Review: Grit


Grit: The Power of Passion and PerseveranceAngela Duckworth. Scribner: New York, 2016.

Summary: Contends that those who achieve outstanding success combine purposeful passion with perseverance–in other words, they have grit.

Angela Duckworth came to a realization as a psychologist that psychology had no good theory of achievement. Talent, IQ, test scores, fitness–none of these were reliable predictors of who would achieve high measures of success. An answer began to emerge as she and colleagues studied those who survived “Beast Barracks,” the first two months of training of cadets at West Point. It came down to the fact that cadets who made it simply did not give up. This led to her developing the first “Grit Scale” which turned out to be the first reliable measure of which cadets would make it through. Duckworth has become convinced that most attempts to assess potential end up getting distracted by talent. The real issue is effort times two. Effort develops talent into skill and effort turns skill into achievement. Perseverance in effort, though, is fueled by purpose. Clarity in top level goals and ruthless evaluating low and mid-level goals in their light is critical. Duckworth concludes this discussion with the example of Robert Mankoff, who had nearly 2,000 cartoons rejected by The New Yorker before getting one accepted in 1977. The real key was determining that he was funny and loved doing this more than anything. From 1997 to 2017, he was cartoon editor, and now is an ongoing contributor.

There is hope for all of us. Duckworth offers a Grit Scale readers can take. Her research suggests that grit can grow over a lifetime as we define a sense of purpose and learn to pick ourselves up after failure and keep going.  It starts with identifying and developing an interest–noticing where our mind goes when it wanders, noticing what we enjoy in a task. Then we develop an interest, exploring its nuances, what keeps making it even more interesting. Practice is key. Gritty people not only practice more but they practice deliberately. They have goals and focus in their practice. Ultimately interest arrives at purpose, a sense of calling, of why one is in the world. Purpose in turn needs to be sustained by hope. Here, one of the key insights is the idea of attribution retraining–the conclusions we draw from events good or bad–are they focused on success or growth. Success says “your a natural. I love that.” Growth says, “you’re a learner. I love that.” Success says, “this is hard. Don’t feel bad if you can’t do it.” Growth says, “this is hard. Don’t feel bad if you can’t do it yet.

Duckworth discusses not only how we cultivate grit, but how others can cultivate it “from the outside in.” Parents cultivate grit by combining high support and high demands. She talks about the Hard Thing Rule in her family: 1) everyone has to do a hard thing, 2) no quitting is allowed until the season or term or whatever interval to which you have committed yourself is over, and 3) each person picks their own hard thing. She studies the “cultures of grit at J.P. Morgan Chase, with the Seattle Seahawks under Pete Carroll, and at West Point. One of her most valuable insights comes from Carroll–the commitment to finish strong in everything.

Duckworth explains her research by examples from her own life and from clients she has worked with and studied across the spectrum of human endeavors. I loved her insights on practice. One of my “hard things” is music, something I’ve picked up late in life. It has been enriching to apply her ideas on deliberate practice to my practice of a major choral work we are performing later this month. Instead of just going over a part, I will work on pronunciation, or counting time to get my entrances down rather than listening to other parts (which usually makes you late). One practice session, I’ll focus on dynamics. Another time, I’ll go over the sections I don’t have “down” until I do.

I’m also fascinated by the high demand-high support culture that creates gritty performance–whether it is parents, sports teams, or businesses. There is both empathy and care, and the relentless demand to keep improving, keep growing, keep stretching. Finally the relationship between perseverance and purpose is intriguing. Perseverance both realizes and expands purpose, and purpose sustains perseverance when it is grounded in hope.

It strikes me in reading this that all of us are capable of more than we think we are. Duckworth’s book suggests that we have hard work to do in two areas. One is in paying attention to the things we really care about and relentlessly focusing our lives around them. Then there is the hard work of turning a talent and a passion into a skill, and the further work of using those skills with determination and focus to achieve worthy goals. That’s grit.


One thought on “Review: Grit

  1. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: March 2019 | Bob on Books

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