How Weaponized Grit Can Lead to Unhappiness

I’m reading an extraordinary book right now, called Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World. As you may infer, it’s about the advantages that generalists have over specialists, and how those advantages are increasing.

I think one of the most interesting things the book has done for me is show me how grit can have a downside.

Since learning about it several years ago, I’ve always seen grit as the ultimate superpower—the one attribute (along with creativity) that enables someone to win.

But the book does a great job of showing how it can actually be twisted into a negative. The mechanism for that is fairly straightforward: you have an overly goal-driven family (often immigrants to the West) who imbues their kids with massive amounts of grit and self-discipline, which in turn forces them to choose their forever life when they’re very young.

The book argues a few really interesting things about this. First, it argues that people who pick early and specialize are often not the best in that thing, especially if it benefits from a breadth of knowledge. Second, it argues that people in that situation are not likely to be happy, since it’s often nearly impossible to know what you really want until later in life. Perhaps late 20’s or even into your thirties or 40’s.

The book gives multiple examples of great people who butterflied around multiple things, and failed at most of them, before finally falling (often by luck) into the thing that they were great at and that made them famous. One should be cautious of such examples, since you don’t know the percentage of the dataset they represent, but the examples of Van Gogh and Darwin were quite compelling regardless.

I also loved how they mentioned numerous examples of where cross-domain knowledge, and integrators, win the day. The author also talked about Superforecasting, which is one of my favorite books ever about thinking.

Specifically, it talked about how cross-domain thinkers were far better at predictions than people who were deep—and especially famous—experts in their fields. A big lesson there for me was to always watch for blindness caused by ego, i.e., the more you think you’re an expert in prediction in a complex field that you’re known in, the less likely you’re good at it. That’s a mistake I hope to always remain aware of.

Anyway, I highly recommend this book.

It provided ideas for what an ultimate curriculum should look like, which is one of my long-term life projects. In short, that a perfect education should involve lots of dabbling and exploration, and a final path should be eased into rather than forcefully selected. This is for a better type of society, by the way, not necessarily your current 17-year-old.

Most importantly, it taught me that grit should be applied in a more broad sense, to overall goals, and not to artificially acquired targets given by others.

It’s not heroic to sit and grind for hours or years on an instrument or a career that you don’t care about, when you could be much better at—and successful in—something else entirely.

It seems that grit, like emotion or technology, is a tool that you must use carefully.

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