Why Grit Matters More Than Talent

Why Grit Matters More Than Talent

Angela Duckworth's new book 'Grit' persuasively makes the case that effort counts twice as much as talent.
John Glenn

Angela Duckworth is a rising star in the world of ideas. The psychologist and 2013 MacArthur Fellowship winner, until recently, was probably most known for her TED talk on grit, which has been viewed well over eight million times.

With the recent publication of her bestselling book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, Duckworth has established herself as someone dedicated to using psychological science to help people thrive.

What stands out about the book is that it’s data-driven, yet practical. Duckworth believes just about anyone can acquire the strength of will that leads people to persevere, that enables a Jeff Bezos to leave a cushy career in finance, pursue his passion, and radically change online commerce.

What It Is—And Isn’t

I have to admit I came to this book with skepticism. In my experience, self-help-type memes aren’t very practical. But the decades of research Duckworth synthesizes leaves me convinced that, barring absolute destitution, it’s just not that complicated to set the stage for someone to gain grit.

To really appreciate the concept of grit, you have to understand what it is not. It’s not shallow practice, it’s not mindlessly sprinting up and down the hardwood, nor is it obsessing over impractical goals. While Duckworth defines grit as “passion and perseverance for long term goals,” she does admirable work to unpack what that means. She reveals something that begins with effort and evolves into more of an enlightened pursuit of interests meaningful to you and others.

This is a book that easily outlines those qualities that make some people most likely to succeed in life. But that alone isn’t what makes it remarkable. Where it concerns moms, dads, guardians, and maybe school board members, Grit’s real strength is in the way it uses anecdotes and relatable science to get down to the most basic, mundane actions needed for virtually anyone to produce excellence.

Paragons Of Grit

Duckworth’s book explains skillfully that grit can be developed. But because grit has spent most of its existence as one of those trite terms every high school coach tosses around, Duckworth’s approach had to be exhaustive. To provide ample clarity, Duckworth shares insight from accomplished men and women she calls “paragons of grit.” She also shadows many selective organizations like West Point, the Seattle Seahawks, and the Scripps National Spelling Bee to study how they promote a culture of grit.

One of her immediate targets for scrutiny is the tendency of most people, from competitive CEOs to gangly grade school kids choosing their teammates in recess, to overemphasize talent. People are naturally drawn toward those they consider “naturals”—those who seem to excel effortlessly. In contrast, few prefer those “strivers” who may have to work two to three times as hard to achieve parity with their peers.

Duckworth’s animating theory is that effort counts twice as much as talent. While mountains of data confirm this, one of the studies that lead her to this conclusion was the famous Treadmill Test, one of the longest studies of human development ever. In 1940, Harvard University researchers asked sophomores to run on a treadmill ramped to a steep angle and set to breakneck speed. They wanted to measure “strength of will” in the participants.

After contacting the students every two years since graduation (and over decades), they found time on the treadmill was a “reliable predictor of psychological adjustment throughout adulthood.” In addition to the data, enlightening conversations about work ethic with celebrated potter Warren MacKenzie and Oscar-nominated actor Will Smith also sold Duckworth on the difference that relentless effort makes.

A Startling Caveat

It doesn’t take long before questions about opportunity and access crop up in Grit. After reading about interviews with billionaires and Ivy-league-credentialed others, I awaited answers to questions like: What about children who don’t attend schools with even lousy music or arts programs? Could they one day become gritty enough to perform at Juilliard?

Duckworth admits “opportunities matter tremendously, too, and maybe more than anything about the individual. My theory doesn’t address these outside forces, nor does it include luck.” That’s a startling caveat coming from the ambassador of grit. But, like Duckworth, I think ideas about the psychology of achievement are nonetheless incredibly useful.

In chapter five Duckworth encourages readers to glean insights from her interviews with the “paragons” and emulate their psychological assets. That’s something anyone with a library card can do, including Kat Cole, who grew up in poverty in a single-parent home and managed to develop immense grit, becoming CEO of Cinnabon in her thirties. There’s also Scott Kaufman, who was thrust into special-education classes because of an early intellectual disability, but found his way at age 14 “into just about every challenge his school had to offer.”

Duckworth really looks at the issue of poverty in her chapter on hope. She does so later in the book as well, when Geoffrey Canada sums up what kids really need to rise out of unfortunate circumstances: “a decent childhood.” But the real gem is when she explores Steve Maier’s experimental work on the neurobiology of hope.

