Angela Duckworth’s long-awaited book Grit has finally arrived! It’s getting great reviews (e.g., NY Times), and it has set off hugely important debates in education and in scientific circles.
Make no doubt: Grit is great. It’s a lucid, informative, and entertaining review of the research Angela has assiduously conducted over the past decade or so. The book also includes suggestions on how to develop grit, and how we can help support grit in others. There are few people who wouldn’t learn something from this book.
Angela herself is one of the grittiest individuals I’ve ever met. Her office is literally two doors down from mine, and there is so much intense energy coming out of that wing of the Positive Psychology Center that sometimes I need to close the door to my office just so I can breathe a little! Angela is constantly (and I mean constantly) thinking of better ways of measuring and developing grit and character in children. I consider Angela a valued friend and colleague, and I think she’s a tremendous scientist and person.
Since the release of Grit, I’ve been reflecting a lot on the research, the book, and its impact on society. Below I will offer my thoughts, in the spirit of advancing the debate and research on this very important topic.
In this standardized testing culture, Grit is a good reminder that an exclusive focus on ability and potential can distract us from the importance of other variables important for success.
It’s rather troubling to me, however, how the media and the publicity machine behind Grit has framed Angela’s research. Grit is often treated as the ‘anti-IQ’, like there is some sort of competition between grit and talent, a tension between the two. For instance, I’ve seen quite a few articles that basically say that “grit is the true secret to success“, and “forget talent, success comes from grit“.
Wait, what? That’s not what I read in the book. In Grit, Angela makes clear that talent exists (defining talent as the rate in which a person learns with effort), but argues that “a focus on talent distracts us from something that is at least as important, and that is effort”. Also, Angela mentions the importance of cultivating other character strengths (e.g., humility, social intelligence, kindness, etc.) for success in life.
What’s more– and I hate to break it to you– there is no secret to success! I mean, come on: If the secret is that we have to work really, really hard, day in and day out, year after painstaking year, to get what we want out of life– well, that doesn’t sound like a great secret to me! If there were a secret to success, I’d want it to be a really awesome shortcut, something like Gosh, if I just believe I can do it, then that’s all it takes. Now that would be a truly awesome secret!
Another criticism I have of the reception to the book is that people are treating the idea of grit likes it’s brand new. As though no one ever in the history of psychology has studied things like passion, perseverance, hope, etc. This is a real shame, because there are so many other researchers who have worked tirelessly to advance our scientific knowledge of the many topics that are covered in Grit.
Just to name a few, Brent Roberts has done a lot of work on “conscientiousness”, Robert Vallerand has down a lot to advance our understanding of passion (both its “harmonious” and “obsessive” forms), Shane Lopez has done great deal of research on hope, and creativity researchers Joseph Renzulli and E. Paul Torrance have long discussed the importance of characteristics such as “task commitment” and “persistence”.
To be fair, Angela is very good about citing other researchers in her journal articles. My concern is that by the media presenting Angela’s work as though she invented the ideas of perseverance, passion and hope in psychology, the hard work of other researchers, will be left in the shadows.
What about some of the recent criticisms of grit research that have been leveled by fellow researchers? Here, too, I have some reflections.
One criticism of Angela’s research is that the grit construct doesn’t add much value in the psychological literature above the personality trait “conscientiousness” which has already been extensively studied. Indeed, one large-scale recent study recently found among a group of 4,642 British 16-year olds that grit added little prediction of academic achievement (using standardized test scores) above and beyond the effects of conscientiousness.
Angela has responded to this study by pointing out that standardized test scores aren’t the only indicator of academic achievement. For instance, her work has shown that self-control is a better predictor of GPA than standardized achievement test scores. Also, Angela has argued that grit is more important for outcomes requiring ‘showing up’ (e.g., school attendance). (Listen to our podcast chat where she responds to these critiques.)
I think these are good points, but I would not be too quick to dismiss the findings of the British study, for another– often unmentioned– reason. The fact of the matter is that the dominant paradigm of testing in the United States (and many places abroad) is standardized testing. For better or worse (mostly worse!), this is how kids are being tested day in and day out. And when it comes to performing well on these tests, we cannot ignore the impact of IQ. In my own research, I’ve found that whatever is in common among IQ tests is nearly identical to what’s in common among tests of standardized achievement. These results suggest that our most dominant paradigm of testing in the country privileges a particular kind of mind, and doesn’t give people with other kinds of minds and ways of achieving success (e.g., grit!) as much of a chance to succeed. Viewed in this way, Angela and I are totally on the same page. But it also acknowledges the importance of IQ-type skills on being able to display your intelligence in this standards-based, on-the-spot testing culture.
