The other day, a memory popped into my mind. I was twelve and in the car on the way to tennis camp. Always a shy kid, when I arrived, my throat dropped into my chest when I noted all the kids huddled outside the courts. It was not so much the presence of the kids but the rackets in their hands that caused my chest to tighten. Shiny, black rimmed, and aluminum. I looked at mine and told my mom I felt sick. She didn’t buy it and I was left, standing at the entrance, with her old racket from the ‘70s. Wooden and weird, just like me.
It was miserable. As expected, the other kids didn’t want to partner with the girl with the wooden racket. “Ew what is that?” one kid said. “It was my mom’s,” I replied, turning red. There was no doubt about it. I was in Hell.
On the way to camp the next day I cried in the backseat. I didn’t want to go. I told my mom I’d do anything. Piano. Reading. Dishes. Anything to not be forced into another day where kids ignored me and the teachers pitied me. Immune to my cries, my mother delicately pushed me out of the car to face my fate.
The crying ritual continued for weeks. Yet day after day, my mother swallowed her pity and pushed me out of the car, until finally, tennis camp ended. By the end I was not any better at tennis, didn’t win any awards and had no interest in continuing the sport (hence, my mom’s trepidation at buying me an expensive new racket). I did, however, find myself with a new friend. Delia had taken an interest in me on the second week and while the racket humiliation was still there, I found it lessened by the bubbly girl who did want to be my partner. I’d just survived eight weeks of Hell, an eternity to a twelve-year-old, and not only did I live through it, I ended up with not just a new friend, but a very well-connected member of British aristocracy.
Fast forward ten years, it was this tennis memory that unconsciously propelled me during my first few months in New York. Alone and afraid, I felt the same way entering the island on the Megabus I did entering the courts. Only this time, my mom wasn’t there to push me out of the car. And when my boss took me outside after my first month and told me I was on the chopping block if my articles didn’t get more clicks, I felt the same pit in my stomach.
This time, however, I could quit. No one was there to tell me I couldn’t. I thought about it long and hard on the two subways back to my Upper West apartment I shared with the med student and his stuffed animals. Only as I lied on my futon in my tiny room, I thought about what would happen if I quit. I would just have to start all over again. Be the new girl again. Regain the trust of another boss. I’d already endured a full month – the icy stares of the girls who liked to haze the new girl, the difficult tests given by the guys, the onrush of shock that came with entering any new job. Quitting wouldn’t help, only start the process over again.
So I buckled down. Got up at 5 a.m. for the next year to write more articles, figuring if I couldn’t control how many clicks I got, I could at least double the number of articles I wrote, doubling my click rate. And in a few months the icy block between me and my coworkers had melted as I gained their respect, as I put in my time. And my articles became better, stronger, easier and soon I became the first writer to hit one million clicks on a single article. Within a year I was promoted and during the annual Thanksgiving ‘say what you’re grateful for’ moment, it was my job and my amazing coworkers that I was giving thanks for.
I didn’t realize, until recently, that it wasn’t the tennis memory that was propelling me, but the GRIT my mother had instilled in me. A quality that’s shown to be more important than talent, IQ, or upbringing when it comes to achievement. A skill that one isn’t born with, but can develop throughout his or her life.
While I’m not a mother, I can only imagine how hard it is to push your crying daughter out of a car. She didn’t do it because she didn’t love me, but the opposite. She had to endure her own maternal instinct to protect and shield me and push me into a situation that, though difficult in the moment, would have important lasting effects. She did it despite the pain it was causing both myself and her. She did it because she loved me, because she wanted me to start building up that GRIT that would be needed, over and over again throughout my life.
Angela Duckworth, a psychologist who studies achievement, does this with her own children. After years studying the difference between successful people and talented non-successful people, she found that there was one quality that most psychologists had overlooked up until this point when it came to achievement.
She interviewed people she knew who were at the top of their fields. Investment bankers. People who’d won the McArthur. Musicians. Professors. When she asked others about those at the top of their field, more than saying they were talented, people said they had this tenacity. Dogged perseverance unlike anyone else they know. The ability to overcome failure. Sticking with an uncomfortable, challenging situation, even when they wanted to quit. Grit, according to Duckworth, enables you to be in an uncomfortable place for some part of your day, working extremely hard, and get up and do it all over again.
It sometimes feels like we have nothing left to give, and yet, in those dark and desperate moments, we find that if we just keep putting one foot in front of the other, there is a way to accomplish what all reason seems to argue against.Angela Dukworth
Today, I think these memories of tennis camp and New York are popping into my mind because, almost ten years later, I am on the verge of losing my nerve again. I want to quit. The book marketing feels hard and impossible. My other job is draining and unfulfilling. I just want to give it all up. Curl up in a ball and stop showing up. And my subconscious is trying to remind me that’s not what I do. I’ve felt this way before – cold and alone and scared – and I’ve stuck it out. And all these times have showed me that sticking with it always ends up better than I imagined.
Because something always happens when you stick with it. It may not be what you expect. Usually, in fact, it’s something completely unexpected. Like the lifelong friendship with Delia I made at that terrible summer camp. The amazing career trajectory from the job I wanted to leave. Right now, in both my jobs, I feel a bit tired and weak and out of my league. Like I’m holding a wooden racket. But if I can just hold on, like I always have, outlast my urge to pack it in and give up, then I know something special is waiting for me at the end.
So I guess that’s the message I want to share with you all this week. I know you’re tired. I know you’re burnt-out. I know the days feel long and hard but this is when we have to stick it out. This is when, if we can keep pushing, the wheel starts to turn and the bottom becomes the top and soon enough we’ll find ourselves sitting in a new spot, admiring how far we’ve come, and all we’ve gained by sticking it out. Things will change. Success will show up and we will feel better because we didn’t quit when the going got tough.