Becoming Who You Want to Be and How to Get There: Get Some “True Grit”

Michelle Mitchell ’06 Addresses Cap and Gown Convocation – September 22, 2012

Good evening!  I am excited to be here this evening and to share this important moment with you. First, I am honored to accept the Washington Woman of Genius Award!  Thank you to President McGuire and the Nominating Committee for selecting me for such an honorable distinction. Thank you to the deans, faculty and staff for making Trinity University a beacon of hope for so many – on the cutting edge of education and women’s leadership for the future.  This university is and will continue to be a part of my extended family.

Congratulations to the Blue Class of 2013 on rising to the challenges and reaching the Cap and Gown milestone! One of the things that I am passionate about is women’s leadership, and, in general, supporting people to be their best.  My optimism for you is that you can be whatever you want to be and you have what it takes to achieve that goal.  I believe that you can achieve your wildest dreams and ascend to the highest heights – as a Trinity woman, you will find the resources to get there.  Now, who do you want to become and how are you going to get there? Let’s talk about it.

When I was a student at Trinity, I was involved in a wide range of activities.  I did and still do fancy myself as a basket of goods – I believe that each new skill developed or experience gained adds to who I am as a person and my own diversity.  Thus, I advance through my life thinking about how to add to my basket of goods and increase my human capital.

At this milestone moment, I would like to share four tips with you on how you can add to your own basket of goods while becoming who you want to be, and some lessons I have learned while figuring out how to get there.

Tip #1:  Set Meaningful Goals and Stick with Them

When I graduated from this fine institution, I had a five-year plan with incremental goals, which included being accepted to Georgetown Law, attending and graduating, getting a job, buying a car, buying a house, and changing the world in some meaningful way.  Somehow, I managed to complete many of these goals in about five years; however, there was a moment where I thought to myself, “What’s next?”

Setting goals is a good thing but being fixated on a goal as an Aristotelian end in itself, as opposed to, as a means to an end can lead one to feel unfulfilled.  As you well know, the road to personal success can be filled with stress, pressure, dissatisfaction, feelings of inadequacy, uncertainty about the future and other questions such as: “Am I really interested in my chosen profession?”  “Is there something else out there that may be a better fit?” “To what should I devote myself?” “Why am I not in a better place mentally, spiritually, or emotionally?” Or simply, “Am I good enough?”

Though grappling with these questions, we should endeavor to experience a moment of clarity – a moment where we determine what fulfills us and where we work towards not just surface goals but towards fulfillment.

With this in mind, my new goals are not so much about checking boxes as they are meeting personal bests.  How can I be a better attorney and be a better associate at my law firm? A better friend? A better daughter? A better dancer? A better singer? A better photographer? How can I get better at the things that are important to me?

My new goal is to always be ascending and continually filling my basket.

Yet, even ascendancy has its barriers.  As early as I can remember, there were discussions of the glass ceiling as a metaphor to describe the plight of women in certain industries or workplaces.  The metaphor holds that women are sometimes barred or blocked from ascending to certain levels of success because of unseen barriers.

I am speaking at a historic women’s college.  Here we understand that there are more hurdles and more barriers for us, and particularly more so for women of color.  I have felt and experienced these barriers.

To be completely genuine before you, in my life thus far:

  • I’ve been subject to harassment for my race;
  • I’ve experienced sexual harassment;
  • I’ve feared for my life;
  • I’ve worried about money;
  • I’ve been judged; and
  • I’ve been marginalized.

I’ve had each experience many times.  I was born in the 1980s and today it is 2012.

Do you know what all of this means?  It means that I was born on earth, not in heaven, and that down here not everything is perfect.  It means that I need to be creative about how I deal with these difficulties, triumph over adversity, and become an example to others about how I overcame.  There is always a way to overcome adversity.

One way is to take ownership over your own future.  Do you want to direct the course of your life and your career?   Or, would you rather someone else do it for you?  I am certain that most of you would like to be in the proverbial “driver’s seat”; however, my question is, “What are you doing today to ensure that you have that option tomorrow?”

