Book Review: Grit

Growing up, Angela Duckworth and her siblings were repeatedly told by their father that they were no geniuses. In third grade, Duckworth didn’t qualify for the gifted and talented programs at school, seemingly proving her father’s point. How poignant then that in 2013 she won a MacArthur Genius Grant for her studies on grit and perseverance. She is a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, and Grit, The Power of Passion and Perseverance is a summary of the studies conducted by Duckworth and her colleagues into the topic.

The major outcome of her studies is that innate talent and IQ matter much less in determining and predicting success and accomplishment than grit. Grit is defined as a combination of passion and perseverance. Two of Duckworth’s larger quantitative studies were conducted with West Point cadets and participants in the National Spelling Bee, environments known for talented, intelligent, and gritty individuals.

Duckworth concludes that there are four necessary components of grit:

  1. Interest
  2. Capacity to practice
  3. Purpose
  4. Hope, defined as a “rising-to- the-occasion kind of perseverance”

The book is divided into three parts: the first is about what grit is and why it matters; the second is about how to foster and nurture grit from within; and the third is about how to encourage grit from the outside.

What grit is and why it matters

This chapter outlines Duckworth’s studies at West Point and the National Spelling Bee. She argues that the discussion about what determined success is still too dominated by a focus on innate talent and that most people are blinded by “naturals.” We seem to prefer people with natural talent. This, however, is to our detriment, since her studies have shown that perseverance coupled with passion is a much better predictor of success and accomplishment. Duckworth says: “I will argue that, as much as talent counts, effort counts twice.”

Growing grit from the inside out

This is probably the most important part of the book. It explains how we can all become more persevering and nurture our grit. Duckworth goes into the details of the four components of grit as outlined above.

First, there has to be interest. Most people will not know their particular field of interest right away. It takes some time and experimenting until most of us hit upon the things we are so passionate or excited about that we are willing to invest time and effort to hone our skills.

Second, there needs to be a lot of practice. What the grit paragons in Duckworth’s studies have in common was that they all wanted to continuously improve their skills. But efficient practice does not just mean logging hours. Effective practice needs to be deliberate, and deliberate practice is defined as:

  • A clearly defined stretch goal
  • Full concentration and effort
  • Immediate and informative feedback
  • Repetition with reflection and refinement

Third, there needs to be purpose. Having purpose is energizing and engaging. Studies have shown that high school students who saw how their studying and school work could make a difference later on study more and with better outcomes than those who don’t see how they could make a difference. The same holds true for employees. Those who perceive making a difference in people’s lives and having a purpose perform better and are happier in their jobs than employees who don’t see themselves connected to the greater good.

Last but not least, there needs to be hope, defined as a “rising-to- the-occasion kind of perseverance.” Psychologists have found that a feeling of control is the key element in hope. Studies have shown that it is not suffering itself that leads to hopelessness but suffering we think we can’t control. People scoring high on grit tend to explain events optimistically. They have a growth mindset versus a fixed mindset. Duckworth writes: “The reality is that most people have an inner fixed mindset pessimist in them right alongside their inner growth mindset optimist.” Optimists search for temporary, specific, and thus fixable causes of their suffering. Pessimists, however, see permanent and pervasive, thus not fixable, causes as the root of their suffering. The more we can foster a more optimistic mindset, the grittier we will become.

Growing grit from the outside in

This part discusses how grit can be fostered from the outside, such as parenting for grit and creating a culture of grit in organizations. Most space and time is devoted to raising gritty kids and adolescents. One of the most interesting study outcomes described here is the fact that participating in extracurricular activities in high school for at least two years is a better predictor of college and academic success than SAT scores or grades. Duckworth concludes that sticking with an extracurricular activity for at least two years shows follow-through, which requires, as well as builds, grit.

Overall this is an interesting read, in which well researched social science meets life skills. The studies and outcomes are easy to understand, and their conclusions and recommendations have direct impact on people’s daily lives.

Written by Anne Nowak.