The Hard Thing rule

I've been a bad blogger lately. I just need to fess up and own it. Sarah's happily picking up Jordan in France this week and I pledged to cover for us both here but I've also been diving deeply into my dissertation research and forgetting to come up for air. Because deadlines.

Bike to the top of a mountain, 1900  via

Bike to the top of a mountain, 1900 via

In a moment of giving in to my well-seasoned delay and distraction tactics, I clicked over to read a National Geographic profile of persistence/grit researcher Angela Duckworthrationalizing that it was oh-so-faintly related to my research on mindset. Her focus and work ethic inspire me and I'm motivated by the description of her passion for her work and lab--not to mention the fact that she went back for a PhD later in life, too. (Let's hear it for mama grad students!) On another level, I appreciated the glimpse of her family life and how some of her research findings are showing up in the way she and her husband Jason parent:

Angela and Jason have two daughters—Amanda, 13, and Lucy, 11—who attend a public magnet school in Philadelphia. Angela says she of course wants them to have grit, in addition to kindness, generosity, honesty, and gratitude. "I think kids are not able to just spontaneously grow up to be gritty people without being supported in that," she says.

...Back at the Duckworth household, meanwhile, Angela and Jason have instituted something called the Hard Thing Rule as a way of familiarizing their young daughters with the experience of grit. The Hard Thing Rule is that all members of the family have to be doing a hard thing. It should be something they have an interest in, of course—ballet, a musical instrument, archery—but the corollary is that it also has to require deliberate practice almost daily, and they're not allowed to quit just because they're bored or feel no good at it. They can revisit their interest at the end of the tuition period, say, or semester, or school year, but not before.

"I believe kids should choose what they want to do, because it's their life, but they have to choose something," she says, "and they can't quit in the middle unless there's a really good reason." There are going to be peaks and valleys. "You don't want to let kids quit during a valley."

The girls' "hard thing"s right now are the piano for Amanda and the viola for Lucy. For Angela and Jason, it's their jobs. Jason's a real estate developer who creates compact, mixed-use, pre-World War II-type traditional neighborhoods you feel safe letting your kids walk around in alone. Angela, of course, has enough challenges to sustain her through multiple lifetimes. How she can be a better mentor. How to solve that measurement problem. Which school district is going to do which study.

"It's all incredibly hard."

I like the framing of persistence and grit into the Hard Thing rule. I know many families have adopted the battle cry "We can do hard things!" and that grit is a popular word these days. But it's another thing to build that stretching and, yes, discomfort into the fabric of the family rules. As someone who tends more to the "flight" (=give in, find an escape hatch, move on) in the fight-or-flight response, I probably should have enacted this years ago! Darn. 

And so, even though I'm pretty well acquainted with these ideas theoretically, I think I needed this reminder as much as anyone: "children [and grown 45-year-old women] need to be taught to appreciate that they're supposed to suffer when working hard on a challenge that exceeds their skill. They're supposed to feel confused. Frustration is probably a sign that they're on the right track and need to gut it out through the natural human aversion to mental effort and feeling overwhelmed so they can evolve." 


What do you think? Do you have something like the Hard Things rule at your house? What's your own Hard Thing right now?

p.s. Here's a TED talk on grit by Dr. Duckworth

The power of grit

As we ramp up to the World Cup's opening ole-ole-ole-ole starting next week, we were really excited to catch a glimpse of a familiar face featured in a Powerade commercial. 

Nico was a talented and, yes, hard-to-miss fixture on the soccer fields in our community back home. He was a fellow student alongside our kids in Concord schools and frequently a ref for Sam's soccer games. But even if we didn't share a hometown, I'm fairly certain we'd still replay the video over and over and find his story--captured from videos his dad filmed over the years--powerful and inspiring.

You only have to glimpse the video a few seconds to see that his parents set an empowering, get-on-with-living-life mentality with no excuses. In an interview with Coca-Cola, Nico said "People usually think I was trying to make a statement by playing soccer with able-bodied people and not giving up, but really...I just love playing soccer." Although he had a prosthetic as a child, when he was 5 he decided to ditch it and use forearm crutches instead as he competed on the soccer field and wrestling mat. At 13, he raised $100,000 for Free Wheelchair Mission and was the first person to summit Mt. Kilimanjaro on crutches (and was invited on Ellen to talk about it). These days he's the youngest player to land a spot on the US national amputee soccer team.

Recent research has posited that a good predictor of future success is not necessarily unending talent but rather a combination of curiosity, character, and grit, or in other words the drive to persist through failures and challenges.  Nico? He's the king of grit.

In another video interview a while ago he said, "Some people when they look in on my life, they think that, oh, what a crappy hand of cards this kid got dealt. I look at it in a totally opposite way. I've got a community that's completely accepted me for the person I am. I have parents who went through all this trouble to find the right mobility device for me after a prosthetic. And I've just, and I've got athleticism...you're not defined by what you have. You're defined by the things you make of what you have."

Ten word pep talk

One of my favorite mantras lately is if you can’t get out of it, get into it. I picked it up from Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project and I've used its simple wisdom of reframing life’s requirements into something more enjoyable and engaging as a ten-word pep talk for myself. There are so many givens in our days—things that we just have to do—that we might as well lean in* and enjoy them, right?  

It might not surprise you that it’s showed up in several conversations with my kids lately; it’s pretty much tailored for chats with teenagers who, (ahem) let's face it, at one point or another will drag their growing feet about chores or practicing or requirements imposed on their free will or free time. (I think occasional foot dragging is in their super secret handbook, actually.)

A recent case study:  Our schools here—typical Australian Grammar schools—are organized into groups of students called houses (yep, like Hogwarts). The schools hold several mandatory competitions each year (called, in a genius bit of spin and branding, “carnivals”) for houses to compete for pride and points and trophies in categories such as swimming, running, track & field, and music. The running carnival is coming up for one of my kids and, in preparation, each student is required to train by running at least 30 kilometers on their own time over the course of the previous month, either coming early to school and running the course under the supervision of teachers or by running at home under parental supervision. All of that sounds doable unless, as someone in our household might have done, you wait too long and are suddenly faced with running lots of kilometers in uncomfortably few days.

Suddenly we had a gloomy Eeyore on our hands here. Normally I would be tempted to use that other worn and serviceable parent mantra you don’t have to like it, you just have to do it. But I noticed that one doesn’t really help reframe the activity; it just restates the demands. So I pulled out the if you can’t get out of it, get into it pep talk. I like that it emphasizes that, while we don’t necessarily have a say in everything we have to do, we do have a choice about how we approach it.  

Did I suddenly have a beaming Pollyanna on my hands thanking me for the wisdom? No. But the running started and the attitude seemed less Eeyore, more Little Engine That Could. It's a good start and—who knows?—maybe the mantra will eventually show up on its own.

Last night as we loaded the dishes, I overheard the kids chatting with each other about a situation with a group of teens where they all had to get some things done. There were some complainers in the bunch, which was frustrating everyone else.

“You know what I told them? ”
“What?”
“If you can’t get out of it, get it into it.”


*Regardless of your take on Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In (and I know there have been many opinions voiced; for what it’s worth, I’m midway through and really like it), I think it’s exceptional advice for anyone: lean in to your life. Be engaged. Be enthusiastic.