Tip #2: Get some “True Grit”

Recently, I was privileged to hear Dr. Angela Lee Duckworth speak about indicators of success and achievement.  Dr. Duckworth, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, said that one of the necessary ingredients for success is “true grit.”  In developing this concept, she interviewed professionals at the top of their field to determine what it was that allowed them to ascend.  She explained that there are two categories – talents and capacities that allow us to unlock our talents and meet our potential.

So, what is “grit?”  To paraphrase, your level of grit is your stamina, your perseverance, and in some cases your ability to be longsuffering. It is dedication to tasks, interests and goals. Grit is required to work towards a destination and stay on track towards consistent interests.  Dr. Duckworth notes that changing your course often is a sure way to get nowhere.  Grit is your ability to have a door slammed in your face but to keep knocking until they open it up and let you in.

Dr. Duckworth developed a grit scale test.  On this test, there are a range of statements where test-takers are to determine how well a certain statement fits their character by selecting a range of responses.  The statements, which determine the degree of an individual’s grittiness, include the following: “I am a hard worker,” “Set-backs don’t discourage me,” “I often set a goal, and then choose to pursue a different one,” and “I become interested in different pursuits every few months.”

According to Duckworth, the grittier you are the higher your potential for success.  This is an interesting find for us – it means that you can determine your own future by your own practiced behaviors.  It means that how hard you try, how determined you are, and how unstoppable your resolve – our “grit” – can make the difference.  In fact, in her studies of cadets at West Point, she found that the grittier people were more likely to finish the program than those with higher measures of intellect, physical strength or raw talent.

When I heard her speech, I thought it described many of the women that I know from Trinity.

I was born with a tenacious spirit.  I do not let people tell me “no” or that I cannot do something.  In my chosen profession, law, I am required to work, to make sacrifices, to travel – I am expected to perform at a high level 100% of the time.  The work is interesting and challenging and I am fortunate to have incredible opportunities; however, as anyone can tell you – it is also incredibly exhausting.

However, for me this is not a new experience.  While I was a student at Trinity, I was sometimes commuting 1.5 to 2 hours to arrive at campus by 9:00 a.m. via a bus, a metro train and a shuttle – in the fall, winter and spring.  While in college, I worked every semester, about two days a week, and worked full-time through my winter and summer breaks.  At Georgetown, I was similarly fully committed through my participation in the full range of law school activities, from academic associations and student organizations, to the trial advocacy team, law clinic and a Capitol Hill fellowship.  Today, I remain stretched to the limit handling a suite of matters for our firm’s clients and making time to give back to my community.  With some introspection, I can say that all of this has required a tremendous amount of “grit” and tenacity; and my continued drive to ascend is spurred by a quest for the fulfillment that I mentioned earlier.

With all of the drive, I have also had another moment of clarity to refocus.  I realize now that it is sometimes important to go home, light a candle, de-stress and go to sleep.  It is important to hold on to what invigorates you and to continue your pursuit of that meaningful stimulation.  For me, after several years of neglecting my interests, I decided to take up dance lessons again and to get back into shape.  I restrung my violin.  I bought a new camera to more seriously pursue my love of photography and am creating avenues to share my work.  Finally, I have recently been in the recording studio singing background vocals for a new artist’s album to continue to pursue my love of music – all of these things are important to me and all of them take time!  However, by providing an outlet for creativity and exercising your right-brain you become a more diverse person, which indirectly helps you to keep on that consistent path and to keep ascending.

Tip #3: Develop an Attitude of Gratitude – Lift as You Climb

I made it from a military base in Southeast Washington, D.C., to a prominent law firm located “downtown” because of the choices that my family made.  I grew up knowing where I came from.  On one side, much of my family is from Camden, New Jersey, which has the highest crime rate in the country and where two out of every five people live under the national poverty line.  I am well acquainted with what my life could be like if not for certain choices that were made.

