I was walking a pretty hard path when I arrived in New York City on September 8, 2001. My parents dropped me off at an illegal sublet with about six weeks’ worth of my own savings to live on and no job. If I didn’t find one before the cash ran out, I had to return home and make a new plan. Failure was a very real option and they supported me no matter what.
Just three days later was September 11, 2001. My mother’s first instinct was to come and get me, to rescue me from the world and myself. But she never came. As a mother, I can’t imagine the strength it took to just sit and wait. To know that I was a veritable stranger in a city turned upside down by terrorists. I had no job and few friends. I’m sure she silently prayed and wished and hoped for the best possible outcome. That some sort of combination of fate and internal fortitude would combine to keep me safe. It did. A few weeks later, I found a job. Somewhat to my amazement, I found my footing. I moved forward with a slightly stronger conviction in my abilities.
There is a large body of evidence to suggest that what I found in those first weeks in New York City, and that what my parents gave me the latitude to explore, is roughly defined as grit: the ability to cope, persevere, re-calibrate and attain your goals in the face of life’s obstacles.
Angela Duckworth, an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, has made the study and cultivation of this concept of grit the central focus of her research. In an April 2013 TED Talk Duckworth describes that “…when kids read and learn about the brain and how it changes and grows in response to challenge, they’re much more likely to persevere when they fail, because they don’t believe that failure is a permanent condition.”
For a generation of parents who practically mainline parenting best practices through every possible print and online source, the concept of letting our children fail must seem like a cruel joke. We parent by monitoring and reviewing their lives. Eat this, play that, do this, see this, not that. The idea of a parenting best practice defined effectively by our non-intervention? Well that requires an entirely different level of parenting mettle.
Many years later in that same city I walked into a bar in the West Village to have a casual drink with a man who would one day be my husband. We were both well-traveled on the broken road. We had both failed in many different and traditional ways. We had failed at relationships and jobs. We were alone and we struggled. And more than once, by more than one standard, we failed. It was the greatest thing we ever did.
That’s because it laid the groundwork for meeting each other and for loving each other; for being the blank canvases with open hearts that we were when we showed up that night. Indeed, I am so grateful for all of the moments that led up to that night, for the interviews I bombed or wayward ill-fitting jobs I never should’ve accepted, for the blur of years spent on horrendous first dates, for the too many to count late nights spent eating takeout sushi and watching Extreme Home Makeover with the top half of me still dressed from work and the bottom half of me in street fair sweat pants. I am grateful because these moments helped me develop skills that would ultimately enable me to find and build my own happiness. They made me hungry for more.
As a parent, I think a lot about wanting to place my kids in a bubble, about wanting to shield them from hurt and struggle and failure. But I can’t help but think how wrong that is. About how good and useful it can be in this life to wander with no particular purpose at all, about how great it can be to fall and to fail once in a while, because all of that is shaping them for something bigger, something great.
That broken and gritty road can really take them just about anywhere. As it did for me, it just might even lead them home.
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