I grew up in Montana. So did my mother. So did my grandmother and grandfather. So did lots and lots of aunts, uncles, cousins, second cousins, and so on.
In the days before the Internet, Montana was a place where you and the land had a tight bond. It wasn’t optional, it was just how it was. Frequently it felt like an abusive relationship: we have such wonderful times in the spring and summer, remember? Eighty degree weather, beautiful rivers, green grass, incredible biking, and gorgeous hiking. Then come the tough times of winter, when Nature Gets Mad. (She always gets over it, and apologizes with springtime.) But during winter we are shoveling snow, driving on ice, and trying not to frost our lungs or freeze the pipes solid. We are constantly in a state of emergency, attempting to survive an unwelcoming environment with enough grace that we aren’t victimized by its power. Growing up, we frequently got to enjoy a White Christmas. But no one wants to hear about the Gray January After Christmas, the So Cold Your Nosehairs Freeze February, or the 90 Second Growing Season on that One Day in July. But that’s just as much a part of Montana life as the spectacular scenery.
Yep, if you want to live in Montana, you have to have a lot of backbone.
One of my uncles told his young daughter, who was very worried about him not going to church, that he was a farmer. He made his living off the land, and he couldn’t get much closer to God than that.
I don’t worry about such things as not attending church. But I do worry about not attending to the outdoors, which is as close to the miracle of creation as you can get. (My uncle was absolutely right about that.) There are a few reasons to attend carefully to the outdoors, but here’s the biggest one: grit, resilience, and critical thinking are all essential to anyone wanting to learn or do anything. Just ask anyone in education or business.
Yet where all this grit is supposed to come from in the modern world is actually kind of a problem. We drive cars, can access most of the information the human race has ever gathered with the touch of a screen, and in general have it easy. But easy isn’t what creates grit. Easy is a start, and probably it’s best if new things are easy to start with. But my kids have never found easy engaging for very long.
I think humans know that. Young humans in particular seek challenging or rewarding experiences. They know the difference between a theme park ride and an eight mile hike. Both are fun, but one layers on a sense of someone else’s vision of an enjoyable human experience, and the other gets you closer to yourself.
Children viscerally feel the difference between being developed, and being entertained. My gymnast son has decided to combine both, and that gymnastics is his “entertainment.” He likes it interactive, I think.
There are so many things we can control now, but grit and resilience come from responding to what we can’t control. At Grit University, classes are about coping with ambiguity, making do with limited materials, and using failure to succeed.
One of the best ways to gain those experiences is to get out in nature and interact with it. You can’t control the weather, your hiking trail, or even totally failing to locate your hiking trail so that you have to create a new one. There are other benefits too: research shows that time spent outside is effective in reducing the symptoms of ADHD, raises levels of Vitamin D, reduces depression, enhances critical thinking, and actually makes us nicer. Offering environmental education programs in school has also been shown to improve standardized test scores (I have very mixed feelings about testing, but if it helps get environmental education programs in our schools, that’s a good use of it).
However, getting out into the elements is not the only way to build grit (though it’s my favorite). There are many ways to put ourselves in environments we can’t control: travel, join a team, learn a new skill, build something new. (Yoga + jiu jitsu + Making = perfect for me.) It involves taking a risk and being interested in the result. It’s a good idea to start with small risks, and build your risk-taking game. You don’t want to start by taking big, life-threatening (or career-threatening) risks. It’s best to practice on risks that don’t kill, maim, or impoverish before getting to the more challenging ones.
Many things in life end up coming down to our ability to handle what comes up. As a good friend likes to say, “God willin’ and the crick don’t rise.” To translate: if everything goes as we hope, and there isn’t a flash flood, this is The Plan.
Imagine how well we could tackle modern life if we looked at education like this: start with finding a seed you’re interested in, stick it in the ground, and step back to see what happens. Your education begins when the creek starts to rise.