McKean Minute: Pluck vs. Grit

The old man leaned into the campfire and ejected a long, rich stream of brown tobacco juice.

“You know the difference between grit and pluck?”

I was just a punk kid, and didn’t recognize the purpose of the question, or the meaning of the moment. I allowed that they sounded like characters in a cartoon.

The man, a dozer operator my dad had hired for a pond-digging job who came back to our place later to hunt deer, didn’t acknowledge my impudence. He had asked permission to camp in a corner of our back pasture, and my dad let me walk out there one evening to check on the man, probably because he knew I’d get a dose of wisdom just like this. It occurred to me years later that this man, who lived a couple counties over, was one of the first people I encountered who was perfectly content with his own company. But he welcomed me to his fire and after an uncomfortable—at least to me—silence, he got down to the matter.

“Grit. That’s how you get through. Doesn’t matter if it’s a hard job on a hot afternoon or a lifetime of tough luck. It’s about putting your head down and enduring. Nothing worthwhile ever comes without grit.

“Now pluck is something else entirely. Pluck is a sort of electricity. It’s what you make of things, how you respond to a given moment. It might be seeing a new way to build a dam or some fleeting chance your gut tells you to take.

“Each by themselves,” the man said, and spit again into the oakwood fire, “will get you by, but only barely. Folks with only grit can be hard and humorless. They think the world owes them something. People who run on pluck are gamblers that burn like this fire.

“But you put the two together. Now there’s a person worth knowing.”

When I went back to the pasture a couple days later, the man and his fire were gone. I never learned if he had shot a deer or not. But I’ve thought about pluck and grit nearly every day since.

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