Adversity And Mastery

Maier’s theory is essentially that the brain responds to difficult experiences. He believes that people who experience great adversity in their youth and overcome it on their own develop the capacity to handle adversity later in life. But Maier warns that simply telling someone they can deal with adversity isn’t enough. They have to experience adversity and mastery over it simultaneously.

Maier goes on to comment on the lives of children who experience challenges but not a sense of control:

I worry a lot about kids in poverty…They’re getting a lot of helplessness experiences. They’re not getting enough mastery experiences. They’re not learning: ‘I can do this. I can succeed in that.’ My speculation is that those earlier experiences can have really enduring effects. You need to learn that there’s a contingency between your actions and what happens to you: ‘If I do something, then something will happen.’

Economist Walter Williams offers an insightful yet sobering take on a similar reality in a recent article, “Education Insanity.” He says that a number of inputs must be present in a child’s education (and by extension throughout their youth) for that child to be successful. As Williams puts it, “Someone must make the youngster do his homework, ensure that he gets eight to nine hours of sleep, feed him breakfast and make sure that he behaves in school and respects the teachers. If these minimum requirements are not met, and by the way they can be met even if a family is poor, all else is for naught.”

Purpose Equals Passion

Really what rescues Grit from being a tour through social science research is that it brings intangibles like purpose into the fray. Duckworth is honest enough to admit that purpose often emerges last—after people have already found something they love doing. She also dismisses the all-of-a-sudden metaphors about passively unearthing one’s passion or hearing fireworks go off when an interest suddenly materializes. Instead, Duckworth talks about getting out there, about interacting with the world and experimenting with several interests. That’s a deceptively simple proposition itself; sometimes people just sit on their interests, on self-imposed limits—and not for lack of resources.

If most of us are going to discover our passion, we’re going to have to actively construct and trigger that passion.

If most of us are going to discover our passion, we’re going to have to actively construct and trigger that passion. One of my favorite studies from the book is the Personal Qualities Project. In 1978, Warren Willingham helmed this sprawling and complex endeavor. I’ll sum it up this way. After collecting data on the extent to which high school students could “point to significant accomplishment in science and technology, the arts, sports,” etc., Willingham determined that follow-through was the best predictor of accomplishment in virtually any domain.

Drawing on this model, Duckworth created the “Grit Grid,” which basically uses data about students’ dedication to and advancement in extracurricular activities to measure their capacity to persevere through long-term goals. Encouraging commitment to extracurricular activities should probably be the first order of business for parents and educators. But adults, as well, would benefit from signing up for a couple grit-inducing activities. The extracurricular route, I believe, is also the most potent deterrent to the positive fantasizing kids love to engage in—for example, claiming a bright future as an NFL player, rapper, or corporate attorney without accounting for challenges along the way.

People Are Our Greatest Resource

Perhaps the final lesson of Grit is one point that ties it all together: “developing your personal grit depends critically on other people.” One the one hand, when we meet standouts like Alex Scott, whose family continues her legacy of raising money for cancer research; or art activist Jane Golden, who tirelessly promotes public art programs because she truly believes “Art saves lives”—we understand that people are integral to our passions.

Duckworth wrote the book not only to start a conversation, but also to give people a renewed sense of agency.

On the other hand, Cody Coleman’s path was about growing up in an unstable home in a subpar school district. His brother’s thoughtful advice, some mentoring by a math teacher, and the “ecosystem of support” he later encountered at MIT (which helped him earn a perfect GPA), teach us to see people as our greatest resource.

It appears Duckworth wrote the book not only to start a conversation about grit, but also to give people a renewed sense of agency. The chapters are chock full of quotes that convey messages about the power of realizing one’s potential. By the end, grit becomes a kind of launch pad for other valued elements like positive social functioning, interpersonal character, and intellectual virtue. The book probably could have used more in-progress stories about ordinary people like Cody who followed a rough road to grit. Still, Grit succeeds in its theme that neither disadvantage, learned helplessness, nor complacency can’t be overcome.

John Glenn holds a PhD in English from the University of Florida. He is now an assistant professor of English at Atlanta Metropolitan State College, and his writings have appeared in The Birmingham News, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and Library Journal.

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