06/16/2015 03:56 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Hand Trucks, Grit and the On-Demand Economy

Wasn't that a great story in the Wall Street Journal about Evan Genereux and Kyle Quinn, 20-somethings who founded Speedy Porters and grew it into a bustling enterprise at the Brimfield Outdoor Antiques and Collectibles Show? Buyers at any of the 6,000 booths at this popular Massachusetts flea market can contact Speedy Porters on their smartphones and someone will be right there to carry their purchases to the car. Don't mistake Genereux and Quinn for two guys with a hand truck, though. According to Quinn, "We're selling a branded service, like Uber."


The On-Demand Economy is everywhere - even at flea markets, where we might least expect it. It has permeated virtually all sectors, posing challenges, presenting opportunities, shaking up the world of work. Speedy Porters made a savvy move when they recast an old service in light of new customer expectations. But their success probably hinges on something more than smarts: grit.

Grit may actually be more important than talent in success in life and work, according to MacArthur Fellow Angela Lee Duckworth in a 2013 TED Talk. "Grit," she says, is passion and perseverance for very long-term goals. Grit is having stamina. Grit is sticking with your future, day in, day out, not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years, and working really hard to make that future a reality. Grit is living life like it's a marathon, not a sprint." That sounds like the training program Genereux (who has been carting stuff around the Brimfield flea market since he was 10 years old) puts all new Speedy Porters through: "completing a timed obstacle course, carrying furniture around the second floor of his parents' antique store, up and down stairs, and then outside to a waiting truck."

Educators are talking a lot about grit these days, asking questions like "How do we teach it?". I suspect we can't teach it, at least not at the post-secondary level, because, as Duckworth points out, grit requires a "growth mindset" and this is an approach to life and work that germinates long before we start college. It's popular to say that a college degree is the ticket to enter the job market, but as Hunter Rawlings, President of the Association of American Universities, asserts in a recent column in the Washington Post, "unlike a car, college requires the 'buyer' to do most of the work to obtain its value. The value of a degree depends more on the student's input than on the college's curriculum."

That's one of the big challenges of education in today's dynamic times, and sometimes we parents and advocates forget an important point. If we encourage young people to go to college to "get a degree" or enroll in a workforce development program to "get a job," they might be taking the right first steps, but they may not reach the real destination. The real destination, according to Rawlings, is "the discovery that you can use your mind to make your own arguments and even your own contribution to knowledge." That discovery "awakens" us and sets us off on the marathon, rather than the sprint.

For those of us aspiring to be a part of the On-Demand Economy, there are important lessons to be learned from our essential partners - the computers and robots that gather, manage, analyze, communicate, and act on data about supply and demand. Machines are already picking up more and more of the work, at an amazing pace. Speaking last week at the National Museum of American History's forum on the Internet Age, scientist and entrepreneur Sebastian Thrun noted that there are few jobs that computers won't someday (soon) be able to do as well and more efficiently than humans. Thrun and others describe the approach of technological singularity, when computers are capable of continuously redesigning themselves to adapt and improve as conditions change and of creating new machines even better than themselves.

That's how we are all called to be gritty. Only if we humans commit to continuously redesigning ourselves, adapting and improving as conditions around us change, persisting in the face of whatever happens, will there be critical roles for us in the dynamic technology-driven new economies, as well. We'll be the inventors and investors, the creative people and decision-makers, the promoters and disruptors behind the scenes, and - at the point of customer interface - the porters connected on smart phones, pushing the hand trucks.