Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Grit: Born or Nurtured

Grit has two simple meanings as defined by Merriam-Webster online dictionary. The first definition of grit is very small pieces of sand or stone. The second definition of grit is mental toughness and courage. Grit is also defined in psychology as a positive, non-cognitive trait based on an individual’s passion for a particular long-term goal, coupled with a powerful motivation to achieve their objective.

According to Merriam-Webster, grit is in the top twenty percent of words used. Perhaps the word is more popular because Angela Duckworth.

Ms. Duckworth, professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and founder and Scientific Director of the Character Lab, whose mission is to advance the science and practice of character development. When Duckworth was in her late twenties, she left her job as a management consultant to teach math to seventh graders in the NYC public school system. During her experience in the classroom she noticed that effort not talent was enormously central in success outcomes.

In a 2009 paper, she and co-author Patrick Quinn developed a “grit scale” for 1,218 new West Point cadets. Duckworth and Quinn used the cadets answers to the grit scale and reached the conclusion that grit was highly predictive of the chance of completing “Beast Barracks.” This West Point program for freshman cadets consisted of 17-hour days for seven consecutive weeks of classroom instruction and physical training.

In her 2013 seminal six minutes and twelve seconds TED presentation, which has been viewed over 8 million times, Duckworth was propelled to prominence as she explained how grit plays a role in success. Her first book published in 2016, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, was a New York Times bestseller. The book wanted to explain why some individuals succeed and others fail. Her research found that talent is not a guarantor of success and that grit—a combination of passion and perseverance for an important goal is the foundation of high achievers in every field.

What distinguished high performers, she found, was largely how they processed feelings of frustration, disappointment, or even boredom. While some individuals took these as signals to quit and move on to some easier task, high performers did not. It was as if they had been conditioned to believe that struggle was not a signal for alarm.

Is grit overrated when it comes to predicting success? In Marcus Crede's report, Much Ado about Grit: A Meta-Analytic Synthesis of the Grid Literature, says that, “My overall assessment is that grit is far less important than has commonly been assumed and claimed and it doesn’t tell us anything that we don’t already know.”

One key aspect of Crede’s analysis is that the impact of grit is exaggerated, especially when considering wider populations of individuals—not just high achievers in Duckworth’s initial studies. Secondly, grit scores and conscientiousness scores are very highly correlated. This is important because Duckworth’s research concludes that grit is a skill.

But, psychologists have determined that conscientiousness isn’t a skill—it’s a personality trait. According to the field of psychology, a trait is driven by some inexplicable combination of genetics and ecosystem. Thus, one’s grit is not necessarily changeable, especially in adulthood, however Duckworth in her writings suggest that grit is.

Duckworth also came to another interesting observation about effort and talent. She says people don’t like “strivers” because then they start questioning themselves and why they don’t have the success like others. Strivers invite self-comparisons. Most people like to think that some people are just naturally more talented than others.

Duckworth says that grit is hard work, tedious and not attractive. The majority of individuals like to keep their failures private and their successes broadcasted to the public. Thus, the “hidden” practice among successful people is costly to society because it hides the amount of failure that goes into success. We think we don’t have what it takes to succeed and give up. The struggle should not be a signal to give up!

Duckworth is the first to say that the essence of grit remains a mystery. Even if the origins of grit are difficult to source I believe that stick–to–itiveness does play a role in the outcome of an individual’s success towards a significant and meaningful goal. I would rather have grit than be without it!


  1. It's so interesting that 'grit' was analyzed as a concept. :) I would rather have it too!

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  3. Thank you for your comment Lisa.