Grit in Your Teeth

R-MA cadets met up with some R-MA alumni while attending a leadership conference held at VMI. Photo by Mike Starling '88.

On the 29th and 30th of October, 2018, Randolph-Macon Academy faculty had the privilege to escort a total of eight cadets to Virginia Military Institute’s Center for Leadership & Ethics. They attended a conference dedicated to the memory of Caroline Dawn Wortham, VMI Class of 2012, a woman who had dedicated her life to be a force for good and was tragically killed on September 5, 2015. The conference was focused upon American character, in particular, grit. GRIT is both the word itself and an acronym, standing for Growth, Resilience, Integrity, and Tenacity. R-MA cadets had the rare opportunity to not only listen to the words of respected men and women (among them, Dr. Milana Hogan, Navy SEAL James Hatch, and Staff Sergeant Clinton Romesha) but to also participate in discussions themselves. High school students rarely get the chance to make their voices heard among those who are up to sixty or seventy years their senior, but within the small-group exercises run by the cadets of VMI, all of the R-MA cadets got the opportunity to speak up and bring their own perspectives to the table. 

On the first day, Cadets Benjamin Kopjanski ’20, Citlaly Sosa ’20, Grace Wagner ’20, and Connor Gamma ’20 attended. The special guests they listened to included Dr. William Bennett, Secretary of Education from 1985 to 1988; community leaders from Newtown, CT who discussed the town’s recovery in the wake of the December 14, 2014 Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy; and Staff Sergeant Clinton Romesha, who won the Congressional Medal of Honor for actions undertaken in the defense of COP Keating on October 3, 2009. These were just a few speakers among a plethora of other distinguished guests.

On the second day, Cadets Zhiyuan “Bradley” Gao ’19, Watson He ’20, Nathan Sylvia ’19, and I headed to VMI. We listened to special guests Doctor Milana Hogan, who spoke in honor of the late Carrie Wortham; and the closing speaker, retired Navy SEAL James Hatch, author of Touching the Dragon and founder of Spike’s K9 Fund, a 501(c)3 dedicated to the training, care, and preservation of working dogs. (Each star on the logo represents a dog who was killed during Hatch’s service in the SEALs.) 

Throughout both days, VMI cadets ran various exercises. On the first day, it was small-group activities including physical activity, and on the second it was small-group exercises called the “GRIT Café.”  VMI cadets were professional and welcoming, accepting input from all sources and proposing their own thoughts upon matters regarding ethics and leadership. Guests and cadets were grouped into tables, which participated in events together and held small-scale discussions outside of the exercises.

Attending on the second day, at my table were myself, two VMI cadets, a midshipman from the Coast Guard Academy, a professor from Hampden-Sydney College, and a retired Marine officer. My perspective of this second day remains vivid even a month later. 

Dr. Milana Hogan’s speech focused upon where success comes from, in particular GRIT  and the Growth Mindset. Much of what success can be comes from the way it is approached, in what is termed the fixed or growth mindsets. For example, if somebody says, “I’m bad at math,” either it will be “and I’ll never get better,” or “but I can get better.” The fixed growth mindset is, in short, deciding you’ve hit the ceiling. It’s not “worth it” to continue, there’s nothing more to accomplish. The growth mindset involves taking the failure and analyzing what went wrong and taking it as a learning experience. This must be practiced alongside behavior persistence. As she put it multiple times, life is a marathon, not a sprint. Nobody sets out to fail – but you can learn from failure and turn it into opportunity. Going on to explain how this worked with GRIT, she discussed “bad grit,” such as taking shortcuts, becoming so fixated upon a goal that you ignore any better ways forward, or selfish/narcissistic grit. 

After Dr. Hogan’s speech, the groups broke for the GRIT Café, run by VMI cadets. Among the activities were “SMART Goals,” “Thinking Traps,” “Ethical Dilemmas,” and “The ABCs,” which was an acronym for Activation events, Beliefs, and Consequences. 

For example, the “activation” event (which is something uncontrollable) is the fact that a man is the star player of a hockey game, and he suffers a bad bruise. His following belief is that he can’t play, he’s injured. The consequence is that the team, depending on him, loses not because they lost one member, but because of the heavily defeated attitude of the player. Perhaps instead the event is that the coach comes in and shouts that he’s not a hockey player, he’s a quitter! The hockey player, who’s the star player for a reason and well-known for being the best in the business, is understandably incensed and shouts that he’ll play, out of spite, if nothing else! The following consequence? A hockey match won by a high-spirited team! That was the scenario presented to us by the cadets running the “ABCs,” capped off by a clip from the movie Miracle, showing that exact circumstance. 

After lunch and further discussion with those at the table – which primarily revolved around the ability to step back and not take criticism personally, but to also be able to give criticism while also offering a solution – we returned to the theater to listen to Navy SEAL James Hatch, who discussed the events surrounding his book, Touching the Dragon.

James Hatch was a Navy SEAL and on the cutting edge of the spear for a very long time. Things he saw were like a “mental backpack” that he zipped up to deal with later, and after his discharge, the “zipper broke.” He did not call himself the man with the grit to continue going when everything seemed to be falling apart around him, but credited his continued life to those around him. Verbatim, the phrase he constantly repeated was, “never underestimate your ability to influence the trajectory of another human’s life, especially in their most vulnerable moments.” Everybody has the capacity to be an asset and to be a liability. Everybody, too, has the capability to make a liability into an asset. You can’t go for long in life alone. Hatch ended his speech by introducing a new definition of tough, referring to the classic “tough” definition of bottling it up and remaining stoic as “stupid.” Life cannot be lived quietly suffering, it cannot be done alone. Find your family, be it blood or otherwise. 

Grit and the American character is not something that is entirely about the individual. There is an important element of individuality and personal resilience within it, but as Hatch made clear, it is a disservice to both yourself and those who care about you to try to go alone. Those who loved him stood by him at his darkest moments and made sure he could get through it. They did not turn their back on him – and this alone is an example of grit. Resilience in assisting a man in deep depression, Integrity in encouraging him to get help, Tenacity in making sure he saw the opportunities and finally reached out to take them; these enabled the growth of a man who’d seen his lowest and was buoyed from endless despair by their help. 

It was a privilege and honor to attend the conference. Sincere thanks go out both to the VMI Center for Leadership & Ethics for hosting it, and to Randolph-Macon Academy for allowing the eight of us the chance to have this opportunity at such a young age.