Now, what about the criticism that grit has little predictive value on academic success above and beyond conscientiousness? Well, I’d like to emphasize that there are many different ways of defining academic success! We are such an achievement-focused culture. Even Carol Dweck’s seminal growth mindset theory often focuses on learning that you can grow on tests. As I’ve argued recently, it might be time for a personal growth mindset theory, in which there is a shift away from accomplishing set goals to helping each individual grow as a whole person. I could see grit playing less of a role under this model of education.
What about beyond school? I hope we can all agree that there is more to life than school! What happens when we look at a bigger picture? After all, I think this is really Angela’s point: that grit has the greatest predictive validity when you look at people over the long run of life. What does the research say about that?
As Brent Roberts has pointed out, grit is closely tied to “industriousness”, an aspect of the well-studied personality trait “conscientiousness”. Tests of industriousness include items such as “I carry out my plans” and “I finish what I start”. My colleagues and I looked at the cognitive and personality predictors of lifelong creative achievement and found no correlation between industriousness and creative achievement. Instead, we found that openness to experience— which includes characteristics such as curiosity, imagination, and intellectual and artistic interests– was the best predictor of life-long creative achievement.
So does this mean that grit doesn’t predict life-long achievement? Not so fast. All our study suggests is that industriousness doesn’t predict creative achievement. Maybe there is something more to grit than industriousness. Looking at the grit scale, you can certainly see some items that look very similar to industriousness, such as “I finish whatever I begin” and “My interests don’t change from year to year”. Angela classifies these sort of items as measuring “passion” in her book, and in her research papers she calls it “consistency of interests”.
But there’s another dimension on the grit scale: perseverance. When you look at these items, you start to see clearer divergence from the standard industriousness items. For instance, perseverance is measured with items items as “I have overcome setbacks to conquer an important challenge”, and “setbacks don’t discourage me”. These kind of items have a different flavor to them. They are not just about consistency, but they have much more of a resiliency flavor to them.
What happens when we look at the relationship between perseverance and life-long achievement? Here we see something different. Consider a recent study by Abedrahman Abuhassan and Timothy Bates conducted on a sample of 494 participants with a wide age range. They found that the consistency of interests items from the grit scale fit really well under the conscientiousness framework. However, there was indeed something special about perseverance (or “elbow greese”, as the researchers referred to it). Critically, the researchers found that perseverance was the most important factor in predicting long-term achievement, even though it wasn’t important for predicting high school GPA. In contrast, consistency of interests was more important in predicting GPA.
These findings support the notion that there is indeed something unique about the grit construct above and beyond the already well-studied personality domain of conscientiousness. Additionally, I think these findings, combined with my own study, point out something interesting about real-life creativity: creativity requires both perseverance and openness to experience. Consistency of interests may be really important for doing well in school, but real-life creators are characterized by their constant trial-and-error and versatility. There is a plethora of research in the creativity literature suggesting that creativity involves a combination of broad interests and lots and lots of persistence.
Tellingly, in a recent pilot study I conducted with Angela and Evan Nesterak, we looked at a group of 300 participants (with a wide age range) and found that both curiosity and perseverance were strongly positively correlated with creative achievement across the arts and sciences, whereas consistency of interests was negatively correlated with creative achievement.
To my mind, it seems like there is a distinction between consistency of interests and having a passion for a particular area of interest. I think one can score low in a general tendency to remain consistent in all of one’s interests, but nevertheless remain highly consistent in one particular, purposeful activity. Indeed, I’ve discussed this with Angela and she agrees that future iterations of the grit scale might benefit from better distinguishing between consistency of more superficial interests and more purposeful and meaningful “north star” passions.
Along similar lines, in another study I conducted with Magda Grohman and colleagues, we found that scores on the grit scale did not predict creativity among a sample of young adults. However, we found that teacher ratings of passion and perseverance did predict various indicators of creativity. We argue that the way teachers and everyday people intuitively conceptualize passion may be different than how passion is measured on the grit scale. This might be a promising line of future research on grit.
Finally, I’ve been reflecting a lot lately on the narratives we tell ourselves, and the multiply determined sources of human achievement. In Grit, Angela rightfully argues that by focusing on talent, we ignore the importance of other factors important for success, such as grit. But this has me thinking: couldn’t one make the opposite argument– that by focusing on grit, we ignore the importance of talent?
