Going Beyond Grit

This piece originally appeared in the Huffington Post on June 29th, 2016.

Several summers ago, I read Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed. Far from serving as a manual to help my kids break into the Ivy League, Tough’s book reinforced the importance of developing grit, curiosity, and character.

As my children have grown, I would add one more trait to Tough’s list: comprehending complexity. While checking into a flight at the airport this morning, my eight year old asked me if it was true that Americans were racist. After some discussion, I learned that he confronted this stereotype while attending a program with students from around the world in France. I responded that statements like that are never just true or false and that people cannot be reduced to stereotypes based on where they are from. As I write this, I know that we need to speak more about this encounter. I am unsure of what I will say, but I know that I need to welcome this opportunity to help him understand the often paradoxical and deeply complex nature of the world in which he lives.

My boys are Irish American and Iranian American. They call Philadelphia home, but have lived in United Arab Emirates for most of their lives. Their father is Muslim and their mother is Christian. They are unique and yet completely not. We live in a suburban community where our children bike to school. It’s like the neighborhood in ET, but with palm trees instead of pine trees. I could shelter them very easily, but I choose not to. My boys will grow up into a world marked by volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity, but their hearts and minds will seek simplicity. Atrocities will affect their friends’ families and may affect them, but they will learn that there’s never been a better time to be alive. My boys will be proud to be American, but will be asked to explain gun violence to their friends. If they are to be agents of change in the world, they will have to see humanity through inhumanity, opportunities for abundance when scarcity abounds, and solutions when problems and barriers are far more obvious.

But what does this look like in action? A graduate of one of our schools sent me a video last week detailing her understanding of the challenges and opportunities women encounter as leaders. In this video, she boldly redefines stereotypes as strengths and outlines the role she wants to play in the world.

The young woman, Hanny Semere, grew up in Ethiopia. At the age of fourteen, she founded a charity to help provide educational opportunities within her community. At sixteen, she moved to Dubai to pursue IB studies at GEMS Wellington International School. She quickly took on a series of leadership roles, driving initiatives for which she had a passion and acting as both an agent of change and a contagion for action within her peer group. When I spoke with Hanny about her advice for her peers and their parents, she shared the following:

  1. Trust your children to make decisions and stand by them, whether you understand them or not. When parents do not do this, secrecy grows and secrecy is toxic.
  2. See problems as opportunities to grow and appreciate the hard moments as much as the easy ones.
  3. When you have something to say, say it. And say it in a way that will make people listen.
  4. Take risks. In Hanny’s own words, “I know it seems like you will be ridiculed if you speak on a certain matter or do something that will attract attention, but that is the farthest thing from the truth. Do whatever you are truly passionate about and trust me, TAKE RISKS!”

Hanny certainly has grit, curiosity, and character. But, just as importantly, she is making sense out of senselessness and finding meaning where it is not immediately evident. This combination will help her become the kind of leader our world needs.