Last December, literary critic and New York Times editor Parul Sehgal questioned the growing chorus of calls for greater resilience and grit on the part of younger folks. In a piece for the Times Sunday magazine, she wrote:
Resilience is fleet, adaptive, pragmatic — and it has become an obsession among middle-class parents who want to prepare their children to withstand a world that won’t always go their way. ‘‘Grit,’’ a close cousin of ‘‘resilience,’’ has emerged as education’s magic mantra — a corrective to decades of helicopter parenting.
. . . But where ‘‘resilience’’ can suggest new avenues for civic infrastructure — admitting that disaster can’t always be diverted and shifting the focus to survival strategies — it is indistinguishable from classic American bootstrap logic when it is applied to individuals, placing all the burden of success and failure on a person’s character.
Sehgal examines these calls for resilience in the context of younger folks on college campuses, especially when used to counter students’ concerns about racial, ethnic, and gender inclusion. Many critics of these advocacy efforts are suggesting that today’s students are too soft and take offense too easily. Sehgal, however, suggests that “demands for resilience have become a cleverly coded way to shame those speaking out against injustices.”
This debate is likely to become more intense. Right now, psychologist Angela Duckworth’s Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance (2016) is one of the hottest new non-fiction books. In a recent interview in the Times’ Education Life supplement, she summons her research to argue that grit is the most significant factor in determining someone’s likelihood of success:
My lab has found that [grit] beats the pants off I.Q., SAT scores, physical fitness and a bazillion other measures to help us know in advance which individuals will be successful in some situations.
Duckworth says that once someone identifies an interest or passion, they should then pursue it with determination:
So once you’ve fostered an interest, then, and only then, can you do the kind of difficult, effortful and sometimes frustrating practice that truly makes you better. Another thing is really maintaining a sense of hope or resilience, even when there are setbacks.
Relationship to workplace bullying and incivility
I’m especially interested in this topic because it carries great relevance for the workplace. One of the most common and misdirected responses to concerns about workplace bullying is that many of the targets are weaklings who cannot deal with the normal ups and downs of a job. Furthermore, some confuse abusive bullying with lesser forms of negative workplace behavior, such as incivility and disrespect.
My sense of this?
First, genuine workplace bullying is about abuse, not bad manners or even angry arguments and disagreements. We need to keep reinforcing the point that bullying is not about a bad day at the office or generally lousy management.
Second, treating others abusively is wrong, and that includes workplace settings. It doesn’t matter if the intended target of that abuse is “strong,” “weak,” or somewhere in between.
Third, an abuser isn’t “off the hook” because he happens to target someone who is more vulnerable. In fact, if he goes after someone because he perceives a person’s vulnerability, well, that speaks volumes about the messed up ethics, morality, and psychological make up of the abuser.
Fourth, most of us stand to benefit by being resilient. For all but the rarely blessed, life will deliver its share of setbacks, disappointments, and sometimes hard body blows. The better we can process and deal with these ups and downs, the better our overall lives will be.
Finally, having a greater reserve of resilience and grit can help us to cope with the really bad stuff at work, including bullying, mobbing, and harassment. This reserve is not bottomless, however, as many resilient and gritty individuals have experienced. Just about everyone has a breaking point, and there are countless instances of work abuse that have taken people past it.
Bottom line? Let’s strive for less interpersonal mistreatment and more individual resilience. And let’s take more personal and social responsibility for our actions and the state of the world.
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