The story of Angela Duckworth’s book Grit is my story: a neglected child labelled as a slow learner who nevertheless wouldn’t quit. Discouraged from going to college because I wasn’t smart enough, I did it anyway. At the Army Language School, I graduated first in my class because I worked harder than anybody else. During the fall of Saigon, I wouldn’t leave until I got all 43 of my subordinates and their families safely out of the country despite an order from the ambassador not to evacuate my people. Struck with lung cancer that should have been fatal, I refused to die. In short, I did all these things because I had to. The alternative was giving up.
My worst days with cancer are illustrative: After regaining consciousness from the surgery that removed the upper lobe of my right lung, I saw myself lying beside a dark stream. I knew I could end my suffering by reaching out and putting my hand in that black flow. I could choose to die. Instead, I redoubled my determination to go on living, no matter how much it hurt. I did survive and am now well on my way to returning to complete health.
That experience informed a conversation I had a couple of days ago with another veteran who has colon and prostate cancer. We agreed that survival so often depends on the will to live. I’m persuaded that if this man lives, it will be because he is fiercely determined to cling to life. I’m doing all I can to encourage him.
Judgments of others to the contrary notwithstanding, I firmly believe that I started out with no better than average intelligence. Granted, I have a distinct flare for languages and writing. But my success as a writer is due more to my passion and fierce determination than to talent. Something like 10 percent of my writing time is spent drafting new text; 90 percent is taken up with revising. I typically go through ten drafts—sometimes more—of each of my books before I consider them finished. That takes me, on average, fourteen years per book, although I am usually working on more than one book at a time. I realize that as I age, I won’t be able to afford that long for the books I’m writing now. I’ll have to improve my writing speed. I’ll do it because I have to.