On my mother’s side, my grandmother worked 16 hours a day at two jobs – one at the Ancora Psychiatric Hospital pushing wheelchairs, bathing, feeding and providing general care to patients who were suffering from mental illnesses.  This was in the ’60s and ’70s.  One of her physician supervisors recognized her “grit” and the hospital sponsored her to attend college at Rutgers University.  Ultimately, she became the Statewide Crisis Management and Gerontology Trainer and spoke extensively, teaching trainers and CEOs on how to handle difficult behaviors that are a result of mental illness.  She started at the bottom and made it to the very top.  Along the way, our family had very little in the way of basic necessities; my mom tells me stories about how she used to line her mother’s shoes with newspaper so her feet wouldn’t get wet on the way to work if it was raining and a range of other things they had to do to just get by.

On my father’s side, my grandmother and grandfather spent their entire lives working in the Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth, Virginia.  My grandfather worked there for 38 years and retired with over 1,800 sick leave hours, proving that he went to work on some of his sickest days to provide for his family.  Both of them sacrificed a lot to make sure they could send all four of their kids to college and were proud to be able to do so.

Because of my grandparents’ sacrifices, both of my parents graduated from college.  Following the example set for them, they poured out everything they had to push me and my siblings ahead.

I’m telling you the story of where I come from so that you can think about where you come from.  Never forget that you have not gotten here by your efforts alone – your very existence has required sacrifice.  Because of this, you must seize your moment and your opportunity to continue to climb.  Remember that it is your responsibility to bring others along with you as you rise.

Tip #4: Understand the Power of Affirmation

Positive thinking leads to positive outcomes!  I know first-hand that there is power in affirmation.  When I was at Trinity, I always used to tell people that I was going to attend law school and that I planned to attend for free.  I affirmed this vision of my future even before I knew how it could be possible.  One day, I walked past the Office of the Dean of Student Services and saw a flyer for the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation’s Graduate Scholarship Program.  I immediately determined that the scholarship was for me.  Even though I was required to go through a rigorous selection process and was required to write 13 or 14 essays, I determined that I was going to go through the process.  I spent 40 hours, at the very least, meditating on how to answer the foundation’s questions and to express my essence and potential in my paper application.  I poured my heart into those essays, sent off the packet and waited.  Then one day the phone rang and my dream came true!

I want you to know that this dream did not come true because I simply sat around thinking about it, it happened because I searched for the opportunities that were out there just waiting to be discovered.  Then, I used my community and my available resources and “prayed on it” – because I had already done everything that I could do on my part.

I clearly remember, prior to receiving that call, that my mom and I drove past Georgetown Law one night.  We saw the pristine campus, lit up and beautiful, with the clock tower and some of the brand new buildings – and we both felt incredibly small and inadequate.

I can tell you that both of us sat in the car wondering how everything was going to work out.  Yes, I had been accepted, but now the question was how to pay for it all!  I came from a hard-working family of modest financial means.  I remember thinking that the amount of debt that I would have to take on would have been crippling.  The very next day, the phone call came – I became a Jack Kent Cooke Scholar and received a full scholarship to Georgetown Law School.  On that day, I learned that there is power in affirming, believing and praying!

As you go about your own personal journey of ascension, you may feel like you are not quite good enough.  Throughout your journey, you may feel it from within, or others may want to impose it on you.  The feelings will come and go – keep on ascending!

As you start making progress, be unapologetic about making positive strides and do not spend a lot of time making other people comfortable with your success – keep on ascending!

Along the way, if you ever feel like you are not in a good place mentally, spiritually or emotionally, reconnect with those people or activities that revitalize you, know when to rest and keep on ascending!

The wilderness that you will experience on your journey can present you with a test of wills.  Through each test you must push yourself to the limit and try to make sure that your limit yesterday and today are not at the same place as your capacity tomorrow.   Will you buckle underneath the weight of your own world? Or, will you thrive under the exacting pressure and keep on ascending?

Life’s growth moments force you to be better and do better; yet, after you have suffered through the tests and trials, you will be reestablished, restored, and strengthened on a firm foundation.

Be fiercely focused on ascending.  Fill your basket! Be Gritty!  Lift as you climb! Then join me in making a positive change in our world!

May God bless you and keep you!