of research, insights from thoughtful writers like Viktor Frankl, and real life stories. It makes for a highly readable account. She honors both those whose sources of meaning are found in religious faith, and those for whom it is not. While some who are committed to a particular way of defining meaning might find this to “relativistic,” I would contend it is a great way to discover the ways people find meaning besides one’s own way. I could see the book being used for discussions where the object is learning about how others find meaning by exploring where each of us finds belonging, what gives each of us purpose, how each of us would narrate the story of our lives, and where we have experienced transcendence.

It raises good questions, particularly for those in religious traditions, about how one might go deeper in those traditions. We may embrace certain formal beliefs and practices, yet for our faith to be something alive both for us and others, the elements of belonging, purpose, story, and transcendence are indeed essential to living out lives that matter. To whom we belong and who we love, how we translate what we believe about God or whatever Ultimate we affirm into purposeful action, how we make sense of our story as part of a larger Story, and how we cultivate an attentiveness to God or the Ultimate are the things that bring beliefs to life. Ultimately, the “four pillars” must rest on some foundation and not thin air, but a foundation alone does not make a house to live in, but only something on which to build the meaningful life. This book may help us reflect on how well we are building.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher via LibraryThing. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Luminous

Luminous

Luminous, T. David Beck. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2013.

Summary: Explores how purpose, presence, power and peace enable us to radiate the light of Christ in our everyday lives.

“Jesus never intended his people to sit in neat rows like drones on Sunday mornings, or even to fill up our schedules doing things for him because we think he would like them. He wants relationship—such a close relationship, in fact, that he actually shines through us. That’s how he wants to show the world who he is.”

It was to this conviction that David Beck came after a life-changing mission trip to Haiti when he had the opportunity to save the life of a sick child he had been looking after in a feeding program. This led him to a fresh embrace of the truth that living the Christian life was not a matter of living for Jesus but with him, in which his presence becomes luminous in our lives.

In this book, Beck traces the formational practices that position us to shine with the light of Christ under four words: purpose, presence, power, and peace. First of all in chapter two he talks about embracing the missional purpose of Jesus and to keep saying “yes” to that purpose in a life of ever deepening surrender. Chapters 3 through 5 explore the idea of presence with God, our bodies, and each other. Striking here to me is that Beck joins a growing number of those who stress the importance of affirming our embodied life and the practices of offering that life to God.

Chapters 6 through 8 focus on power. There is paradox here as he talks about the power of surrender and the power of humility in the first two of these chapters. Yet the surrender is indeed empowering as we surrender our tyrannous selves to the God who can free us, as we relinquish prideful control to be receptive and available to God. All this opens us to the empowering presence of the Spirit of God, which he discusses in chapter 8. This may make some uncomfortable with its openness to Pentecostalism and yet focuses on the essential that life- and light-giving ministry must be in the power of the Spirit. He affirms a simple, wait-receive-go pattern to ministry.

Chapter 9 then speaks of a peace or shalom that re-frames evangelism as compassion that draws people into conversation about Jesus, mercy that models the mercy of God toward all, and justice that seeks the liberation of people from spiritual as well as physical oppression. The book then concludes with the challenge to accept trials and a life of simplicity in a high contrast life of light in darkness.

One of the most helpful aspects of the book are pauses at the end of almost every section to reflect and act upon the content of each section and prayer exercises at the end of most chapters. What separates this book from many books on mission and many books on spiritual formation is how it unites the two of these at a very personal, and not merely theoretical level. Yet this makes so much sense. Mission is leading people into encounters with the living, risen Christ and how can this occur if He is not indeed living within us?