How to cultivate the character quality that predicts excellence more than any other.
“Inspiration is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work,” Chuck Close scoffed. “A self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood,” Tchaikovsky admonished. “Show up, show up, show up, and after a while the muse shows up, too,” Isabel Allende urged. “You have to finish things,” Neil Gaiman advised aspiring writers. But while our cultural history may brim with creators who intuited the importance of doggedness in success, it wasn’t until recently that psychologists were able to ascertain the science behind this intuitive observation. We now know that genius-level excellence takes enormous dedication and that the impetus to reboot from autopilot is crucial to reaching such a level, but arguably the most significant work in the field comes from pioneering psychologist Angela Duckworth, who came up with the notion of “grit” — that very doggedness essential for success — and went on to receive a MacArthur Genius grant for her research.
In a recent success-themed episode of NPR’s TED Radio Hour with Guy Raz — which, by the way, is absolutely spectacular and well worth subscribing — Duckworth challenges us to reconsider our culture’s definitions of “success” and shares her findings on the character trait that appears most essential for attaining it. Duckworth’s work is a centerpiece of Paul Tough’s remarkable and incredibly important book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character (public library), and is also a prominent part of Sarah Lewis’s fantastic meditation on creativity, mastery, and the gift of failure.
Grit is the disposition to pursue very long-term goals with passion and perseverance. And I want to emphasize the stamina quality of grit. Grit is sticking with things over the long term and then working very hard at it.
Grit is living life like it’s a marathon, not a sprint.
A few years ago, I started studying grit in the Chicago public schools. I asked thousands of high school juniors to take grit questionnaires, and then waited around more than a year to see who would graduate.
Half of the questions on the grit questionnaire are about perseverance, right. “I am a hard worker.” “I finish whatever I begin.” The scale is five points. It goes from “very much like me” to “not at all like me.” “Setbacks don’t discourage me.” “I don’t give up after disappointment.” And “I’m diligent.” The more you say, that’s very much like me, then the higher your grit score. Turns out that grittier kids were significantly more likely to graduate even when I matched them on every characteristic I could measure. Things like family income, standardized achievement test scores, even how safe kids felt when they were at school.
One of Duckworth’s most important points, from both a practical and big-picture point of view, has to do with her advice to parents and educators about cultivating grit in kids — she points to Carol Dweck’s seminal insights about “growth” vs. “fixed” mindsets as the key:
So far, the best idea I’ve heard about building grit in kids is something called growth mindset. This is an idea developed at Stanford University by Carol Dweck, and it is the belief that the ability to learn is not fixed. That it can change with your effort. Dr. Dweck has shown that when kids read and learn about the brain and how it changes and grows in response to challenge, they’re much more likely to persevere when they fail because they don’t believe that failure is a permanent condition.