On a road trip last week, I caught up with the new season of Gimlet Media’s fantastic Start-Up podcast, a series that does exactly what you might expect, chronicling the ups and downs of getting a new company off the ground. To open their third season, which debuted only a couple of weeks ago, they decided to depart from previous go-rounds and withhold the name of the company being profiled. In order, one presumes, to amplify the suspense and shortcircuit any bias the listener might have up-front.

Clever move. As soon as a company “makes it”–especially in Silicon Valley–there’s a tendency to mythologize its founding, consolidating the drama and imbuing the players with supernatural prescience and perseverance (and sometimes eccentricity). Zuckerberg and Jobs have already been given their own prestige dramas; it’s only a matter of time til the ballad of Jeff Bezos hits screens. [Over at HBO, Mike Judge has been playing the self-congratulation for some truly memorable laughs.]. Doubtless the producers of Start-Up are aiming to paint a more honest picture.

Keeping the audience in the dark underlined how unexceptional the process and the people involved can be. The guys being interviewed sure didn’t sound like gurus. They sounded like, well, ‘regular guys’. Regular guys who’d been through the wringer, confidence and funding-wise, but regular nonetheless. There were none of the pregnant pauses or vocal tics or grandiose turns of phrase you might associate with a ‘born disrupter.’


Spoiler alert: the start-up in question was Twitch, the video game streaming platform that sold to Amazon in 2014 for nearly $1 billion. After letting that info slip in the closing minutes of the second cast, the host quizzed the founders about their success. What was their secret? What was it that made them so special? What otherworldly wisdom had they drawn on? Who was the Doc Emmet of the group? The Cameron Howe?

All of them said pretty much the same thing. There was no secret. What happened to them could have happened to anybody. Their success was a matter of hard work, youthful recklessness, and absurdly fortuitous timing. Plus a little ego. None of them claimed to be particularly intelligent, let alone visionary. To the extent that there was a Eureeka moment, it was more a happy accident than any legitimate break-through. I remember thinking that it sounded quite a bit like church planting, except with financial concerns (mercifully) more out in the open.

The host seemed unwilling to accept their humdrum diagnosis, instead pushing her subjects to ditch any false modesty and acknowledge their brilliance. Surely the truth couldn’t be so pedestrian!

The episode resonated with something CJ highlighted in last Friday’s wrap-up column, an article by Jerry Useem in The Atlantic asking whether the character trait ‘grit’ is overrated. The quality, after all, has become virtually axiomatic in education and parenting circles over the past decade, ever since it was reintroduced into popular consciousness by Angela Duckworth in 2004. You could almost say that ‘grit’ has come to constitute the missing link in our (national) developmental landscape, the key to our future success in the world.

The Boston Globe defined it thus: “Grit isn’t simply about the willingness to work hard. Instead, it’s about setting a specific long-term goal and doing whatever it takes until the goal has been reached.” What really separates the winners from the losers, in other words, is not talent or ability or even self-confidence. Those things may be important but they are not decisive. Grit is.

Here’s where things get interesting:

Ask Americans which they think is more important to success, effort or talent, and they pick effort two to one. Ask them which quality they’d desire most in a new employee, and they pick industriousness over intelligence five to one. But deep down, they hold the opposite view.

We know this thanks to another researcher, whose work Duckworth draws on, Chia-Jung Tsay of University College London. Tsay asked professional musicians to listen to audio clips of two pianists, one described as a “natural,” the other as a “striver.” Despite the fact that the two pianists were really one pianist playing different sections of the same composition—and in flat contradiction to the listeners’ stated belief that effort trumped talent—the musicians thought the “natural” sounded more likely to succeed than the “striver,” and more hirable. Tsay found a similar prejudice among people considering an investment proposal. Their preference for backing a “natural” entrepreneur over a “striver” entrepreneur was erased only when the latter was given four more years of experience and $40,000 more in capital.

There may be no more loaded word in the English language today than ‘natural’. Morally loaded, that is. When used to describe disasters, it suggests something akin to ‘blameless’. When talking about food, ‘healthy’. When brought into the sexuality arena, it (usually) means ‘righteous’. In relation to gender, it often connotes ‘prescribed’ or even ‘oppressive’. Needless to say, it gets confusing pretty quickly. Mary Karr once spelled out the complications memorably:

liam-walsh-he-looks-so-natural-new-yorker-cartoon“People have different ideas of what natural is. Since the romantics we’ve all been big fans of the natural, as though natural equals good. Shitting in your pants is natural, wanting to boink the pizza-delivery kid is natural. Stabbing people who get in front of you at the cafeteria line—that’s probably a natural impulse. Where do you draw the line between what’s good natural and what’s bad?”

