A Joyful Kind of Grit

by Melinda Burton

How is it that some of us can hold our focus and fascination on a concept or idea long enough, despite inevitable challenges, periods of boredom and times of failure, to get something done or find something new?

Psychologist Angela Duckworth would say it’s about grit, or “perseverance and passion for long-term goals”. She even has a scale to judge it by.

From Duckworth’s studies, grit is like a tincture produced and consumed by the determined and the resilient, and the more they keep going, the more they want to. Grit I would suggest therefore naturally sits well with people like scientists, artists, athletes, explorers and entrepreneurs (and many others I’m sure) and helps them keep going in the face of ridicule and often impossibly laborious hard work.

But it’s not just about the satisfaction of having done the thing, the hardness of it alone isn’t enough to sustain the desire to keep going. I know that personally, I enjoy exercise and feel the benefits of it overall, but if it was just a series of moments where I felt like I might collapse, that wouldn’t be enough to keep me doing it (there are mercifully few currently). To my mind then, it’s equally, if not more importantly about the joy of the thing, and finding out more as you go.

One of my favourite studies of what I would consider grit is Charles Darwin’s study of earthworms, from which he seemed to take an enormous amount of pleasure for an incredible amount of time, doing concentrated work on a subject that would seem unworthy to many until it culminated in his book, The formation of Vegetable Mould, through the action of Worms (1881). Darwin was so taken with his worms that his work on them went in all directions, stretching down into the earth as he calculated how far down they could burrow, tunnelling through it as he investigated how much they could excavate in a year, and up above it as his son, Francis, confirmed that worms also thrived as high as the Swiss Alps. In a letter to botanist W.T. Thistleton-Dyer in 1880, Darwin exclaimed that his whole soul was “absorbed with worms” for the moment and the image of him expressing this fascination by earnestly instructing a relative to play the bassoon to the earthworms in his garden in order that he could observe their reactions is truly delightful (thanks to Robin Ince for painting this picture so excellently well).

Darwin’s worm wonderment has no doubt motivated many to keep digging; he built a body of work that started from a wriggling squiggle in the ground to a mass of rich, important and interconnected lines of investigation. We see more exploration of all of these areas today in the form of at least one largescale citizen science project, earthworm watch. Through the collaboration on this project of established scientists with keen science enthusiasts, we are learning more and more about the importance of earthworms for the health of our soil and the improvement of food production and about how we can be better earthworm husbands and wives in turn. The motivation and joy for the project has also inspired a Facebook page (which has an amusing picture of an earthworm wearing a santa hat on it at the minute) and who knows how far the reverberations of interest may spread throughout the land (not that the worms can hear it).

There are hundreds of projects like this that people are inspired to get involved in, experts or not, and that desire to find something, be part of something, add something, build something and keep doing it in the name of discovery even when its boring or hard at times, is truly a kind of joyful grit that I admire wholeheartedly. Because even if you’re not an expert, and you don’t have a book deadline or a production schedule or a client presentation or an Olympic P.B. driving you, you might still have that same tense thread of curiosity running through you and it may spur you on to do the work until you find and can present the world with incredible things.

Melinda Burton is a director of Trunkman Productions and an acclaimed director and producer. Originally from a background in the theatre world, she has produced and directed numerous plays, live events and short films and recently directed the The Quest for Wonder series for Cosmic Shambles.  She is a former board member for Rewrite charity and currently serves on the board of the world famous puppet theatre, Little Angel Theatre.