Tribute To A ‘Grit Paragon’

“When the storms come, what matters is who you’ve become in the process of your life. Because if you’ve been faithful in the little things, in every area of your life, and put your trust in the right place, then when the storms come, you’ll be able to sleep through them.” 

– Joshua Medcalf, from his book “Pound the Stone”


When you envision a ‘gritty’ person, who comes to mind?

For me, it was usually someone connected to sports. I’d think of an old coach chewing us out to go harder, be tougher, “show some grit!” I’d think of an athlete from my childhood who wasn’t the most naturally skilled, but who was “tougher than a two-dollar steak.” I’d picture a soldier grinding out basic training. My Uncle Ron would come to mind – someone who certainly fits the ‘gritty’ bill – a U.S. Navy vet who spent more time in the tight quarters of a submarine than I care to even think about.

I’d always associated the idea of grit with physical accomplishments too – completing some crazy race or being the strongest person in the gym. Grit seemed to stem from an old school, cold, even gruff sense of toughness, and in many cases it seemed motivated by anger. As if grittiness were somehow connected to being mad at the world, and toughness was the way of channeling it.

Then this fall I read two great books centered on the idea of grit. What is it exactly? What are the common attributes of those people who exemplify it? How might we become more gritty ourselves?

The first, “Grit” by Angela Duckworth, takes a more clinical, psychological view on the topic. She distills grit down to a combination of two primary characteristics – passion and perseverance – and examines the concept of “Grit Paragons,” those individuals who demonstrate passion and perseverance in their daily lives in a way that inspires those around them.

The second, “Pound the Stone” by Joshua Medcalf, talks of grit in a more emotional way, through a fictional story of a high school basketball player and coach (sports!). The title comes from a metaphor about the stonecutter:

“The stonecutter hammers away at his rock hundreds of times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it splits in two, and you know that it was not that blow that did it, but all that had gone before.”

In other words, embrace the process, focus on the small habits, not the big outcomes.

Both books are full of enlightening, inspiring and useful perspectives, and I’d highly recommend them both!

Right around the time I’d completed those books this fall, Natalie and I headed back to KC for my Aunt Eileen’s retirement party.

Simply put, my Aunt Eileen is one of the kindest, most compassionate and loving people in this world. She’s been known to tear up over a pick-up truck commercial if it strikes the right emotional chord. She once trekked around Chicago in 95-degree temps to see me for a total of about 30 seconds during the Chicago Marathon. And as my mom’s identical twin sister, it’s always been easy to see my aunt as an extension of my mom. To this day, my family still has trouble distinguishing their voices through their identical, “Hi, it’s me…” voicemail messages.

On its own, that description of my aunt probably isn’t one you’d instinctively associate with someone gritty. But as I caught up with her that weekend and started to hear stories about her career, including a wonderful toast from my cousin at the party, it really sank in. My kind, loving aunt is truly one of the grittiest people I know.

For 43 (43!) straight years – 27 of them on the night shift – my Aunt Eileen clocked in as an operating room nurse at North Kansas City hospital, surrounded night-in and night-out by gruesome injuries, intense surgeries, many lives saved and others not. Then she’d find a way to make it to every family barbecue, every parent-teacher conference, every kid’s soccer game. As my cousin put it in his toast, when he’d consider how she was at his soccer games early in the afternoon after working all night and into the morning, balancing work and sleep and everything else, the hours just didn’t add up.

But my aunt made it work.

My Aunt Eileen (left), Uncle Ron, cousin Kate, and Mom at a wedding back in 2015.

Unpacking the characteristics of grit and celebrating my Aunt Eileen came at just the right time for me this year, one that carried its share of disappointments. I was passed over for a couple of volunteer/civic opportunities I’d been excited about, and another that I had to ultimately pass on due to what I’ll call life’s realities (certainly minor disappointments in the grand scheme of things, but personal disappointments nonetheless). But my aunt’s example helped me re-frame those experiences and re-focus my efforts.

