Grit, Gratitude & Gretchen

Wednesday 01.11.17

When I was a kid it often felt like my sister Gretchen cramped my style, always copying me and getting in my space.  Today it’s a different story. She’s a heart-friend who enriches my life in every conversation, as the following story relates.

As part of Toastmasters, Gretchen was preparing to share how our Dad overcome the challenges of dyslexia, which runs in our family. As she practiced her speech, I realized that she was describing qualities that I cherish in our family. Now to be honest, there are many things we inherited from our family that we might consider less desirable, such as our shorter-than-normal stature and our insatiable love of potato chips. But these shortcomings aside, when things are daunting we don’t wilt away; we face the challenge with grit and gratitude.  

In a tribute to Gretchen finishing “Speech #10” at Toastmasters (something that requires grit when you’re someone who doesn’t like writing or public speaking), I wanted to share some excerpts from her in service to the power of grit and gratitude for dealing with the challenges we all face from time to time:

Imagine you are an 11-year-old-boy in the 1950s. You love your family but school is a terrible burden. One safe place is your church, where you can serve and be appreciated without the familiar dread that is brought on by school. The dread that comes from hiding a dark secret. You can’t read, despite being twice the age that your peers were when they got the hang of it. Fearful of being found out, you haven’t even told your parents. Then one bright Sunday the pastor invites you, in front of your father whom you love and respect, to be a lector. You decline, to the chagrin and bafflement of your parents.

That boy was our Dad.  It’s hard for me to imagine how isolating and painful those times were.  His own father was so disappointed in him he wouldn’t speak to him or look at him for weeks.

If you fast-forward a few decades, it’s hard to imagine that 11-year old boy who’s hiding that he can’t even read a scripture passage, would go on to become a prominent doctor who saved countless children’s lives. He dedicated himself endlessly to care for children. He even went to business school to become a hospital administrator and started a hospital system.  He leads the field by serving on accreditation committees and national boards.  

How did Dad overcome the obstacle of growing up in the 50s with dyslexia? High IQ? Supportive parents? A loving teacher? Money?

The simple answer:  our Dad has grit sprinkled with lots of gratitude. Scientists have identified these as key traits for success, happiness and a meaningful and fulfilling life.


Angela Duckworth, a professor and researcher at the University of Pennsylvania had been studying self-control and IQ in relation to success in school. Her findings indicated that self-control and IQ were important for success but not the sole factors. Time and again she saw individuals work on a project or career path for years—it wasn’t self-control that kept them passionately working for years despite setbacks. She coined the term “grit,” and defines it as the pursuit of long-term goals with perseverance and passion. In her studies Duckworth was able to identify four traits of grit.

The first trait is interest. This is where passion begins. What matters to you; what you think about; what do you enjoy doing? Many successful people say they explored multiple interests before finding their passion. Once an interest was identified, gritty people take action around this interest and begin asking questions and searching for answers. (It can take years to develop an interest.) This leads to the second quality: practice.

Deliberate practice is focusing on your weaknesses and improving them one at a time. Gritty people set a stretch goal on one specific weakness and then practice improving upon this weakness. Deliberate practice takes perseverance.

The third attribute is purpose. Gritty people believe their goals are deeply connected to other people—that the work they do brings value to people in their community or in the world. They see problems to solve and people to help. Purpose can be a very powerful source for motivation.

The fourth attribute is hope. Hope is optimism. It is self-talk that says I can do better tomorrow (and not I am so stupid).  Supplemental research shows that having a community of support is a great way to strengthen and sustain hope.

Our Dad embodies each of these qualities through his purposeful commitment to healthy families and high-quality, comprehensive life-care for children.  Even at 80 he still practices daily, even serving at a low-income clinic. Just last week he expressed interest in learning Spanish to better serve his purpose!  He is driven by his faith, his belief in his ability to grow and his hope for the world.



A recent Harris poll found that just 33 percent of Americans said that they were overall very happy. One of the most documented ways of boosting happiness across circumstances is a practice of gratitude. How does being thankful bring happiness? According to author Geoffrey James, “People who approach life with a sense of gratitude are constantly aware of what’s wonderful in their life. Because they enjoy the fruits of their successes, they seek out more success. And when things don’t go as planned, people who are grateful can put failure into perspective.”

Dr. Robert Emmons of the Greater Good Science Center is the leading scientist in the field of gratitude studies. He has found that the habit of gratitude has the ability to heal, energize, and transform lives. His 15 years of research reveal that people who practice gratitude have greater levels of joy, happiness, wellbeing, energy, and alertness. They also connect more with others and are less lonely and isolated.

Gratitude helps people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve health and build strong relationships. Even in little ways!  A study by noted psychologist Martin Seligman found that by writing a thank you note to someone they had never thanked, participants had immediate huge increases in their happiness scores. People who show gratitude tend to exercise more and are healthier.

The Dyslexic Connection

Approximately 15-20 percent of the population has a language-based learning disability, the most common of which is dyslexia. Now think back. Do you remember how you learned to read? Children with dyslexia daily face their peers who are learning to read almost effortlessly. I can promise you that any child or adult with dyslexia that has learned to read can tell you about the struggle even if it was decades ago. The rate of dropout is disturbingly high: 35 percent.

But, 35 percent of entrepreneurs report being dyslexic. One in two NASA scientists are dyslexic and it’s so common in some grad programs that it’s colloquially known as the MIT Disease. So how does such a small percent of the population account for all this success?

For someone with dyslexia to even have small successes they have to develop all four areas of grit. They learn this at an early age and practice every day. Growing up with dyslexia, my Dad had to have grit to do things that the rest of us take for granted: that grit propelled him into greater-than-average success. He was also grateful for opportunities that he had for education, for teachers that encouraged him and didn’t label him. He suffered many failures and rejections and so he was thankful for the opportunities that did come to fruition. I see the same grit born of similar circumstances in my nephew who also has dyslexia.

To piggyback on Gretchen (look who is copying who now), here are some grit and gratitude practices: 

To develop a habit of gratitude, start with thanking people around you. Add a gratitude journal to your daily practices. The wonderful part of this exercise is the immediate effects on your happiness.

Building grit is a bigger commitment. Here is one simple exercise Dr. Duckworth calls the “Hard Thing Rule.”

Everyone in the home (or community) has to have one hard thing they are working on. It requires daily deliberate practice.

You can quit and have a new hard thing BUT only at the end of the season, school year, or committed time and never on a hard day.

You get to pick your hard thing (unlike dyslexia).

One of the many things that I admire about my sister Gretchen is that she embodies grit and gratitude every day. I think everyone of us in our family received that gift from our Dad.  

On my own journey to cultivating my “Natural Leader Within,” I’ve discovered that the courage to be vulnerable allows me to integrate my hard-earned grit into a heart-based, buoyant resilience.  As I share my heart with my collaborators and colleagues by acknowledging my weaknesses and owning my greatness (often this is the harder part for me), we create new power together that allows us all to shine.  

11 Comments | MaryCay Durrant |
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