Does Talent Beat Grit?

Manhattan’s myriad of high rises reflects the talent, creativity, passion, and perseverance that created them over a century.

America is mesmerized by talent or what passes for it. Nearly two decades of televised contests have drawn huge audiences: snarky Simon Cowell’s America’s Got Talent (despite the fact that he is a Brit), music’s chameleon + EGOT John Legend (1) provides counsel on The Voice, granddaddy show American Idol still selecting soloists, and aging Dancing with the Stars, where contestants have put on their dancing shoes and coaxed themselves into spandex for years.

But are we sending the wrong message? Does talent alone win the race?

No question American Idol Grand Dame Kelly Clarkson towers over country music, winning three Grammy’s (12 nominations), and a slew of Video Music Awards before expanding into television to be a judge on The Voice, and earning Daytime Emmy’s in 2020 and 2021 for her talk show. But would we even know her name today if she did not squeeze every opportunity out of her American Idol crowning and diligently work to assure her worthiness?

Most cannot boast a true “talent” that towers over others in our field, so does that mean we will never achieve “success?” Grammy Award-winning musician and Oscar-nominated actor Will Smith has thought a lot about talent, effort, skill, and achievement. “I’ve never really viewed myself as particularly talented,” he said. “Where I excel is ridiculous, sickening work ethic.” Since May the 51-year-old has worked the gym to turn his Pandemic-weakened body into a muscular physique, better than before 2000.

Psychologist Angela Duckworth studied the “talent vs. grit” question after teaching math to elementary students on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. She thought, like many of us, that talent trumped about everything until she had an average student who kept pounding away at the problems until the light went on.

Duckworth’s Chinese father was fixated on creating “genius” children. She assured him she was not one, even when she received a McArthur (“genius grant”) Fellowship in 2014. What she wanted to tell him as a kid: “I’m going to grow up to love my work…I won’t just have a job. I will have a calling. I will challenge myself every day. When I get knocked down, I will get back up. I may not be the smartest person in the room, but I’ll strive to be the grittiest.”

In 2016 after over a decade of research, plus writing time, she poured her thoughts into Grit, (2) a book documenting her work showing how people extend their passion beyond talent with perseverance. Unlike struggling to identify talent, her research shows we lesser mortals can develop “grit.” Duckworth conducted research at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point to test out her theory. Each year 14,000 juniors apply, just 1,200 are enrolled. Most of these men and women were varsity athletes, even team captains in high school. Yet one in five would drop out of West Point before graduation. A high percentage leave in the first summer, during “Beast” the “most physically and emotionally demanding part of your four years at West Point…designed to help you make the transition from new cadet to Soldier.”

These were cadets who scored well on the Whole Candidate Score judging preparation for the rigors of West Point. This included a weighted average of SAT or ACT exam scores, high school rank adjusted for the number of students in the graduating class, an expert appraisal of leadership potential, and physical fitness performance.

Military psychologist Mike Matthews, who worked with Duckworth, explained his personal reaction to Air Force training: “I was tired, lonely, frustrated, and ready to quit—as were all of my classmates.” What kept him and the remaining classmates from moving forward? A “never give up” attitude. Now Duckworth wanted to know if this applied to elite athletes.

Every four years elite competitive swimmers—multiple gold medal winners that included superstars Michael Phelps and Mark Spitz—bring their “talent” to our screens. Sociologist Dan Chambliss traveled with swimmers and their coaches for six years, from local meets to the elite teams composed of future Olympians. “It is as if talent were some invisible substance behind the surface reality of performance, which finally distinguishes the best among our athletes,” Chambliss said. “These great athletes seem blessed ‘with a special gift, almost a ‘thing’ inside of them denied to the rest of us—perhaps physical, genetic, psychological, or physiological. Some have it and some don’t. Some are natural athletes, and some aren’t.”

But Chambliss found biographies of great swimmers reveal many contributing factors: parents who were interested in the sport, earned enough money to pay for coaching, travel to swim meets and access to a pool, plus thousands of hours of practice in the pool developing muscle memory, all leading up to the “flawless” performance we see on our screens during the Olympics. All those hours polishing the apple until it turns gold.

 “With everything perfect, we do not ask how it came to be,” philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche writes. “We rejoice in the present fact as though it came out of the ground by magic.”

Duckworth points to Nietzsche, who preferred that we not talk about giftedness or inborn talents. “One can name great men (note: and women) . . .They all possessed that seriousness of the efficient workman which first learns to construct the parts properly before it ventures to fashion a great whole; they allowed themselves time for it, because they took more pleasure in making the little, secondary things well than in the effect of a dazzling whole.”

There is no better example of the “little, secondary things” (rivets) that build into a “dazzling whole” than the persevering craftsmen of the Iroquois tribe, Mohawks, trained ironworkers. They built the Victoria Bridge near Quebec in 1886. Their work required not just personal strength, but mental fortitude, willingly facing death from great heights every single day. They learned climbing skills and absorbed from their elders the courage to venture out onto steel girders suspended in space far above the city.

Mohawks are not superhuman. Thirty-three Kahnawake (Mohawk) died in the collapse of the Quebec Bridge in 1907. That did not end the tribe’s commitment to urban structures. The next generation drove 12 ½ hours to Manhattan (and home on weekends) to walk on 12-inch girders fifty or more stories above the city’s sidewalks while drilling rivets into the 1,046- foot Chrysler Building (1930) and the 1,250-foot Empire State (1931) and the Rockefeller Center (1932-1939). In cold weather, ice needed to be scrapped off the beams before work began. No safety lines existed in those days. (3)

The Mohawks continued to work above the city to constructing five more skyscrapers (the UN, the Woolworth Building, the Seagram Building before applying their skills. Then the veteran ironworkers applied their skills to erect the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers from 1968 to 1973. Over the years Mohawk families moved to an enclave in Brooklyn, so the ironworkers were in New York to help rescue people from the burning towers in 2001 and provided their expertise to disassemble the metal protrusions from the building’s remains following 911.

Being an ironworker throughout the 20th century and into the 21st requires a fearlessness to push higher into the sky, ensuring the buildings continued to rise. No better definition of “grit” exists than the work ethic of those who built America’s towers of business and entertainment, some sacrificing their lives, to provide these lasting monuments to their perseverance.

NOTES:

  1. Legend is one of 16 performers who have been awarded the ultimate creative quad–an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony for their performances on TV, in music, film, and the stage.
  2. Angela Duckworth, Grit, The Power of Passion and Perseverance (New York: Scribner, 2016) Quotes can be found in her work.
  3. https://dailygazette.com/wp-content/uploads/fly-images/143928/0e-exhibit1-940×940.jpg Mohawk Skywalkers at New York City Museum

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