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Grit ...

Grit ...

… and the 13 other personal qualities demanded by the New World of Work.

Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld in True Grit (Photograph ©2010 Paramount)

Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld in True Grit (Photograph ©2010 Paramount)


A confession: in the course of our Solo City research about how cities—about how all of us, really—can learn to thrive in a landscape where independent work is replacing jobs, it sometimes seemed like we were sweeping an eternally expanding waterfront. Interviews, roundtable sessions, a town hall, more interviews, polling, further reporting … Ideas proliferated. Things could blur.

And then someone would say something that couldn’t blur, like: “Schools prepare us for a world of work that doesn’t exist anymore.”

The speaker this time was Matt Kressy, a high-flying industrial designer-turned-teacher, and now creator of a pioneering MIT graduate program blending engineering and design (MITidm). Kressy tends to offer his views — how shall we say — enthusiastically. But this particular observation was gentle, almost matter-of-fact, and slightly tinged with lament. It left a mark.

And it began surfacing in almost every Solo City conversation we had — with other thought leaders, solo practitioners, and urbanists. Is it true our existing educational approaches don’t prepare individuals to create their own jobs, career paths, and personal financial security? All said yes. Most said more. It became a Solo City meme.

And it routinely led to a question — not the question of how schools could prepare us for the world of work that does exist, but the question you have to answer even before that: Just what does it mean, in this new world of work, to be prepared?

What does it take to be a soloist?

We organized one of our Sessions@The Solo Project around the subject at the Boston offices of Pearson, the world’s largest education company and book publisher. Among the participants was Ira Jackson, provost at UMass-Boston; Bernard Avishai, an adjunct professor of business at Hebrew University and Dartmouth College; Margaret Andrews, founder of Mind & Hand Associates; Pete Janzow, a senior director at Pearson; Reed Sturtevant, managing director at Project 11 Ventures and cofounder of the Startup Institute; and the aforementioned Kressy. (Huge thanks to them all.)


“Schools prepare us for a world of work that doesn’t exist anymore.”
— Matt Kressy, MITidm


The group agreed on two things:

The most essential characteristic in today’s marketplace, and one that will only become more crucial in the future, is grit — the ability to endure setbacks, recognize and correct mistakes quickly, and learn from failures.

Unfortunately, some combination of education design (“Now, class — our next standardized test…”) and parenting habits (Participation trophies all around!) virtually guarantees future generations will be gritless.

Grit, of course, is just a start. Altogether, what are the individual characteristics, capabilities, and habits of mind that will be essential to thrive in an economy that is increasingly disaggregated, provisional, project-oriented, unpredictable, and networked instead of structured? What does it take to thrive as a soloist? Here’s the checklist that emerged from our Solo City inquiry:

  1. Grit: Resilience; the ability to endure setbacks, mistakes, and failures; correct mistakes quickly; learn from missteps
  2. Tolerance for Ambiguity: Ability to work hard for an uncertain outcome; ability to make decisions in the midst of incomplete information
  3. Creative Problem Solving Skills: Ability to frame problems; ability to differentiate between critical, relevant info and “noise”; ability to identify ways to test potential solutions quickly
  4. Alertness: A relationship with the world characterized by curiosity about how things work and where things come from
  5. Collaboration Skills: Capacity to work on projects with highly diverse team members focused on a single goal; the ability to play diverse roles, as leader and team
  6. Networks Savviness: An intimate understanding of social networks, their ever increasing importance in getting things accomplished in every sector; how to intentionally cultivate networks, derive value from and contribute value to them
  7. Self Awareness: Fundamental understanding of one’s own strengths and weaknesses (most easily developed in organizational settings, such as an office); how to compensate for weaknesses; how to intentionally nurture a better assessment of one’s professional self
  8. Business-Finance Literacy: Understanding of value creation; basic financial know-how, especially the crucial issue of cash flow for independents and small teams; increasingly, familiarity with personal-finance issues
  9. Resourcefulness at Getting Help: How to recognize when you need help; the ability to ask for it; how to identify trustworthy sources of advice and expertise
  10. Sophisticated ability to Learn, Continually and Intentionally: How to identify own learning needs and ways to meet them and integrate them into professional routines
  11. Business-Development Skills: How to identify opportunities; how to “market” self; how to build sales pipeline; how to sell; how to negotiate; how to close a deal
  12. Adroitness at Personal “Branding”: How to create visibility in marketplace; how to build reputation capital; how to capture and represent accomplishments and capabilities in way that broadcasts value as contributor to prospective customers
  13. Communications Skills: How to explain, pitch, present, write, persuade; how to engage with different “audiences” (clients and prospects, investors, partners and associates, etc)
  14. Design Awareness: Understanding the role design plays in every facet of the culture, from communicating the value of business ideas to customers to shaping the environment in which we do our work in the first place


If you’re reading this, you’ve no doubt got that list nailed, no? Well, tell us what you think, anyway. This is an ongoing conversation at The Solo Project, and we’d love to hear your voice.


Choosing Life

Choosing Life