On Monday night Stephen Curry showed the world why he is the NBA's first unanimously selected MVP. Curry, who was sidelined for much of these playoffs due to an MCL sprain, got the green light to play in Game 4 by coming off the bench. And though he had a somewhat lackluster performance during regulation, Curry displayed an unwillingness to give up by scoring 17 of his 40 points in overtime, leading the Warriors to victory over the Trail Blazers.
Outside of his sheer talent and tireless work ethic, there is one additional trait Curry carries, making these superhuman performances seem almost routine: his unique grit. However, as far as the psychology of personal aptitude goes, it is important to understand that Curry's grit has also benefited from being socially cultivated by an advantaged environment that will solidify his legacy as untouchable for generations to come.
For the rest of us, this means that while Curry may remain unchallenged in the basketball world, we should be aware of how our own grit can vary based on our social settings, networks and relationships. As scholar Angela Duckworth adeptly acknowledges in her book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, which released last week, grit is also shaped by culture, and that is a piece of the formula we cannot overlook.
"Grit," or one's "passion and persistence towards long term goals," conjures images of the no-excuses, "rugged individual." This aligns with the American narrative of boundless opportunity for all, and that one simply needs hard work to achieve their goals.
This view is too narrow to account for success alone in our primarily social world. Duckworth and her colleagues at The University of Pennsylvania Character Lab thus also investigate environmental factors that can influence grit and its growth. This implies that grit is not simply inheritable, in an either "you have it" or "you don't" fashion, but that individuals can learn to acquire and grow grit for themselves.
Each child's lived reality can influence their grit. Some kids' social origin may cause them to have impediments to finding their passions and fostering their grit.
For instance in education, the majority of teens drop out of school due to financial struggles. Today, approximately one in five American children grow up in poverty; in New York, the number is one in four. Out of New York's 1.1 million public school students, 87,000 were homeless in 2015.
Opportunities to focus on one's passions can be thought of as scarce resources, of which, the highest quality is more available to privileged groups.
Most fans of Steph know that his father is Dell Curry, the Charlotte Hornets' all-time leader in games played, and both two and three-point field goals made. At All-Star events, young Steph had the same vantage point of the 3-point competition, which he won this year. This is far from the typical upbringing for kids around the world, who now shoot threes on the playground, and point to the sky after a make, to be like their idol.
The Character Lab has also shown the importance of "surrogate grit," the idea that a mentor can be gritty on behalf of a mentee, pushing him or her towards excellence. Who better to push Curry to perfection than professional athletes and skills coaches? For example, when Dell was on the Raptors, then All-Star Vince Carter would play young Steph one-on-one before each game.
Curry's social capital allowed him to be an NBA-insider since he was a toddler. In psychology, this is called being a part of the "ingroup."
This year, Curry led his Warriors to a historic season -- topping the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls' seemingly unbreakable record of 72 wins -- and also defied gravity as an individual, positioning himself to become the best shooter and scorer of all time.
And yet unfathomably, Curry improved vastly upon his last MVP season. Sports pundits even had Curry high on their Most Improved Player lists, which seems laughable. Curry even broke his own NBA record from last year, making a total of 402 three-pointers during the regular season, two shy of receiving a 404-error code that he broke the sport.
Jokes aside, we should pause to recognize that on the flip side of Curry's visible performances, there is a more overlooked story about individual talent facilitated by social scaffolds. In failing to notice this part of success stories, we may overlook social responsibilities, in areas like education, where disadvantages are highly concentrated.
Steph Curry seems to be aware of these gaps too, as he recently joined President Obama's My Brother's Keeper initiative, aimed at providing resources for young men of color.
Last year after Curry won his first MVP, a teacher wrote a passionate article urging him not to come to his class and meet his students. He did not want Curry obstructing his kids' worldviews, leading them to believe that any regular person (who Curry resembles, more so than LeBron James, for example) can become an NBA superstar.
The reality is that Curry is the product of powerful forces and circumstances that made him the tremendous outlier that he is. And yet the students, like the rest of us, are conditioned to crave more. More broken records, more accolades, more to consume.
And for the time being, Curry will keep satiating our thirsts for exceptionalism. Literally in his first game back from injury against the Blazers, Curry set another NBA record for most overtime points scored by a player.
Our obsession with Steph Curry is fitting. But for those of us interested in leveling opportunities, particularly for youth, we must also look beyond individual narratives and look to raise collective responsibilities. The real American Dream will only become palpable when focus on creative ways to support those children who aren't steeped in the privilege, and many of whom, as a result, have been shut out from opportunities to cultivate their grit.
Anindya Kundu's book Achieving Agency: Regaining Collective Responsibilities in Education, will look at the social side of grit for disadvantaged students. (Forthcoming, Rowman and Littlefield).