In Professor Angela Duckworth’s TED talk, she says of her research: “One characteristic emerged as a significant predictor of success. And it wasn’t social intelligence. It wasn’t good looks, physical health, and it wasn’t IQ. It was grit.”
The effusive blurbs on the book cover go even beyond Professor Duckworth’s own dramatic pronouncements: Daniel Gilbert, the author of Stumbling on Happiness, says: “Psychologists have spent decades searching for the secret of success, but Duckworth is the one who has found it…She not only tells us what it is, but how to get it.”
Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking (which we’ve looked at previously in an episode on supporting your introverted child) says: “Impressively fresh and original…Grit scrubs away preconceptions about how far our potential can take us…Buy this, send copies to your friends, and tell the world that there is, in fact, hope. We can all dazzle.”
Don’t we all want to dazzle? Don’t we all want our children to dazzle? Is grit the thing that will help them do it?
It turns out that Professor Duckworth’s own research says: perhaps not. Listen in to learn how much grit is a good thing, how to help your child be grittier, and why it might not be the factor that assures their success.
Other episodes mentioned in this show
Crede, M., Tynan, M.C., & Harms, P.D. (2017). Much ado about grit: A meta-analytic synthesis of the grit literature. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 113(3), 492-511.
Del Giudice, M. (2014, October 14). Grit trumps talent and IQ: A story every parent (and educator) should read. National Geographic. Retrieved from http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/10/141015-angela-duckworth-success-grit-psychology-self-control-science-nginnovators/
Denby, D. (2016, June 21). The limits of “grit.” The New Yorker. Retrieved from https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/the-limits-of-grit
Duckworth, A.L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M.D., & Kelly, D.R. (2007). Grit: Perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 92(6), 1087-1101. Full article available at https://www.ronaldreaganhs.org/cms/lib7/WI01001304/Centricity/Domain/187/Grit%20JPSP.pdf
Duckworth, A.L., & Yeager, D.S. (2015). Measurement matters: Assessing personal qualities other than cognitive abilities for educational purposes. Educational Researcher 44(4), 237-251.
Duckworth, A.L. (2016). Grit: The power of passion and perseverance. New York, NY: Scribner. (Affiliate link)
Eskreis-Winkler, L., Shulman, E.P., Young, V., Tsukayama, E., Brunwasaser, S.M., & Duckworth, A.L. (2016). Using wise interventions to motivate deliberate practice. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 111(5), 728-744.
Farrington, C.A., Roderick, M., Allensworth, E., Nagoka, J., Keyes, T.S., Johnson, D.W., & Beechum, N.O. (2012). Teaching adolescents to become learners: The role of noncognitive factors in shaping school performance: A critical literature review. The University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research. Retrieved from https://consortium.uchicago.edu/sites/default/files/publications/Noncognitive%20Report.pdf
Forsyth, D.R., & Kerr, N.A. (1999, August). Are adaptive illusions adaptive? Poster presented at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association, Boston, MA.
Hannon, B. (2014). Predicting college success: The relative contributions of five social/personality factors, five cognitive/earning factors, and SAT scores. Journal of Educational and Training Studies 2(4), 46-58.
Heckman, J.J. (2013). Giving kids a fair chance (A strategy that works). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Kamenetz, A. (2016, May 25). MacArthur ‘genius’ Angela Duckworth responds to a new critique of grit. NPR. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2016/05/25/479172868/angela-duckworth-responds-to-a-new-critique-of-grit
Kapoor, M.L. (2017, June 27). 12 books expelled from Tucson schools. High Country News. Retrieved from http://www.hcn.org/articles/education-tucsons-mexican-american-studies-ban-goes-back-to-court
Kohn, A. (2014). Grit: A skeptical look at the latest educational fad. Author. Retrieved from http://www.alfiekohn.org/article/grit/
No byline. (1998, March 15). Weddings; Jason Duckworth, Angela Lee. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/1998/03/15/style/weddings-jason-duckworth-angela-lee.html
Sparks, S.D. (2015, June 2). ‘Nation’s Report Card’ to gather data on grit, mindset. Education Week. Retrieved from http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2015/06/03/nations-report-card-to-gather-data-on.html
The Leadership Conference. (2015, May 5). Civil rights groups: “We oppose anti-testing efforts.” Author. Retrieved from https://civilrights.org/civil-rights-groups-we-oppose-anti-testing-efforts/
The Learning Project Elementary School. Website. Author. Retrieved from http://www.learningproject.org/
The Nation’s Report Card (n.d.). Percentage of fourth-grade students at or above Proficient not significantly different compared to 2013. Author. Retrieved from https://www.nationsreportcard.gov/reading_math_2015/#reading/acl?grade=4
Tough, P. (2016). Helping children succeed: What works and why. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Useem, J. (2016, May). Is grit overrated: The downsides of dogged, single-minded persistence. The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/05/is-grit-overrated/476397/
Zernike, K. (2016, February 29). Testing for joy and grit? Schools nationwide push to measure students’ emotional skills. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/01/us/testing-for-joy-and-grit-schools-nationwide-push-to-measure-students-emotional-skills.html?_r=0
