By Jem Bauermeister
I don’t believe in fate or anything like that, but a person who does might think that this story is down to the alignment of the stars. Instead of fate, I believe in perception. I believe that if you open up your senses and you’re looking for something, you’ll find it. You’ll see patterns that you wouldn’t have otherwise seen. It’s a bit like “Street Wisdom” but I don’t think that the universe will organise you an answer, I think that if you’ve got a question in your head and you’re honestly open to learning the truth, you’ll find it because you’re actually looking and noticing.
On the last day of term, Marc had a bit of a go at us for not reflecting enough. I didn’t agree with him at all. We had filled in an anonymous survey, of course we were going to say more about how the school could improve than how we could.
On the train on the way home for Christmas I typed up a SCAB about how much I reflect to the point of it becoming self-deprecative. But when I’d finished it I realised it made me sound a bit sore and whiney so instead of sending it to be published, I just sent it to Marc. Looking back, it was written with annoyance and it was incredibly hypocritical.
But I ended it with a question. I’m not sure how genuine I felt about that question at the time, but it was important.
What can I do better?
The next day I looked at my email emotionally sober with a pang of embarrassment. Maybe I should have thought about it more before sending that. The only thing I should have sent was the last question. Even the great Graham Fink asked that question with humility after he’d done a talk with the school. And his talk was unforgettable.
The question played over in my head on repeat over Christmas and I’m happy to say I got the answer in two parts. The first one actually started the day before Marc addressed the reflection issue with the class.
1. Grit. I was on the bus listening to Freakonomics Radio, it was the penultimate day of term, I was tired and I was tempted to just zone out and listen to music. But I needed to get my brain going for the day, so I turned it on. Angela Duckworth, who is a frequent guest of the show, comes on. I like her and I know she’s written a book so I googled her. Up comes her TED Talk so I watched it. It’s about “Grit” which is basically the science behind the mantra of “hard work beats talent”, something I loved so much I got HW>T tattooed on my wrist to remind me of its salience. I immediately jumped onto Amazon and ordered her book for next day delivery, excited to learn more.
That morning, Alex Mecklenburg does her debut masterclass at the school. Guess what it was on? Grit. Guess which TED talk she showed? I had to pick my jaw up off the floor in amazement at the coincidence of watching it for the second time in the same hour.
So when I was looking at my sent mail feeling grumpy about the grumpy email I’d sent to Marc, I remembered that “sign” and picked up the book. “What can I do better?” I asked myself and I read it cover to cover, stopping only for large quantities of Christmas meals, a few glasses/bottles of wine and the occasional board game.
I smugly thought I was gritty when I watched the TED talk. But in the book, she defines the term as the power of passion and perseverance. I’ve got one of those things in abundance but looking back on the last six years, I haven’t stayed in the same job for more than a year. The only long-term goal I’ve committed to has been SCA as I applied to the school four years ago in 2014 but I was so flaky it took me three years to go to an interview day.
I looked at my reflection list that I’d sent to Marc and Grit wasn’t on there amongst the things I’d recognised I need to improve on. So that became the first half of the answer to my question.
How am I going to be more gritty though?
I picked out three things from the book that made me uncomfortable because I realised I’m not doing them:
Angela writes in her book that one of the things grit paragons have in common is a top- level goal with a number of mid-level and low-level goals to help them on a daily basis. But the most important thing is the top level. Everything else can come and go but with every decision they make they ask themselves “is this going to get me closer to my top- level goal?”. Sounds to me a bit like a personal North Star. So firstly, I need to find myself a personal North Star. This left me with an additional question in my head, “what is my personal North Star?”. That one was answered with a bit of deliberate street wisdom later on when I got back to London.
The next thing is deliberate practise. This is also something I don’t do enough of. In order
to get to the top, Angela found in her research, the most successful people practised every single day on something that was beyond their current skill level. And although they loved their top-level goal, they didn’t necessarily have that much fun when they were practising. They regularly failed and learned to get back up. Deliberate practise is the only way to improve. I’ve always thought at SCA that I was a hard worker, but I tend to pick the fun stuff and make it look like I’m doing a lot of work. Hard doesn’t just mean diligent, it means difficult too.
