Stick-to-it-iveness and Grit

The following is Michael Novak's response to the symposium question "Does focusing on failures in the 'system' undermine the psychological basis for economic recovery?" in the Spring 2009 Issue of In Character Magazine: Grit. Read other responses to the symposium here. The entire issue is available online at People who are inventors, discoverers, and uncoverers of new ways are a different breed: overtime economic activists, creators of new wealth, launchers of small businesses (of which some become quite large).

When such entrepreneurs look at economic realities, they see something quite different from what economists see. Economists measure the past; creators make new futures.

Even when economists forecast the future, they must base their projections on accomplished fact, on things as they have been. Economic creators see things that do not yet exist. They anticipate new proximate possibilities and have the know-how to make nonexistent things come to be.

What makes economic creators tick? What gets their juices flowing?

Creators see reasons why things that aren’t yet can soon be. They are willing to risk their whole welfare — all their savings, most of their resources — in order to bring these practicable visions into existence.

What gets their juices running is a dream of changing (if only by so little) the present direction of things. By their own creative and risk-taking actions they create goods and services that have not yet been brought to market. They imagine new realities that others do not yet see. Many entrepreneurs leave higher-paying, more secure jobs at major corporations for the pure joy of creating something new. Money is not usually their primary aim, but comes in second or third to enjoying freedom of action and practical invention.

What about skeptics? Of these they meet plenty. “If it could be done, it would have been done already.” “You’re going to lose your shirt!” Behind almost all successful people there stands a loving, trusted mate who tells them they are wrong.

Perhaps that is how people in business come to learn that, in the end, it all comes down to their individual unyielding will and their own thick skin.

Determination, perseverance, and that wonderful American quality (and term) “stick-to-it-iveness”: these must be strong enough to endure opposition, even failures, and audacious enough to see in every failure a new creative possibility.

Entrepreneurs are both idealists and realists. They would like to be loved, but most of all they want to create. Genuine appreciation from others warms up their willingness to bear the cold winds of reality. But they are fairly accustomed to following their own judgments, overcoming adversity, and trusting in their dreams.

And yet. Their judgment about timing may be chilled by official hostility. Ignorant opposition arouses the creators’ well-practiced paranoia about the millions of ways in which what they are trying to do can fail. Official unfriendliness raises risks.

Even so, opposition makes the competitive animal within them stir. Fierce opposition only hardens its feral will to prove to the opposition who is more in touch with reality.

If stick-to-it-iveness is a wonderfully American word, there is also a four-letter Anglo-Saxon word for what it takes: grit. A lot of people in business get pushed back into corners. From there, curled like tigers, they eventually lunge forward.

As I read the narrative our nation is now living through, the White House and its surrounding cast seem woefully ignorant about economic activists, ignorant, resentful, and seething with punitive desire.

So there is some reason for concluding (even tentatively) that the reflexes of unchecked presidential power in Washington will blow through the nation like an ill wind. One senses in it a pestilential and destructive lust to destroy the entrepreneurial class, whose prestige and success they resent.

Some leftists have expressed publicly the wish that the “rich” will be taken down a couple of pegs, so that the “poor” may be lifted up a few. Actually, there seems to be more passion in the fervor to bring down the rich than practicality about how to lift up the poor.

Will economic activists react to this ill wind by hunching down and hibernating until the winter passes? Or will they flip the bird and give our new and inexperienced administration some lessons in reality?

  • There cannot be employees without employers, that is, creators, risk-takers, activists of a quite different sort than neighborhood organizers.
  • There cannot be profits without expanding, thriving businesses.
  • There cannot be growing government revenues unless businesses keep leaping into existence and putting out those cheering notices: Employees Wanted.

It is a small price to pay for a good society to experience in its midst growing numbers of ever wealthier, ever more successful creators of new wealth raising with themselves new employment. The poor can scarcely rise without growing numbers of the “rich.” Arithmetically, greater “disparities” of wealth are an unavoidable consequence. Ten percent of a $200,000 income amounts to $20,000, but 10 percent of a $20,000 income amounts to only $2,000.

The more new wealth created, and the more payrolls mount, the more securely is the common good achieved. As Winston Churchill said, “The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings. The inherent blessing of socialism is the equal sharing of misery.”

Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York recently noted that the top 40,000 income earners in his city pay 50 percent of the city’s taxes. If even 10 percent of them (4,000) move to another state, the city’s shortfall in revenues will hurt a lot.

  • The “rich,” then, are the price that a city must pay if it wishes to make life better for all its citizens. Even the rich contribute to the common good. (“I’m shocked, shocked!”)
  • Economic creators prefer to be recognized as good and indispensable citizens. If you want fewer of them, show contempt for them.
  • Having more small businesses is the cheapest way to generate more jobs for the poor and middle class.

Published in the Spring 2009 issue of In Character Magazine: Grit