One of our mentors has been singing the praises of a book he's read which argues that effort is twice as important as natural talent, and gives suggestions about how to improve persistence as a skill. The book is called Grit: Why Passion and Resilience are the Secrets to Success* and is written by Angela Duckworth, 2013 MacArthur Fellow and an associate professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania.
Finding your purpose: Angela's personal story
In this post, I wanted to share Angela’s personal journey, which she describes in the book. To me, it is an excellent example of finding your purpose, even though you can wander through different experiences or professions to get there.
“I was twenty-one when I first experienced the power of a purposeful top-level goal. In the spring of my junior year in college, I went to the career services centre to find something to do that summer. Turning the pages of an enormous three-ring binder labelled SUMMER PUBLIC SERVICE, I came across a program called Summerbridge. The programme was looking for college students to design and teach summer enrichment classes for middle school students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Teaching kids for a summer sounds like a good idea, I thought. I could teach biology and ecology. I’ll show them how to make a solar oven out of tinfoil and cardboard. We’ll roast hot dogs. It’ll be fun.
I didn’t think, This experience is going to change everything.
I didn’t think, Sure, you’re premed now, but not for long.
I didn’t think, Hold on tight – you’re about to discover the power of purpose.
To be honest, I can’t tell you much about that summer. The details escape me. I do know I woke long before dawn each day, including weekends, to prepare for my classes. I do know I worked long into the night. I remember specific kids, and certain moments. But it wasn’t until I returned home and had a moment to reflect that I realised what had happened. I’d glimpsed the possibility that a child’s connection with a teacher can be life-changing – for both.
When I returned to campus that fall, I sought out other students who’d taught at Summerbridge programs. One of these students, Philip King, happened to live in the same dorm. Like me, he felt a palpable urgency to start another Summerbridge program. The idea was too compelling. We couldn’t not try.
We had no money, no idea how to start a non-profit, no connections, and in my case, nothing but scepticism and worry from parents convinced this was a catastrophically stupid way to use a Harvard education.
Philip and I had nothing and, yet, we had exactly what we needed. We had purpose.
As anyone who has started an organisation from scratch can tell you, there are a million tasks, big and small, and no instruction manual for any of them. If Philip and I were doing something that was merely interesting, we couldn’t have done it at all. But because creating this program was in our minds – and in our hearts – so overwhelmingly important for kids, it gave us a courage and energy neither of us had ever known before.
Because we weren’t asking for ourselves, Philip and I found the gumption to knock on the doors of just about every small business and restaurant in Cambridge, asking for donations. We found the patience to sit in countless waiting rooms of powers-that-be. We waited and waited, sometimes hours on end, until these authority figures had time to see us. Then we found the stubbornness to keep asking and asking until we secured what we needed.
And so it went for everything we had to do – because we weren’t doing it for ourselves, we were doing it for a greater cause.
Two weeks after Philip and I graduated, we opened the doors to the program. That summer, seven high school and college students discovered what it was like to be a teacher. Thirty fifth-grade boys and girls discovered what it was like to spend their summer vacation learning, studying, working hard, and – though it may have seemed impossible before they actually did it – having fun at the same time.
That was more than twenty years ago. Now called Breakthrough Greater Boston, the program has grown far beyond what Philip and I could have imagined, providing tuition-free, year-round academic enrichment for hundreds of students every year. To date, more than a thousand young men and women have taught in the program, many of whom have gone on to pursue full-time careers in education.
Summerbridge led me to pursue teaching. Teaching led me to an enduring interest in helping children do so much more with their lives than they might ever dream possible.
And yet… For me, teaching wasn’t enough. Still unfulfilled was the little girl in me who loved science, who was fascinated by human nature, who, when she was sixteen and had a chance to take a summer enrichment class, picked – of all the courses in the catalog – psychology.
Writing this book made me realise that I’m someone who had an inkling about my interests in adolescence, then some clarity about purpose in my twenties, and finally, in my thirties, the experience and expertise to say that my top-level, life-organising goal is, and will be until my last breath: use psychological science to help kids thrive.”
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