Willingness to keep trying is crucial to success, even more than talent.
When you decide to do something, do you persist even when it seems hopeless? Or do you shift to something else that seems more doable? Here’s a simple set of ten questions: http://angeladuckworth.com/grit-scale/
This little questionnaire has remarkable predictive value. For example, in studies of US high school students, scores on this questionnaire can better predict success in college than scores on standardised tests like the SAT. In studies of which military recruits complete West Point’s extremely challenging Beast Barracks, answers to this questionnaire are more predictive than any other measure, including high school grades, test scores and leadership experience.
The researcher who came up with this questionnaire is Angela Duckworth, and she calls what is measured “grit”. It is a combination of two attributes, passion and perseverance. “Passion” may not be quite the right word, because it suggests emotionality. What’s involved is consistency: sticking with the same challenge over time.
Duckworth has been researching this area for years, with a number of collaborators, and her papers are regularly cited in commentary about achievement. Now she has written an accessible book explaining her research and findings, titled Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. It is engaging, informative and inspiring.
“In sum, no matter the domain, the highly successful had a kind of ferocious determination that played out in two ways. First, these exemplars were unusually resilient and hardworking. Second, they knew in a very, very deep way what it was they wanted. They not only had determination, they had direction.” (p. 8)
As Duckworth’s work became better known, for example through her talks, she was contacted by all sorts of people interested in pursuing excellence, for example the coach of the Seattle Seahawks professional gridiron team. In this way she learned even more about grit and how to develop it.
Grit, to a large degree, is learned. Parents can encourage their children to persist, and Duckworth devotes a chapter to grit and parenting. Another way to develop grit is through observing role models. I was greatly influenced by my initial PhD supervisor, Bob May. I helped him with calculations for a model of how interactions between voters influence outcomes and he generously made me a co-author. But getting the paper published was a challenge. Bob sent it to a top political science journal where it was roundly rejected by several referees, but Bob was not deterred, writing to the editor challenging the referees and demanding a new round of refereeing. When this led to another rejection, he tried another journal with the same results. When he left Sydney University for Princeton, I took over the submissions and the paper was finally published. The lesson for me was never to give up on a paper, at least not on one saying something worthwhile. My record is having a paper published after rejections by 14 journals.
One of the lessons from grit research is that, in the long run, it is not beneficial to be protected from failure. Individuals who seem to have a charmed life, always succeeding at whatever they do, may come unstuck when eventually they run into serious obstacles.
Duckworth’s research ties in with that from related areas. Carol Dweck looked at people’s “mindsets.” People with a fixed mindset believe performance is determined by innate talent and will be discouraged by failure because it implies they lack talent. In some cases they will not attempt a task, or drop out of a competition, because they fear failure. On the other hand, people with a growth mindset believe performance depends on effort. When they fail, they try to figure what to do to improve in future. People high in grit usually have a growth mindset.
Anders Ericsson has studied what it takes to become an expert performer, arguing that world-class performers inevitably have to spend thousands of hours in a special type of practice called deliberate practice. He is yet to find anyone who can play chess, do mathematics, play the violin, do the high jump or undertake any other highly skilled activity at elite levels without years of dedicated practice. To persist in the required effort and overcome obstacles and plateaus in performance requires grit.
One way to develop more grit is to develop a new skill and stick with it for a couple of years. Duckworth undertook studies of US high-school students and how well they performed at university, looking in particular at extracurricular activities such as sport or music. Students who spent at least two years in such an activity later showed more grit, even when it was in a different area. In comparison, students who tried out a whole range of activities but didn’t stick long with any of them had no advantage. The implication is that persisting with a new activity for at least a couple of years is useful training in grit that can provide benefits later on in a different area.
“Teachers who, in college, had demonstrated productive follow-through in a few extracurricular commitments were more likely to stay in teaching and, furthermore, were more effective in producing academic gains in their students. In contrast, persistence and effectiveness in teaching had absolutely no measurable relationship with teachers’ SAT scores, their college GPAs, or interviewer ratings of their leadership potential.” (p. 232)
Luckily, it’s not necessary to pick a challenge at age 5 or 15 or 25 and persist against obstacles ever after. Having grit doesn’t mean always striving in the same area. If you spend years training to be a skier but sustain a permanent injury, then it makes sense to switch to a different goal. Having grit doesn’t mean persisting against insurmountable obstacles. In fact, part of being successful in achieving a goal is to rethink strategies when necessary. After multiple rejections of my article, I might well have chosen another option such as publishing it on my website or turning it into a chapter in a book.
What’s wrong with grit
Grit sounds great, but it does not automatically lead to positive outcomes because not all goals are worthwhile. Becoming a successful criminal certainly requires persistence in the face of obstacles, but this is a case of grit for a harmful goal, at least harmful for the criminal’s victims. Furthermore, just because some achievements are socially valued does not mean they are unquestionable. Duckworth gives the example of grit as a key to success in military training, but anti-war activists would argue that grit would better be turned to campaigning against military methods. Duckworth also gives the example of grit in rising to the top of corporate hierarchies. Advocates of workers’ self-management would prefer to see grit deployed to promote greater worker participation and flatter organisational structures.
Unfortunately, those with the most money and power are in the best position to take advantage of grit research. Duckworth, to her credit, wants everyone to know what’s involved. Although she has consulted with top executives and sports coaches, she also has tried to help disadvantaged children and she has written the readable book Grit. If you care about injustice, you can learn from Grit how to be more effective.