Many of you have probably seen Angela Duckworth’s TED Talk on Grit, which gave an excellent bird’s eye view on the topic. Her talk inspired and intrigued me, so I picked up her book titled Grit – The Power of Passion and Perseverance which dived deeper into the topic. In this post, I’ll be summarizing the key points from this insightful book and include anecdotes from my own life as well.
Angela Duckworth is an academic, psychologist and author. She has been awarded various accolades for her research of grit and self-control, and is currently at University of Pennsylvania where she also received her Ph.D. in psychology. The term grit has become somewhat of a buzz word in education policy, and we have Angela Duckworth to thank for that.
The key message of the book is best summarized with this quote from Dr. Duckworth: “When I get knocked down, I’ll get back up. I may not be the smartest person in the room, but I’ll strive to be the grittiest.” We will go over what grit is, why you should care about it, and how to cultivate it yourself.
What is Grit?
Angela shares an anecdote about the United States Military Academy named West Point – a highly competitive four year academy. In selecting applicants, the admissions officers relied heavily on the Whole Candidate Score, which includes academic scores, leadership abilities, and fitness. However, it was not a reliable predictor of who would make it through Beast. Beast Barracks, formally known as Cadet Basic Training, is a 7 week process that turns people accepted into West Point from civilians to cadets. It is notoriously trying and many don’t make it through. Interestingly, talent had little to do with who made it through – it wasn’t a lack of ability. Rather, they had the wrong attitude. Those who made it through consistently demonstrated a “never give up” attitude.
Angela goes on to explain that the highly accomplished in any field were paragons of perseverance, meaning they were a perfect example of someone who is doggedly determined and does not give up. What’s the reason these people were more likely to be successful? There was no realistic expectation of ever catching up to their ambitions. In their own eyes, they were never good enough. They were the opposite of complacent. And yet, they were still satisfied being unsatisfied. Each was chasing something of unparalleled interest and importance, and it was the chase—as much as the capture—that was gratifying. Even if some of the things they had to do were boring, or frustrating, or even painful, they wouldn’t dream of giving up. Loving the process goes over exactly this.
The highly successful had an insatiable determination that manifested in two ways. First, they were unusually resilient and hardworking. Second, they knew in a very deep way what it was they wanted. It wasn’t just determination, but also direction. This combination of passion and perseverance made high achievers stand out from everyone else. In a word, we say they have grit. Grit has two components: passion and perseverance.
Dr. Duckworth created the Grit Scale to measure grit and associate it with outcomes. On the Grit Scale, half of the questions are about perseverance, and the other have are about passion. At West Point, the Grit Scale was the single best predictor, much better than the Whole Candidate Score, at predicting who would make it through Beast. Here are some other examples. Those who scored higher on the Grit Scale were more likely to graduate school on schedule, they were more likely to perform better at spelling bees. Spelling bee outcomes were more closely tied with grit than they were with verbal intelligence. If you want to take the Grit Scale, I’ve included a link here . Be as honest as you can, and it will point out areas of strength and weakness.
A Recipe for Excellence
Those who achieve excellence are remarkable in 3 ways: they demonstrate 1) unusual ability, 2) exceptional zeal and 3) the capacity for hard labor. Now you may say, but your intrinsic abilities are not limitless. Not all of us could be Elon Musk, even if we worked our butts off. That’s true, there are limits. Trees don’t grow into the sky. But these boundaries of where we will ultimately stop improving are irrelevant for the majority of us. Most of us never even get close.
National surveys have demonstrated that most Americans believe that effort is more important than talent. However, studies have shown that we have a bias that points in the opposite direction. We love naturals. In one study, subjects listen to a short clip of individuals playing a piano. The listeners do not know, but its the same pianist and the same piece, just different segments. They are told that one pianist is a natural and the other is a hard worker with great deals of motivation and perseverance. The “natural” pianist is consistently judged as more likely to succeed and more hirable.
So what’s the problem with our preoccupation with talent? By shining our spotlight on talent, we risk leaving everything else in the dark. We essentially tell ourselves and others that other factors, including grit, don’t matter as much as they truly do.
Have you noticed that when you spot someone who is incredibly good at something you generally describe them as talented? Why is it that we do this? Is it true? Possibly, but the reason we jump to talent is the following: If we cannot explain how an athlete, musician, or anyone else has done something jaw-droppingly amazing, we’re inclined to credit it to talent, as being a gift that cannot be taught. What we fail to see are the countless hours spent mastering a craft, training hard, the blood, sweat, and tears of the process that ultimately produced such amazing results. Greatness is the sum of several individual feats, and each one of them is doable.
Another reason we choose to credit amazing feats to talent is our own vanity. That’s right, its because of our own obsession with ourselves and limiting believes of ourselves. This quote sums it up best: “Our vanity, our self-love, promotes the cult of genius. For if we think of genius as something magical, we are not obliged to compare ourselves and find ourselves lacking. To call someone ‘divine’ means: ‘here there is no need to compete.’” In other words, talent lets us off the hook – it lets us relax into the status quo.
