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The Power of Adversity in Developing Grit

adversityGattaca is a movie that has inspired me since the day I first watched it. It is a movie about achieving your dreams even when nobody else believes you can – or should – achieve those dreams. If you’ve never seen it, you can read the plot summary below and click the link to the full synopsis (with spoilers).

Gattaca: Plot Summary

Vincent is one of the last “natural” babies born into a sterile, genetically-enhanced world, where life expectancy and disease likelihood are ascertained at birth. Myopic and due to die at 30, he has no chance of a career in a society that now discriminates against your genes, instead of your gender, race or religion. To succeed in this world, Vincent goes underground, assuming the identity of genetically-enhanced Jerome who was crippled in an accident.

Constantly passing gene tests by diligently using samples of Jerome’s hair, skin, blood and urine, Vincent is able to achieve prominence in the Gattaca Corporation. When he is finally selected for his lifelong desire – a manned mission to Saturn’s 14th moon (titan) – his perfect world is suddenly thrown into desperation when the mission director is killed and one of Vincent’s eyelashes is found at the scene.

Certain that they know the murderer’s ID, but unable to track down the former Vincent, the police start to close in, with extra searches, and new gene tests. With the once-in-a-lifetime launch only days away, Vincent must avoid arousing suspicion, while passing the tests, evading the police, and not knowing whom he can trust…

Gattaca: Read the Full Synopsis – IMDB

A recent occurrence with G1 has brought me back to the growth mindset and grit. As I think about stories that teach children about these ideas, it occurred to me that the character of Vincent Freeman provides the perfect example of grit.

Of all the scenes in the movie, this is the one that has played in my mind over and over. Vincent challenges his brother to a game of chicken where they swim out to sea until one brother gives up. Anton, the genetically stronger brother, was always the winner of this game when they were boys. In this scene, Vincent defeats him and Anton can’t believe it.

Anton: “Vincent! How are you doing this, Vincent? How have you done any of this? We have to go back!”

Vincent: “It’s too late for that, we’re closer to the other side.”

Anton: “What other side? Do you want to drown us both”

Vincent: “You want to know how I did it? This is how I did it, Anton. I never saved anything for the swim back.”

grit through adversityI wanted G1 to watch it with the hope that it might inspire him as it did me. But watching the movie again with G1 made me realise something else. What if your child is Anton – genetically stronger, but weaker in spirit and mind? He may not identify with Vincent but see himself in Anton. The power behind the message would then be missed.

There was another scene that I had never really paid much attention to before but it stuck out this time. Vincent is learning to assume Jerome’s identity and is practicing his signature. Jerome challenges Vincent, wondering how someone like Vincent – with inferior genes – could ever hope to fool everyone else into believing that he is Jerome. Even by genetic-modification standards, Jerome is considered to be among the best of the best – he has a genetic makeup that is second to none. In the scene, Jerome pulls out a swimming medal and shows it to Vincent and they have the following exchange:

Jerome: Look at this. Look at it.

Vincent: It’s nice. I’m impressed. Is it real?

Jerome: Are you colour-blind, too, Vincent? It’s silver. Jerome Morrow was never meant to be one step down on the podium. With all I had going for me, I was still second best. Me. So how do you expect to pull this off?

It is disconcerting to see example after example of how ability and advantage makes us weak. We take for granted that things come easily. When they don’t, we haven’t the mettle to endure the challenge because we’ve never had to fight for it.

I am reminded of another show I’ve been watching – Vikings (yes, I spend more time on the idiot box than is recommended but I try to use what I watch as a form of bibliotherapy). Vikings shares the story of Ragnar Lothbrok, a legendary Viking leader. Ragnar had a son, Ivar the Boneless, who got his name because he was born a cripple. When Ivar was an infant, Ragnar wanted to kill him, thinking his crippled legs would be a weakness. In the end, Ragnar spares Ivar because he can’t bring himself to take his son’s life. As a grown man, Ivar confronts his father about it.

Ivar: I bet you wished you had never brought me along, right? And I bet you wished you would have killed me when I was born just like you wanted to.

Ragnar: Only when you talk. I thought your legs were a weakness, that you wouldn’t survive. I was wrong. Your legs have given you a strength, a strength that even your brothers don’t have. You’re like a deaf man whose eyesight is sharper than anyone else. You are special, not in spite of your legs, but because of them.

It would appear that they were right when they said “whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”.

Image Source: The Creative Executive

For all the children who are the Jerome Morrows and Anton Freemans of the world, the real challenge is to help them look past their natural abilities and develop that inner strength that never says “die”. To do that, we need to give them adversity in a form that they cannot walk away from. They need to face it over and over again until they can learn the lessons from it. When they’re through it, it’s on to the next challenge and on it goes until they learn to seek out the challenges for themselves.

One of the best ways to create adversity is to follow the “hard thing rule”. We need to live it, breathe it, and completely embody this rule. We need to pass it on to our children as a given and not a choice. If you want to give them a choice, let them choose what that hard thing is, but don’t let them quit without giving it a real go.

A music teacher once said to me, “You can approach music lessons from one of two perspectives – you can try to let your child discover their love for it on their own, or you can treat it like school and make it mandatory so they’re not allowed to quit.” Up until that piece of advice, I had always felt I needed to awaken my child’s passion in music but I’d never thought twice about enforcing school.

If that hadn’t been convincing enough, there was an article that talked about how many adults who were forced to take music as kids are often grateful that their parents insisted upon it. And of those who quit, many regret their choice and wished their parents hadn’t allowed them to. When I look back at my own music experience, I find myself agreeing. I was not the easiest child to teach music to but I don’t regret being forced to take lessons, I am grateful for it.

Amy Chuah was right about one thing – “nothing is fun until you’re good at it”. If we let our children quit the game too early, we must ask if we’re letting them quit for the right reasons? Are they quitting because they aren’t good at it yet? If they could get over that initial hurdle and get good enough, would they still want to quit? Sometimes I think we’ve gotten so hung up on the idea of letting our children find their passion that we forget it takes time to develop an interest. It’s like falling in love – it’s rarely love at first sight. It’s not even love at second sight. True passion takes time to cultivate and we’ve forgotten that in this age of instant gratification.

Grit Through Adversity: The Hard Thing Rule

“What is one thing I could do today that’s going to be hard, that’s going to be challenging?”

The “Hard Thing Rule” has 4 parts:

  1. Everyone in the family has to do something that’s hard – something that requires daily deliberate practice.
  2. You have to finish what you start. You can quit but only after you complete the cycle. The cycle can be a season, a term, when the fees payment is up, or any other “natural” stopping point. You can’t quit on a “bad day”.
  3. No one gets to pick the hard rule for anyone else. There is no sense in doing a hard thing that does not interest you.
  4. You have to commit to one activity for at least 2 years. In Angela Duckworth’s research, individuals who committed to activities for at least 2 years were more gritty than those who did not.

And that’s it in a nutshell.


Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of (a website on parenting, education, child development) and (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

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