Photo Credit: Kate Johnson
Sitting in a high school graduation ceremony recently, I found myself in tears from beginning to end. Was it because I was proud of my child walking across the stage? Nope, she’s 34, and while I was quite emotional (relief mostly) 16 years ago when she crossed the stage, it didn’t compare to the emotions felt during this graduation.
I really don’t have a word for the biggest emotion I felt this weekend. I used the word “verklempt” a lot, and it was somewhat fitting. For sure there was respect and awe for the very fact that this particular graduation was happening with this particular start up school. But this emotion was so much more.
What was really happening was “awareness of the positive consequences of grit.” Is there a word for the emotion that fits that definition?
Let me explain. Many years ago, our community began to realize that a school would make our little mountain town more complete. The original school was closed in the early 60’s and the high school closed before that. Early in the community conversation about needing a school, my husband “got it” and joined the effort to recruit a school. In many ways, this graduation was the culmination of the many events leading up to this moment – where I couldn’t stop crying for the life of me. (Even now, I really wish I had a word for this particular emotion.)
So many in the community played a part, some known and some unknown. Every part mattered, and that is part of why I was so overwhelmed. Recognizing the magnitude of the effort to do something that mattered so much to each of these student’s lives, the teachers, and the community really hit me in a deep way.
The other part of why I was so overwhelmed was because of the vantage point I had watching my husband and life partner tackle this challenge with everything he had. Let me be clear: I didn’t “get it” with the same fervor that he did. Daily, I wondered why. Weekly, I wondered when this passion would run its course. Annually, I wondered how long this could go on. And every now and then I asked him directly. Ok maybe I whined and bitched a little too – this passion was interfering with our lives in more ways than I can count.
Year after year, he persevered. He had grit. Through every milestone, he saw another need on the horizon. Getting the school’s charter led to standing up a temporary campus in 3 short months. Working with a start up school led to growing enrollment. Adding more students and a new grade level each year led to building a permanent campus. And this year the school graduated it’s first class of seniors. It seems so simple and straightforward from a distance.
Nothing is ever as simple as it seems from a distance – and that’s why I well up in tears every time I remember what it took.
When it got difficult, he found strength I didn’t know he had. He found strength HE didn’t know he had. Until this emotion flooded over me at the graduation, I thought of grit in a simplistic and singular way: pushing through hard times, bulldozing your way through.
Thanks to bearing witness to this effort over the last many years, my new definition is much more nuanced and wide ranging. Sitting in the ceremony - wishing I had brought a Kleenex - I reflected on the many faces of grit. Sometimes it required curiosity while he worked out a puzzle, looking for the piece that fit. Other times, patience was the answer, as the team looked for an elegant solution that was not obvious. At least once, it required wisdom as he stepped back when others had to find their way through. Many, many times, it required profound resilience, as obstacles and bad news piled up. Every time I thought the latest news was the last straw, he found a way to show up, looking for the way it WOULD work. The emotion I felt that day - and still feel when I think about this tremendous accomplishment - acknowledges the deep sacrifices made for something so much bigger than one man or one team.
Now I see grit as fueled by a purpose much greater than self, delivering determination to find what WILL work, whether a hard charging stance or a subtle application of wisdom, or resting in patience or recovery from the inevitable setbacks. It’s an entire repertoire of approaches aligned to the need at the time. Most importantly, grit is the willingness to stay with something that matters through the most difficult of times- primarily because it matters.
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Lynn Carnes accelerates change and unleashes leadership performance in organizations, especially in context of challenges without easy answers. She loves to hear about how your experiments with these ideas turn out. To contact her or share your experiences email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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