Anyway, when we’re talking about people, ‘natural’ tends to function as a euphemism for ‘effortless’. You hear a person referred to as a ‘natural leader’ or a ‘natural beauty’ or ‘natural athlete’ (or, yes, ‘natural pastor’), which means that _____ appears to come to them sans exertion.

Back to Duckworth and the grit discussion:

Whence the bias for naturals? Duckworth offered me her best guess: We don’t like strivers because they invite self-comparisons. If what separates, say, Roger Federer from you and me is nothing but the number of hours spent at “deliberate practice”—as the most-extreme behavioralists argue—our enjoyment of the U.S. Open could be interrupted by the thought There but for the grace of grit go I.

So we resist thinking of the Gavin Belson’s or Beyonce’s of the world as having worked hard to get where they are because of the judgment that would represent against us. If you had put in the hours–and if you really wanted it, you would have–then it might be you up on that stage, or steering that yacht. Instead we turn them into superhero-geniuses, a different species almost, which blunts the edge of the accusation they embody. This isn’t to say that people aren’t indeed gifted in varying ways and proportions; simply that in those cases where they’re not, our perception of them can still be marshaled in service of self-justification. Phew!

Unfortunately, sometimes we can’t distance ourselves so conveniently. Maybe we actually know one of these tech-tycoons or celebrities personally, or have some frame of reference for them. Maybe they grew up in a neighboring town, maybe we went to the same college. Tim Kreider believes that an echo of this dynamic lies at the heart of why college friends lose touch in middle age. Whatever path they’ve ‘chosen’–exciting or predictable–becomes a life you could have potentially lived. Something you, by definition, are not. This is part of what we were getting at in a section of Law & Gospel:

The law cannot be hemmed in by language. A person can serve as law in our lives. Think of someone whose very existence represents a judgment on our own: the person from our hometown who had the same basic upbringing and opportunities as us, the same passions and interests, yet whose professional life has been charmed from day one. They just bought their second home, while we just finalized our second divorce.


Of course, the irony here is that, just as no one thinks of themselves as having it all together, no one actually thinks of themselves as a ‘natural’. Useem quotes no less than Michelangelo on this point, “if people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery, it would not seem so wonderful at all.” Doubtless the artist himself had someone who he considered a ‘total natural’, an acquaintance who functioned as a walking condemnation. Probably one of his fellow half-shells.

Where does this leave us? As often happens when you dig into the law, it has a way of both receding and expanding the closer you get. Success may be a matter of grit, but truly successful grit disguises itself:

Whatever its origins, the bias [toward ‘naturals’] has practical implications. Certainly, it suggests that my deep terror of letting anyone see my half-written article drafts is not irrational but adaptive. It perpetuates a myth that I’m a natural—the words just flow out, folks, as fast as I can type!—and hides the far more mundane truth: that the words come out fitfully and woodenly, gradually succumbing to a state of readability only after many seemingly fruitless sessions… Which suggests that Duckworth’s basic admonition, “Embrace challenge,” needs a qualifier: Do it in private. Grit may be essential. But it is not attractive.

This can make for confusing career advice. “Try hard enough and you can do just about anything, as long as you don’t seem to be trying very hard” is not the stuff of school murals.

Oh boy. The sound you hear is that of a bunch of graduate’s knees hitting the floor as the little-l law approaches bone-crushing heights. Of course, grit can just as easily be a disguise itself: a mask for stubbornness, or faithlessness, or superiority, or control, or simply fear of failure. We moralize it as a ‘good’ at our own peril. In fact, spiritually speaking, grit sounds curiously like a liability, the opposite of surrender.


The other day on The Mockingcast, Scott Jones paraphrased psychologist Frank Lake’s distillation of the Gospel, and it’s stuck with me, perhaps because it’s so tweetable: “Acceptance is gift, not reward.” It’s a good word to those for whom grit–or talent–isn’t enough to make it, those transparent strivers whose persistence hasn’t paid off, or even those who’ve experienced success only to find out how fleeting it is.

Because Frank Lake said something else. When asked if he’d ever met someone who wasn’t neurotic–and by ‘neurotic’ we might mean the state of being caught in a web of competing accusations, both external and internal–he apparently responded, “No, but I hear there was one once.” What a beautiful thing to say. The One to whom he refers did indeed possess grit–of the truest kind (Coens). Yet his was expressed, not as another tool in the arsenal of success, but as perseverance to the point of failure and death for the sake of world done in by its natural proclivities.

No, not Roy Hobbs. Some call him a Suffering Servant, I call him a Born Disrupter.