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Handling hard stuff better
On coaching pep talks, the long trajectory of human betterment, and the psychology of grit
In a pep talk to her players, Duke University basketball coach Kara Lawson offered some magnificent life advice: Don't expect things to get easier just because you've passed some arbitrary date on the calendar or a waypoint on the path of life, she said. "Most people think that it's going to get easier. Life is going to get easier...It never gets easier. What happens is you become someone that handles hard stuff better."
■ Lawson's advice is squarely in line with the psychology of grit, popularized by Dr. Angela Duckworth, who argues that the most reliable predictor of success isn't raw intelligence or any other obvious advantage, but rather "sticking with your future, day in, day out, not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years, and working really hard to make that future a reality."
■ Digital tools try to draw our attention by showing us reminders of the past. Features like Facebook Memories and Rediscover This Day on Google Photos do a great job of reminding users of "before" moments. But there is no mirror equivalent to show us the "after", since it is always being shaped.
■ Just as "grit" likely makes much of the difference between an individual's ability to become a person who "handles hard stuff better", so too should that sense of vision and tenacity make institutions and societies better at handling the really epic challenges.
■ The truth is that we are always living in "before" times. Coach Lawson was born in 1981, which means she has lived through times "before Covid-19", "before 9/11", and "before mass shootings in schools", among many others. We live in the hard shadows of each.
■ Taken in the aggregate, things remain on a long, upward trajectory -- in part, because countless individuals have both grit and personal motivations to make things better. Oncologists keep waging war against cancer, engineers keep trying to make travel safer, farmers keep on producing more to feed a hungry world. The world can be awful and be getting better at the same time.
■ We can't know what "before" times we're living in. We can only be certain that from some future perspective, we will look back on today and measure it as being "before" some terrible event yet unknown. Whether we as individuals know how to handle the hard stuff better will do a lot to shape how society will "handle the hard stuff", too.
■ Nobody should be afraid to hope for better, to work for it, or to expect it. But along the way, we have to be certain -- completely certain -- that there will be harder periods ahead. There is no utopia to be reached. There is only getting through the challenges better, while appreciating that, on balance, the cumulative direction of things moves in the right direction when we push them that way. "Better" is not "easier" -- it wasn't in the past, and it won't be in the future.