The third thing that jumped out at me was her findings that children who did extracurricular activities when they were young scored higher on the grit scale and were less likely to drop out of university when they were older. Even if they did Ballet and Baking and then went on to study Engineering or Politics. Who knew? Doing stuff you love is good for you. I wish someone had mentioned that to me before. I’m imagining Marc rolling his eyes while reading this because he and Vikki go on about it all the time. Have fun! I spend far too much time in the studio working.
2. Gratitude. So after reading Grit, I had a think about what it is that I have always loved and been interested in. Freshly stocked with Amazon vouchers, I was ready to order all of the books. One of the things I’ve always been interested in is philosophy and in particular the teachings of stoicism because of how timelessly poignant the lessons of this school of thought still are today. So I joined a stoicism forum (yeah, that’s a thing) and had a look at some book recommendations. I ordered Stoicism and the Art of Happiness by Donald Robertson, The Daily Stoic by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman and The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius (the less self-helpy of the three…)
Stoicism was invented by Greek philosophers in the third century but truly took off when it was brought to Rome along with their immense influence on the Latin language. And since then it hasn’t really gone away. From “keep calm and carry on” to the serenity prayer that’s still used in AA meetings: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”
One of the fathers of this philosophy is Epictetus and he said “The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own . . .”
So it’s all about taking control and looking to yourself to improve your situation. Marc gets another told you so point. But that’s not my second answer, my second answer is gratitude.
Yesterday I was on the bus and decided to turn on Freakonomics Radio again. The first thing that comes up is a podcast called “Why Is My Life So Hard?” So I gave it a listen, I was feeling pretty hard done by. Tom Gilovich and Shai Davidai were on the show talking about their research called “The Headwinds/Tailwinds Asymmetry”.
Gilovich said “Sometimes you’re running or cycling into the wind, and it’s not pleasant. You’re aware of it the whole time. It’s retarding your progress and you can’t wait until the course changes so that you get the wind at your back. And when that happens you’re grateful for about a minute. And very quickly, you no longer notice the wind at your back that’s helping push you along.”
And that’s how we feel about life in general. I mean, we all know it anyway. We like to moan about things and we don’t appreciate what we’ve got. But seeing as I still had the big “What can I do better?” question stuck in my head, I was open to really honestly thinking about how this applies to me.
They went on to talk about practising gratitude in a similar way to what we talk about in school. How people who do practice it tend to be happier and more successful in general. Yeah, there’s a real science behind stuff the school tells us to do, who knew.
But what has that got to do with my above ramblings on stoicism? Well… apart from everything.
I got home from my trip yesterday and opened up one of my new books, The Daily Stoic. Turn to the fourth of January and voila, there it is.
“All you need are these: certainty of judgment in the present moment; action for the common good in the present moment; and an attitude of gratitude in the present moment for anything that comes your way.”
— Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
Stoicism isn’t just about accepting the things that we cannot change, it’s about being grateful for them. I mean the great stoics even teach that you should be grateful for illness because it teaches you a lesson or gives someone else the chance to exercise virtue.
I thought back again to my grumpy email I sent to Marc. Gratitude wasn’t on the list. And the email wasn’t particularly grateful either. This was definitely another answer to my big question.
What can I do better? Gratitude. Again it had hit me twice in one day.
After I’d realised that these two grrrrs were the answers to my question I started to try and figure out how. How can I be more gritty and how can I be more grateful? Grit is all about having a goal hierarchy, working hard and making time for what you love and gratitude is all about regularly reflecting on what’s working in your favour.
What is it that I can do to implement all of this? Oh, what a surprise. Once again we’ve come full circle and I’m eating my words. Marc told us before we even got to school that the SELF Journal might be a useful tool for us while we are here. I tried it but I spent way too much time planning out my day to the minute and way too little time getting stuff done so I dismissed it quite publicly. I dismissed it as an overcomplicated planner. Oh, how wrong I was. The self-journal is all about pretty much everything I’ve just said. It’s taken me an entire term and a 2285 word SCAB to basically realise that the answer to my question was there before I even started at SCA.
But. The most important answer of all is actually a third thing altogether. And that is. Keep asking that question. It’s another famed habit of successful people. Always seeking to improve by asking what they can do better. And doing it genuinely with humility and readiness to receive an honest answer from mentors, friends or the world around them.
Oh and one last thing, listen to Freakonomics Radio more.