On Grit and Purpose

I live in a neighborhood full of young families and children, which has come in handy whenever I have some chores that need to be done. I am getting so well known for my “chores” that more than one random kid has come by just to see if I had anything that he or she could do. Last summer I hired the neighbor boy to paint our fence. We agreed on the price, and that he would start work every morning at the same time and paint two sections each day. He was just barely in middle school, and had never worked, let alone painted before, so I knew I would have to work with him to teach him how to do a good job. He was excited about the money (which I paid him at the end of each week), but less excited to get up and start painting before 8 in the morning.

But he came every day. On time. And he painted carefully, without any signs that he was rushing to get through the required two sections each day. He didn’t do it perfectly so there were missed spots and places where he painted so thick the paint ran. When I pointed these out and asked him to redo those sections he listened carefully and fixed what needed to be fixed without complaint.

I was pretty impressed with his work and his work ethic, so when he came for his last payment I added $20 to what I owed him. As he stood on my porch looking in amazement at the surprise extra money, I explained to him about bonuses and tips that are sometimes added for work that is done well. I also shared with him that it was not just his good work, but also his showing up on time each day and his willingness to redo the parts that needed to be redone without complaint. As he and his buddy turned to leave his friend said “Dude! My dad gets bonuses too! That’s how we got to go to Disneyland!”

My painter’s sister has also helps me with various things from time to time, and she has the same work ethic and attitude. She is a freshman in high school this year, and last summer was chosen to attend a select week-long educational program in Bethesda MD for teens interested in the health sciences. She wants to be a anesthesiologist and has a pretty realistic plan for achieving her goals. When she got home from Maryland, she went to the local hospital to sign up as a volunteer, but they sent her away to gather a letter of recommendation. I was the only person for whom she had ever worked outside her family, so she came to me to ask for the needed letter.

My poor neighborhood kids…. they see me as a source of potential spending money, but I think they are slowly learning they will have to endure a little youth development in the process.

So I asked my aspiring doctor why she wanted to volunteer, why she wanted to be an anesthesiologist, and how her experience at her summer program led her to volunteering. She said she didn’t know, and I said “well, those are the sorts of things I need to know to write you a good letter, so why don’t you go home and think about them, write them down, and then come back tomorrow and share what you discovered.”

Sure enough she did exactly that, and what she brought back to me was a thoughtful understanding that what drives her is the desire to help others. She knows she is smart. She knows she has a lot of support. She knows she is good at science and math. And she knows that the meaning she finds in life is through service to others. She also knows she has so much to learn about health professions and sciences, and she sees volunteering at the hospital as the logical next step both for her learning and her service.

That letter? E-Z-P-Z to write for her.

In my last post I stirred up our thriving model pot by pointing out the inter-relatedness and inter-connection of all the parts of the model. I also mentioned that I would next start posting about Dr. Angela Duckworth’s construct of Grit. So why all this about my neighborhood kids? These hardworking, earnest kids demonstrate a form of grit (more to come on that). Specifically they demonstrate what Dr. Duckworth calls the connection between passion (which is a form of sparks) and purpose . In her words purpose is “the intention to contribute to the well being of others.”

We begin with a spark, we fan that spark into a flame, and the result of that flame is contribution to others. Three steps.

How have you helped youth turn a spark into purpose?

Thriving on,

Mary Arnold

Leave a Reply