Let me illustrate with a deeply personal story. To make a long story short, I had so many ear infections as a child, I developed a learning disability called central auditory processing disorder. It made it very hard for me to process information in real time. People thought I was stupid. I was bullied a lot. I was forced to repeat third grade and join special education. I remained in special education until 9th grade, when a teacher encouraged me to take more challenging classes and see what I truly capable of achieving.
This moment changed my life. I experimented with so many different things, including the cello. I fell in love with the cello so much that I practiced (under the mentoring of my grandfather, who was a cellist with the Philadelphia Orchestra) as much as 8 hours a day over the summer. By senior year I ended up second cellist in the high school orchestra, and won the all-music department award. I also caught up academically, and became college bound. This required massive catching up, taking summer classes and studying like crazy. Thinking this would all pay off, I applied to Carnegie Mellon University as a cognitive science major, with the desire to study human intelligence. I was rejected. Most likely, my SAT scores weren’t high enough to study human intelligence (how ironic!). Undeterred, I applied to the Opera program (which valued musical ability more than SAT scores), and was accepted. Once I got to CMU, I eventually switched my major to psychology, and the rest is history.
Now, how should I think about the cause of my success? In Angela’s book, my story is told as a paragon of grit. Make no doubt: grit played a HUGE part of my success. I did work immensely hard. I resonate so much with Angela’s work because I personally lived it. I know firsthand how far grit can take you, and how much perseverance can defy the odds. Indeed, I wrote my book Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined in 2013 because I wanted to raise awareness of the value of characteristics other than IQ for success in life. In addition to grit, I also talked about the importance of engagement, inspiration, imagination, daydreaming, and creativity.
In an interesting twist of fate, just last week, Linda Silverman, an expert on “giftedness” sent me an email out of the blue. She is head of the Gifted Development Center, and for the past 36 years (as long as I’ve been alive!) the center has assessed children’s intellectual capacities using a combination of qualitative and quantitative approaches. In her email, she said she read my book and watched my videos and her and her team all believe that I am “exceptionally gifted” (IQ > 160). What’s more, she says she thinks I’m the poster boy for “twice-exceptional” children: those who simultaneously have a learning disability but who are also highly intelligent.
Yikes! What to make of this new information!? This puts the narrative I’ve constructed about my life into disarray. Which is it: Am I the kid who defied my low intelligence through my grit and hard work? Or did I have genuine intelligence, that was suppressed and underappreciated due to my learning disability? What’s the truth?
Then it got me thinking. Is it possible that it is all true– that I was a very gritty, intellectual, and creative kid with a learning disability? And if so, why is it not polite in society to mention intelligence? Why do I somehow think I would get more applause if I presented the narrative as though I was an ungifted kid with a heck of a lot of grit than a “gifted” kid who relied on grit to show people what I was truly capable of achieving? Why does it personally make me feel much more uncomfortable saying that I am intelligent than saying I am gritty? Aren’t they both aspects of who I am? Aren’t both intelligence and grit equally influenced by genes (and both perhaps equally as malleable)? Aren’t we all a complex mix of characteristics and traits? I have so many questions.
Whatever the truth (and the truth is always a mix of perspectives), the more I think about all of the research, and my own experiences, the more convinced I become that the study of human possibility is one of the most important areas in all of psychology. Like Angela, I have devoted my life to using science to help people (especially children) flourish. I thank Angela for writing a book that brings this discussion so out in the open, that makes it so accessible that educators and public policy makers can’t help but notice it.
But we can’t stop here. We must continue doing the science, and looking at all of the character traits and opportunities available to people, to get this right. Every person’s future is at stake.
I end with a picture of me and Angela at her book release party here in Philadelphia:
- Come to the world’s first ever festival of positive education this summer [see here].
- Apply to be a part of the grit and imagination symposium this summer [see here]! The Relay Graduate School of Education, Character Lab, and the Imagination Institute are partnering to put on a three-day summer institute for K-12 educators called Grit + Imagination: An Educator Summit in Honor of Jack Templeton. Join researchers and educators from across the country to learn what character-focused teaching and learning can be, why it is important, and how to implement research-informed strategies with your K-12 students. During this summit, educators will deepen their understanding of grit and imagination through presentations from world-renowned researchers. They will also have the opportunity to refine approaches for developing these competencies in their students. We are looking for strong educators currently working with K-12 students who are excited to learn about and practice strategies for teaching and developing students’ character. Our aim is to help educators ignite character-based instruction in classrooms and beyond. We have a limited number of spots available, so we encourage all interested candidates to APPLY NOW! We will accept applications until Wednesday, May 25th.