Grit, Goals, and Growth
Grit has become the new buzz word in education and parenting thanks to Paul Tough’s best-selling book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. Before we started using the word “grit,” we used words like “stick-to-itiveness” or persistence to describe this desirable character trait. Hard working and disciplined also fit into the description of a person with grit. I know it’s true that kids (and adults) need grit to succeed: to push past failures, to work hard at things they’re not good at, and to eventually find success. But how do we teach grit to a distinctively non-gritty kid (or dare-I-say generation?)- one who quits when something gets hard, who doesn’t want to try anything new or difficult, who prefers playing video games to practicing piano?
I think the keys may be teaching kids to set and work towards goals, and teaching them to adopt a growth mindset.
I love flipping to a new year on my calendar. The empty, clean pages scream out opportunity to me. January represents a chance to start again, make lists, get organized, and set some new goals. But I haven’t always set goals correctly, and I’ve learned a few things about setting goals. First, thanks to Christine Carter, I’ve learned to think of goals in the framework of developing new, better habits. According to Carter, it’s important to take “turtle” steps in starting a new habit so that one can be successful. So, rather than going from zero exercise to making running a marathon your goal, Carter encourages baby steps. Start with a five minute daily walk, she says, so that you can be successful in establishing a new habit rather than undermining your goal by making it a near certain failure. And just work on one goal or habit at a time, rather than a long list.
Second, from a longtime trainer who’s worked with our leadership staff at camp, Debby Winning, I’ve learned about setting SMART goals. Rather than lofty, unmeasurable goals, which are rarely reached, it’s important to make sure goals are:
So, rather than making my goal, “Eat healthy,” I need to say, “Eat five servings of fruit or vegetables each day and make a check mark on my daily calendar each time I eat one .”
I also think it’s important not just to think about a goal but to WRITE IT DOWN and SHARE IT WITH A FRIEND. Most people go through life and don’t even stop to think what their mission in life is and what their goals are. But those who do are the ones who are destined for success. I love the book FIVE: Where Will You Be Five Years From Today, by Dan Zadra. It’s a workbook-style book that talks you through your values and helps you come up with your mission. He also shares the missions of some famous people. Walt Disney’s? “My mission in life is to make people happy.”
One of the valuable skills that we can teach our kids is how to set and reach goals. The start of a new year offers a great clean slate to think about and write down some goals. But goals can be made any time. This year, I’m planning to work on just one goal at a time, rather than on many, unrealistic resolutions.
At our opening campfires at camp, counselors ask kids to share something they want to accomplish at camp. The goal might be trying an activity they’re a little bit scared of, reaching a specific milestone at an activity, or sometimes it’s a social goal, like getting up on stage in front of a big group or making a new friend. We encourage kids to think of something that is outside their comfort zone and a little bit challenging, because those goals are the ones that lead to the greatest feelings of pride and accomplishment.
What about trying the same thing at home? Have each family member share something they’ve dreamed of learning or trying or changing but never have. Then, as a follow up, have them set a realistic, SMART goal around that particular area. Write down each family member’s goal and provide each other with encouragement and support to reach the goal. Try just one goal per person so that it doesn’t get overwhelming.
Goal setting is such an important life skill and something extremely valuable to teach our kids.
In her book Mindset, Carol Dweck outlines the importance of having a growth mindset to have success in any area of life. A growth mindset, according to Dweck, “is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts.” Several of the books I’ve read recently have referred to Dweck’s research about mindset and the importance of teaching kids a growth mindset.
Many of us have a fixed mindset about ourselves and others. We see talent as innate, something we’re born with, and think we (and others) are either good at something or not and that can’t be changed. But the reality is that anyone can improve at anything, as long as they put the hard work in. I was reminded of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers as I read Mindset. Gladwell talks about how the people we think of as “greats” in many fields — sports, business, the arts — put in hours and hours of disciplined hard work to achieve greatness. The 10,000 hours of practice Gladwell talks about as being necessary to reach mastery or greatness at anything has been discussed and quoted by many.
I like the idea of sharing stories with our kids about examples of people who’ve worked extremely hard and practiced a lot to achieve greatness. There are examples in sports and music and many other areas. It’s especially important to share the stories of people who have failed and kept trying (think Abe Lincoln!).
The other important way we teach our kids a growth mindset is using growth mindset rather than fixed mindset praise when complimenting our kids. So, rather than, “You’re so smart to have finished that so fast,” which a child might interpret as smartness = fast work, we might say, “I noticed how you tried different strategies to solve that math problem.” Or, “I’ll make sure to give you more challenging math work next time so that you’ll learn something new.” We want our kids to internalize the value of hard work and effort over broad descriptive adjectives that can backfire. Dweck’s research has shown that telling a kid he or she is smart makes them less likely to take on challenging tasks that might jeopardize their title as a “smart” kid.
A growth mindset goes perfectly with goal setting, because to reach a goal, you need to invest time and effort. And that builds grit.