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CAG Blog: Powered by Optimism

"Powered by Optimism" captures my reflections of life in and around an all-girls' school and highlights the values of C.A.G.: leadership, global citizenship, wellness, and teaching and learning. Underscoring it all is a deeply ingrained sense of optimism that we are preparing a generation of boldly creative women who will help change the world. 


gumption- 4.22.14

One of the best parts of my job is meeting with and talking to smart, passionate people, from whom I draw inspiration and with whom I develop new ideas.

One of those people is Dr. Loretta Sweet Jemmott, CAG advisory board member and tireless contributor to the work that CAG is doing. Without Loretta, some of our most valued partnerships would not exist, and some of our most effective programs would have remained the stuff of dreams.

In the past six months, Loretta and I have been working on yet another new idea. One day, after a meeting, she said to me: “Do you know what I wish girls had more of? A fire in the belly – a willingness to go for it, to jump in, without worrying so much about failure.”

This was the first of many subsequent conversations – around a concept that Loretta coined “gumption.” The word is an old-fashioned one, not readily used in 2014, but for that reason, I hope, ready to make a comeback.

Loretta and I have been talking for hours about what we think gumption is:  What are its component parts? How is it different from grit, resilience and other related concepts? How do we recognize it in girls?

Some of our conversations have centered around our own personal histories – around the risks we took, the failures we bounced back from.  What compelled us to take those risks and not others. And throughout those conversations, what we found is, at least, this: gumption, at its core, demands a passionate and active pursuit of a goal. While not limited to this alone, the idea of gumption requires the hot-headed conviction that, in Loretta’s words: “If it’s gonna be, it’s up to me.”

For now, let’s stick with just this component part – that gumption is initiated by jumping in and going for it. Why is this of particular interest to those of us who work on behalf of girls? 

Girls, like the women they will become, tend to worry more about getting things just right. While this attitude may translate to being more likely than boys to complete homework, or to get higher grades, it also means that girls can be more risk-averse in the intellectual realm. When it comes to leadership positions, for example, the research seems to indicate that girls worry more than boys about not being liked if they are in charge, worry about being termed “bossy,” and will therefore shy away from positions of leadership.

And it matters what we do with girls – if we get it right with them, the next generation of women might be more inclined to negotiate on their own behalf, might confidently go for the promotion they are currently afraid to ask for.

And before you say that gumption, as Loretta and I are using it, is just another word for confidence, let me respectfully disagree. Gumption is more than a belief in oneself. Gumption is hearing the starter shot and being off to the races. It is knowing “I want that!” and believing that it is achievable. It is the discarding of self-doubt, the deliberate tossing aside of fear. The goal can be anything:  to run for office, or to move to a foreign country, or to run a marathon. It is the passionate pursuit of this goal, despite the possible setbacks associated with it that make for gumption.

Loretta, I have come to learn, is a master of phraseology.  She has the enviable ability to turn a multi-layered concept into a catchy sentence. While you will hear much more from me in the following months about our gumption work and how we foster it in our girls, I want to leave you with this Loretta-crafted definition: “In spite of, I can, in spite of, I must, in spite of, I will.” Here is to gumption – the girls who have it, and to eliciting it in others. 

Posted by alison on Tuesday April, 22, 2014 at 10:28AM

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