Seeing grit in action in one of the grittiest places on the planet.
In her TED talk and new book, “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance,” psychologist Angela Lee Duckworth explores why some people—entrepreneurs, students, rookie teachers in the urban core or West Point cadets—succeed. Her answer? Grit. Duckworth defines grit as “passion and perseverance for very long-term goals,” even in the face of challenges.
I’ve been thinking about grit and entrepreneurship lately. I saw a lot of both on a recent project in Malawi, Africa. In the literal sense, rural Malawi is one of the grittiest environments on the planet. The average per capita income is $255 a year. Most homes are one-room huts with no electricity or running water, and the red-clay soil fills your shoes, if you have a pair, with grit.
Grit may be a teachable or learnable trait in developed economies, but it’s a daily survival skill in Malawi. Here are three examples, among the dozens I observed, of grit in action.
Solar-Charged Opportunity // Traditional communications infrastructure has limited reach, but mobile phone use is pervasive. People who did not have access to electricity or running water in their homes eagerly showed me photos of their children on their phones. In most villages, it’s easy to spot the entrepreneur who runs the mobile phone-charging business: just look for the hut with the solar panel propped against a milk crate in the front yard.
A Recipe for Perseverance // Michael supports his five children and relatives by preparing meals for visiting project teams—a skill he learned during a nine-year stint cooking for a Dutch family. Late one afternoon, the guest house lost access to water and electricity while Michael was preparing dinner. He quickly shifted gears and built a charcoal fire outside. With the help of candles and my flashlight, he finished preparing the meal on the kitchen stoop. Then he mounted his bike for the hour-long commute, in pitch darkness, to his village. True grit.
The Next Big Fish // I first observed English at the Lake Malawi shoreline, chatting with the fisherman preparing boats and nets for night fishing. The next morning, I found him on the guest house porch with the work of the village painters and carvers he represents displayed for sale. A day later, he was back with fresh-caught fish from the boats he represents. English is a salesman who gets results. He works from sunrise to sundown because his goal is to buy a boat, hire fishermen and run his own fishing operation.
Grit requires sticking with the hard tasks and working hard to make future goals a reality. By that definition, some of the grittiest people I’ve ever observed live in the rural villages of Malawi. Got grit? If you’re curious about your own grit quotient, check out Duckworth’s Grit Scale.