Thursday, August 3, 2017

Success - grit or luck?

For the past five years, I’ve been tutoring three girls in a children’s home once a week. In English only, of course, because I’m not much good at teaching any other subject. I’ve seen them mature from gawky 13 year olds into young ladies. Two of them did well enough in their high school examinations to gain full scholarships into college, while the third has started work as a clerk. I am inordinately proud of them, that they have managed to surmount their abusive backgrounds and disadvantages to start a new phase in their lives with bright futures ahead of them. They worked hard, of course, but  they were also given a break.

I watched a TED talk recently where a psychiatrist spoke about what she thought was the galvanising factor to success - grit and determination. Not intelligence or social background. Not money or education. She said that in her studies of all those who succeeded, from students to executives and moguls, it was their grit and can-do attitude that made them rise to the top.

Now I kind of agree with some of that. We need to persevere at what we’re doing in order to make a go of it. There are very few cases of instant success stories. Even those we view as pop stars like Justin Bieber had to put in their 10,000 hours of hard work before they found fame. But then I wonder? What about the thousands of construction or farm workers who are equally determined to rise above their circumstances? They are gritty and work just as hard as the executives in their suits and ties. But how many of them will make it out of the rut they're in?

Which is why I think it’s not enough to have the determination to achieve success. We also need a little bit of luck, or someone to give us a break.

There’s a guy in my condo, an immigrant from a poorer nation (whether legal or not I don’t know), who goes around offering a carwash service. Well, it’s more like a car splashing and wiping service, because he cleans our cars with water from a pail. HIs charges are far cheaper than the neighborhood car wash, and he does it regularly a few times a week. He works very hard because obviously most of the cars are only around after office hours. So I can see him cleaning cars very early in the morning and also late into the night.

I did some quick calculations and figure he makes more money than many executives. He’s doing so well that he’s taken on any assistant, and if he’s enterprising (and I know he is) he can corner the whole market with the many condos in the area. My point is that while he is a very hard worker and shows grit and determination, he was also given a break. Someone gave him this opportunity to come in and wash our cars and he took it from there.

From the very start, I tried to instil some discipline in the three girls I tutored, and reminded them constantly that they had to work very hard at their studios. Doubly hard in fact, because they didn’t have the advantages that their other classmates had in their stable families, with access to more books, travel, cable TV and the internet. I encouraged them to read as many books as they could get their hands on, and write and speak. They had to be determined themselves to make something of their lives. But despite their disadvantaged backgrounds, they were given a break too. Living in the children’s home meant that they were taken away from their abusive environment. And going to a good school nearby ensured that they were exposed to good teachers and mentally stimulating classes.

So in addition to displaying grit and determination, we all need a break or two. The sad thing is that some of us never recognize a break when we're handed one. Being raised in a safe, nurturing environment. Good education and healthcare. A leg up somewhere. Even being born with a silver spoon. Sometimes we just whine about what we don’t have that we forget to be thankful for what we have been blessed with and make full use of that break.