But it’s important to remember that talent is not everything. In fact, talent is just a small part of the equation. Talent is how quickly your skills improve when you invest effort. Achievement is what happens when you take your acquired skills and use them.
The Equation for Success
Angela Duckworth summarizing this point with the following equation for success, which is based on years of teaching, coaching, and research.
Talent x Effort = Skill
Skill x Effort = Achievement
Therefore, Talent x Effort^2 = Achievement
Talent – how fast we improve in a skill – absolutely matters. But effort factors into the equation twice. Effort builds skill, and it also makes the skill productive. With this equation, someone twice as talented but half as hardworking as another person might reach the same level of skill but still produce dramatically less over time.
As any coach or athlete will tell you, consistency of effort over the long run is everything. Woody Allen said that “My observation was that once a person actually completed a play or a novel he was well on his way to getting it produced or published, as opposed to a vast majority of people who tell me their ambition is to write, but who strike out on the very first level and indeed never write the play or book.” You may know his quote which sums it up quite nicely: “Eighty percent of success in life is showing up.”
Another brilliant quote from Will Smith: “The separation of talent and skill is one of the greatest misunderstood concepts for people who are trying to excel, who have dreams, who want to do things. Talent you have naturally. Skill is only developed by hours and hours and hours of beating on your craft.” Angela Duckworth adds that skill is not the same thing as achievement, either. Without effort, your talent is nothing more than your unmet potential. Without effort, your skill is nothing more than what you could have done but didn’t. With effort, talent becomes skill and, at the very same time, effort makes skill productive.
For a lot of people, passion is synonymous with infatuation or obsession. But in interviews about what it takes to succeed, high achievers often talk about commitment of a different kind. Rather than intensity, what comes up again and again in their remarks is the idea of consistency over time.
ENTHUSIASM IS COMMON. ENDURANCE IS RARE.
Life Philosophy, Dreams, and Focus
Angela Duckworth describes having a life philosophy as an important guiding factor in leading a gritty life. One example she mentions is “doing things better than they have ever been done before.” These top-level goals are also called “ultimate concern”, and serve as a compass that gives direction and meaning to all the goals below it. This should not be a “passion” in the traditional sense. Rather, this is something you truly care about in an abiding, loyal steady way. You are pointing in the same direction, ever eager to take even the smallest step forward than to take a step to the side, toward some other destination. Some may call your focus obsessive. You call it having priorities in order.
Here’s a toxic habit that many of us practice: positive fantasizing. This is when you indulge in visions of a positive future without figuring out how to get there. You talk about being a doctor or a NBA player, but you don’t focus on the mid-level or lower-level goals that help get you there. This positive fantasizing is toxic, as in the short term you feel great about your aspiration to be a doctor. But in the long term, you live with the disappointment of not having achieved your goal.
The idea that every waking moment of our lives should be guided by a single top-level goal may be too extreme for you. However, you should be able to agree that you can pare down long lists of mid-level and low-level goals and prioritize the ones that matter most. The more unified, aligned, and coordinated our goal hierarchies, the better.
How to Be One of the Greats
Angela goes over the fascinating Cox’s study of Eminent geniuses born from 1450 to 1850. As a group, accomplished historical figures ARE smarter than most of us. That’s not surprising. But what is surprising is that IQ mattered surprisingly little in distinguishing the most from the least accomplished. The average childhood IQ of the most eminent geniuses was approximately 146. The average IQ of the least eminent was 143. The spread was trivial. In other words, the relationship between intelligence and eminence is very slight. Not all of the high achievers had earned high marks in school. Rather, what set apart the eminent from the rest of humanity were a cluster of four indicators. These were also the factors that distinguished the most eminent from the least eminent in his study group. Cox called these the persistence of motive, and summarized his findings with the following: “high but not the highest intelligence, combined with the greatest degree of persistence, will achieve greater eminence than the highest degree of intelligence with somewhat less persistence.”
Sound familiar? Cox essentially is referring to the same thing as Angela Duckworth when she speaks about Grit. One part is passion, and the other part is perseverance.
Who is Gritty?
Like many things in life, including one’s height, or even personal traits like honesty and generosity, one part is influenced by genetics, the other by one’s environment.
A fascinating study of teenage twins in the UK estimated that the heritability of the perseverance subscale is 37%, and the passion subscale is 20%.
There’s no single gene for grit, or any psychological trait for that matter. These factors which are relevant to life success are influenced by both genes and the environment.
As I’m sure many of you have heard, the millennial generation is notoriously ungritty. When looking at the average Grit Scale across ages, those who are >70 years are grittiest, likely because they grow up in a different cultural era, perhaps one in which sustained passion and perseverance were more emphasized than in current day.
That’s one way of looking at the data. The other way is to say that the generations and cultures have nothing to do with it. Instead, it may be a reflection of aging and maturation over time. Grit grows as we figure out our life philosophy, learn to get up after we fall down, and understand the difference between low-level goals that should be abandoned versus higher-level goals that necessitate greater tenacity.
So is the difference due to variances in culture or due to maturity and aging? It’s hard to say, but likely a combination of the two. It’s important to remember that like every aspect of your psychological character, grit is more plastic than you may think.