In “Grit,” the author describes “Grit Paragons” as those people who lead their lives with passion and perseverance in a way that inspires those around them. I haven’t talked to my aunt about this specifically, but I suspect her passion stemmed from her love of family. And I imagine that passion fueled her perseverance to put in 43 years on that grueling schedule. That combination has certainly inspired me.

Because it’s easy for me to get caught up considering big picture things like purpose, legacy, influence. I’ll ask myself, am I on the right path? At the end of my career, is this something I can look back on with pride? Is this in sync with the legacy I’d like to leave? Am I even passionate about this?

Eileen & Ron with my cousins Luke, Janet and Kate.

But through my aunt’s example, I’m compelled to believe that the answers lie in recognizing the honor in putting in the work itself. Taking pride in the consistency. Finding passion and purpose through whatever is uniquely important to each of us – then persevering, and letting the rest take care of itself.

One point that stuck with me in “Pound the Stone” is how so often our society celebrates the prodigies, “the naturals,” the people born with extraordinary natural ability. But for all our obsession with those people, how often we miss the power in doing the seemingly unremarkable things with incredible consistency. To me, that’s grit. And that’s something that I’ll always associate with my Aunt Eileen.

11 thoughts on “Tribute To A ‘Grit Paragon’

  1. Lord jus. Your words are so great to read and especially when it comes to my amazing mother. What a wonderful post. Keep doing what you’re doing because this is truly a talent and gift of yours. Love you Jus.

  2. Dear Jus, WOW! It has taken some time for me to be composed enough to respond.( Is is tough to see the computer keys when the tear ducts are going strong!) I am humbled and awed at your blog entry. What a lovely sentiment. It is true that family is the most important part of my life. Your Grandma and Grandpa McCarrick were great teachers of that. It is obvious you are a journalism major so any response from me does not have the same impact. Just know how much I appreciated your kind words and how very proud I am of the man you have become. I love you, Eileen

    1. Thanks for the note, Eileen, and sorry if this took you off-guard too much! It’s something I’d been thinking about for awhile so I was happy to share it here. I’m so happy we’ve been able to celebrate you just a little bit here in recent months, and thanks for setting just a great example for us. I hate to miss Christmas with you all this year but we’ll see you soon in 2018! I love you. -Justin

  3. Justin. This is the most beautiful thing..I could not agree more with everything you said..especially about Eileen. Your Mom and Eileen mean the world to me and I have looked up to them since day one. Our family is a wonderful blessing. Thank you for putting all of that into such amazing words. Love you.

  4. Son,
    I’m so glad you used Eileen as your example of “grit.” She so exemplified this as you so beautiful described. I’m proud of you for creating this blog and sharing your talent to express yourself so meaningfully and with such feeling. I read this entry through tear-filled eyes and you have a way of expressing in words what I have wanted to say to Eileen for years. This is what makes a good writer and I so hope you continue to share your gift with others.

  5. Loved your blog Justin. You have a talent that is an amazing gift. I hope you continue to give your perspective on life. I know Ellen and Eileen from school years. It was so nice to read where life has taken Eileen and I am not surprised she chose a career helping others. Although we didn’t run in the same circles I had great respect and admiration for both of them. They carried themselves with grace, kindness and dignity, even in high school.

    1. Thank you so much, Connie! That really means a lot to me, and it’s so nice to hear that perspective from someone from Mom and Eileen’s past. I really appreciate you reading, and thanks again for your note!

  6. Oh honey, this is fabulous! What a great tribute to Eileen, her career and her big heart (and there’s nothing wrong with an easy crier, just saying…..) – I couldn’t ask for better role models than Eileen and Ellen – and, might I just suggest that you write a book someday?! 🙂

  7. Thanks for the kind words, everyone! This theme was top-of-mind for awhile and Eileen provided just the right outlet to write about it. Thanks so much for reading!

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