- Rachel Chia/Business Insider
Haben Girma doesn’t like the word “grit”.
When I suggest the word as a descriptor at an interview in Singapore before her talk hosted by the Singapore Committee for UN Women, Girma’s fingers pause on the refreshable braille display she uses to take questions, and she frowns.
Her sign language interpreter interrupts to ask what the word means. (Girma knows what grit means, but the interpreter doesn’t.)
Popularised by psychologist Angela Duckworth, the term – which is something of a cross between perseverance and passion – is claimed by some to be a better predictor of success than talent or smarts. It has since been attributed liberally among startup CEOs as the reason why some companies take off, while others don’t.
If anyone should embody grit, it’s 30-year-old Girma, who is black, blind, and deaf, but graduated from Harvard Law School in 2013, and within three years found herself on Forbes’ 30 under 30 list.
But the lawyer, whose parents are African-American immigrants, doesn’t like how the word “puts the burden on the individual to toughen up and work through challenges”.
“All my successes have been because people around me, such as my employers, have been very inclusive,” she said.
Throughout her childhood, Girma was “fortunate” to attend schools who honoured her requests for disability support. In Harvard, for example, the university provided voice transliteration services, where transliterators described text on the whiteboard, and conversations and lectures in class, into a microphone connected to her earphones.
Girma’s parents were not highly educated. Her father is an Ethiopian living in California, while her mother was a refugee from Eritrea. They only had one piece of advice for their daughter: do well in school.
Girma did, graduating the valedictorian of her year at Lewis and Clark College with a Bachelor’s in sociology and anthropology.
The good grades, glowing testimonials and unique personal statement sailed her through Harvard admissions to become the university’s first deaf-blind student.
Girma went on to work as an attorney for US nonprofit Disability Rights Advocates, where she won a landmark lawsuit against popular online library Scribd to make their documents accessible to blind people. (Most legal tasks involve reading and writing, which she can do by connecting the braille display to a computer, she explained.) Along the way, she collected a slew of awards and honours, including the Alexandrine Medal. Today, she does public speaking to raise awareness about making products and services accessible to the disabled.
Yet Girma insists none of this is grit. She does not like the narrative of a disabled person successfully overcoming disability. Society needs to change, she insists. It needs to remove the barriers it created that make it difficult for people to succeed, particularly those with disabilities such as depression.
She also cautions against burnout. “Lots of people want to achieve everything, but no one can do that, she says. “When I am stressed, I give myself time to pause and relax. I accept my limitations, and that helps me to reduce exhaustion.”
“Instead of trying to do everything, I pick one or two things and try to do them well, and just believe that the other things will get done in their own time.”
Millennials don’t deserve to be labelled “entitled”
Another thing Girma doesn’t like? Hearing millennials – her generation – labelled as technology-dependent and entitled.
“Many people frame technology as the cause of laziness,” she said. “While this stereotype might have emerged because of a grain of truth, most millennials I know defy expectations and use technology to achieve new things.”
“My own life is enhanced through technology,” she adds.
In fact, one of Girma’s tech inventions is a keyboard setup that lets people converse with her – the same setup used at our interview. To address her, a person types a message into a regular wireless keyboard, which is connected to the braille display. The device translates the input into braille, which Girma can read.
As she has a little hearing in the high frequencies, Girma has trained herself to reply in a high speaking tone.
After first discovering the keyboard in 2010 – her first year at Harvard – Girma was able to converse easily with her classmates for the first time in her life.
“In middle school, I had no friends,” she says. “Things like having a spoken conversation or eye contact, which are the basis of most friendships and relationships, were not accessible to me. I felt really stuck, not having a way to communicate.”
She adds: “I felt like people were finally ready to converse with me in law school. They were more mature, and less afraid to seem uncool.”
The invention has helped her to participate in many previously-inaccessible situations, such as legal networking sessions (her interpreter will invite attorneys to type a message to start the conversation) – and let her speak to former US President Barack Obama at the White House in 2015.
Another of Girma’s inventions? Learning to surf solo as a blind person.
Starting off with tandem surfing, Girma subsequently found a school willing to have the instructor surf directly beside her, and eventually built up her skills to surf alone, albeit with safety guides nearby.
“Surfing… feels like I’m alone with the ocean. My whole body listens to the ocean through the board, constantly adjusting as it tilts and sways,” she recounted on her site. “I can’t see where the ocean takes me, but I ride anyway, trusting that everything will work out.”
Apart from surfing, Girma also dances salsa, kayaks, and goes rock climbing and skiing.
Grit isn’t what helped her do these things. Instead, she said, it was coming up with alternative solutions.
“I am adventurous, and my curiosity is my biggest drive in life. It motivates me to find solutions to all my problems, because I want to experience as much as possible,” she says. “I’d rather feel alive than stay cooped up at home and bored.”
“Be creative, thoughtful, innovative. Persist in finding solutions and you will come up with one,” she said. “We can always find alternative techniques to reach goals.”