It was 2:40pm on a bright sunny day. We were at the local playground. My daughter wanted to play in the sandbox. It was crowded with other parents and children mingling about. But, we did find a shaded spot in the sand away from the ‘traffic’.
This was a last minute trip, hoping to take advantage of the beautiful weather. The past few days had been a mix of overcast, cloudy skies, and spurts of rain. But, today, the weather was perfect.
Let’s start with “determination”.
You can learn a lot watching a child play (see here). Watching them carefully, you even get a glimpse into how they think, and what you discover might be a little about yourself (see here). So, here we were surrounded by iron and steel in a sandbox. I was about to get schooled.
Surrounded by an iron and steel playground, a veritable crowd of my peers, I was about to battle the temptation to put my attention into ‘other things’. I put my phone away in my bag. If I survived 20 minutes without checking notifications, social media or email, I would have considered that a victory.
I determined to sit in the sand and do my job as a Dad.
“Play with me—“ she asked.
Sand in everything.
My camera bag, my work clothes (for some reason I wear the collared shirts even on weekends), all of it, the sand invaded every fold. But, did I care? Not really. Sunny and warm, with a cool breeze, it was all good.
Yet, she didn’t find the sand in her shoes enjoyable. I spent a good minute shaking it all out her socks and shoes. Only then, when she felt comfortable did she start to dig. Dig deep. She had found a bucket and she put herself to the task of filling it with sand. Wet sand. Her only tool was a pink utensil-‘sieve’, which was essentially a shovel with holes in it. It was the worst tool you could find for the job. But, it didn’t bother her. A sense of efficiency is a curse for those who grasp the idea of ‘time’.
As a two year old, she either felt she had all the time in the World, or could not value it’s passing.
Myself, on the other hand, felt the pull of the smart phone. Tick-tick, did a message come through? I could just take a quick peek. What harm would that do?
Fighting for it.
“Daddy, dig…” she said.
Her voice silenced the call to reach for my phone.
“Okay.” I used my bare hands and cupped a giant pile of sand into the bucket. It was quite literally a quarter bucket worth of sand in a single scoop. Compared to her hole-y scooper, I could have used a single palm and accomplished more. But, that wasn’t the point.
“Help me.” She really, really wanted to fill that bucket with sand. There was an urgency to meeting this goal. Who knows why? It was the task at hand.
“Okay, let’s do this!” I pretended to scoop up more with my hands. Instead opting to watch and see how determined she would be to do it. How would she handle the inefficiency of her tool? Sand slipped through the holes in the scooper with every movement. Tablespoon amounts of sand made it to the bucket, however, and she kept going despite slow progress.
I continued to watch her persist toward this goal that she set for herself. Simply fill a bucket with sand. Could she do it? This became an internal game for me, watching her fight her way to meet this challenge. Her determination matched my relentless battle against the urge to silence the dinging notifications of my phone. It buzzed in my pocket.
But, I left it there.
“You can do it,” I said. “Keep trying”.
She was starting to show signs of frustration.
The ‘I can’t’ words. I’ve heard those from grown men and women. Admittedly, adults go through much tougher challenges than trying to fill a bucket with sand. Some I know have experienced mountain-sized challenges that would have dwarfed the entire playground. Here, however, my little girl was trying to do something incredible. She was fighting herself.
“Yes, you can, “ I urged her onward. Firmly, but with a sense of pride, too. Despite the suboptimal tool for the job, this was a chance to see what she was made of. Life doesn’t just hand you the easy way to do things. Rules aren’t always fair. Sand slips through holes in a shovel, or through your fingers no matter how hard you make a fist.
This is Life.
How many of us try to accomplish things in life without the “right tools”? I grew up in a small town in the 80’s. By all common standards, this was a middle class neighborhood. My parents were immigrants and they arrived with a suitcase full of clothes, their only belongings, and about $700 US dollars. More than some, less than most.
Growing up, I’ve dreamed big and failed repeatedly. Do you know what it’s like to pour your heart and soul into something only to have that thing bite you back? To take more away from you than where you started? That’s how badly I’ve experienced failure. Not only do you have to go back to the drawing board, you’ve run out of chalk.
So, here my daughter at two years old is learning that some problems have no quick or easy solutions. There is no easy way out. Instead, she had to figure out that her goal of filling a bucket with sand with a sieve wouldn’t be simple or easy.
But, I noticed something. A spark, maybe. She doesn’t give up. This is the second time I’ve witnessed this. She’s still trying to get a pile of sand to stay on top of the sieve, and get it all into the bucket. Some gets in, but just a bit. For the next 5 minutes following my insistence that she keep trying, she’s still pushing sand around. Not a word spoken.
I’m watching her as she grills down into this task. Then, she looks up. My response surprises me—
“No,” I blurt out. “You can do it—go slow.”
“I can’t do it.” She says in a whiny voice of a child who doesn’t get her way.
Yes, you can, I think. I know she’s not truly upset. She’s picked up a few bad habits and this whining I think is a little bit of it. I know she can keep going and if I get involved, I’m afraid I’m taking something away from her.
“You can do it — go slow, a little bit at a time.”
What is treasure?
And, ladies and gentlemen, that is the essence of how you demonstrate grit. It’s a battle of attrition. The internal push to meet difficulties with relentless determination. There she was, slowly learning to suffer with this voluntary challenge. As non-consequential as filling a bucket with sand, I saw this as an opening. A time where I could see how much grit she had, and where I could apply a bit more. Polished metal shines with grit.
Slowly, she began to ignore the big piles of sand and started pouring in the little piles that would stay on her sieve. Little by little that bucket filled up.
She figured out that if she ignored the need to pile up tall sand mounds, and settled instead for the small amounts that she could handle over to the bucket, she would make progress. And, she was.
“Daddy, look what I found!” She held out a rock she dug up. “It’s treasure.” The gray rock fit in her palm like an imperfect pearl in an oyster.
She threw the rock away and it splashed in the sand not too far away.
“Is that what you do with treasure?”
She ignored me. She went back to digging in the sand. Pouring more into the bucket.
Grit. Sometimes you find treasure if you keep digging.
Sometimes you don’t care.