Hello and welcome to the Your Parenting Mojo podcast. We have a pretty interesting topic lined up for today, or I think so at least: we’re going to talk about grit. If you’ve heard about grit over the last couple of years it’s probably because of one woman named Angela Duckworth, who is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and who invented what she calls The Grit Scale – she won a MacArthur Genius award for her research on grit in 2013. She tells a story about how she developed this scale that goes like this: several years ago the U.S. Army was having trouble figuring out which of their 1200 new cadets were going to make it through the grueling 7-week training program at West Point, and which were going to flunk out. They had developed their own measure called the Whole Candidate Score, which was a weighted average of SAT or ACT exam scores, high school rank, expert appraisal of leadership potential, and performance on physical fitness tests, but it turned out that the Whole Candidate Score actually wasn’t very good at predicting who would make it through the 7-week training. In 2004, Professor Duckworth gave the Grit Scale that she’d been developing to the incoming class of West Point cadets which asks questions like how likely you are to get discouraged by setbacks and how often your interests change, and it turned out that while the quitters had indistinguishable Whole Candidate Scores from the cadets who made it through the training, the Grit Scale was an “astoundingly reliable” predictor of who made it through training and who did not.
At this point you might be wondering how gritty you are yourself which is easy to test: just Google “Grit Scale” and hit the first link that pops up; I’ll put the link in the references as well. (I just took it and I scored 4.5 on a scale of 1-5, which is apparently higher than 90% of the population “in a recent study” that isn’t named). I guess I’m not enormously surprised; I think of myself as a pretty determined person; I think carefully before signing up to a project or a goal but once I sign up I’m *in* and am 100% committed to the end. So grit isn’t about talent or luck or how intensely you might want something *in the moment,* but instead it’s about your passion and perseverance for long-term goals. The test is pretty easy to fake, though – it’s not hard to guess what the ‘right’ answer is when you have to rate your response to the statement “I am a hard worker” or “I am diligent. I never give up.”
Professor Duckworth wrote about all this in her 2016 book “Grit: The power of passion and perseverance,” which I read recently. My first instinct after reading a book that seems pretty good and is well-referenced is to reach out to the author and ask if she might like to be interviewed, but then I started doing some reading around. The first thing I found was a long profile of her in National Geographic, of all places, saying that she routinely declines requests for interviews, including the one from the National Geographic journalist, who finally tracked down her personal phone number and reached her directly – apparently the journalist’s grittiness persuaded Professor Duckworth to do the interview. And then secondly I found some studies saying that maybe – just maybe – grit isn’t quite such the big deal that Professor Duckworth makes it out to be – she hopes it will be the thing we can teach poor children that will help them to succeed in school, and it turns out that that is far from clear. So ultimately I decided we could have more fun by digging into this ourselves and seeing, by the end of the episode, whether grit is a trait we want to try to encourage in our children – or not.
So we’ve said that grit is about passion and perseverance. Professor Duckworth spends most of her book talking about the perseverance side of the equation, so we’ll just touch briefly on passion first. Passion is sparked by an interest; an intrinsic enjoyment in what you do. I wrote my psychology master’s thesis on what motivates children to learn so I can say she’s right on the mark here; we don’t know much about what it is that get us interested in a topic, but once we are interested in it if we learn more about it (and are encouraged to learn more about it by the people we love), that interest can blossom into a passion. Professor Duckworth provides case studies throughout the book of highly successful people she’s interviewed, as well as some highly successful people who she apparently wasn’t able to interview but she read their books and quotes them as if she had interviewed them, and I think it’s fair to say that all of them were passionate about their work. This isn’t too hard to wrap your head around; a lot of studies have come to the conclusion that people are not only happier but they perform better when they are interested in their work. For many people, this interest is linked to the concept of purpose – the idea that their work somehow matters in the world, because it’s connected to the wellbeing of others (or, I suppose to another thing, like the planet). As a side note, the book never resolves the tension between applying the concept of grit to classroom-based learning, and the fact that interest and passion are a key component of grit. Unfortunately, much of learning in school is not based on students’ interest; it’s based on what other people say they think students *should* find interesting. So in a way, if we’re looking at grit as a way of improving student outcomes (which Professor Duckworth apparently hopes we can do), we’re trying to improve students’ perseverance on things they don’t care much about. It seems like that could be a problem. But we’ll come back to that later.
In addition to passion and purpose, Professor Duckworth briefly mentions that hope is apparently important as well; a rising-to-the-occasion kind of perseverance that keeps us going when things get tough, and to get back up when we get knocked down.
But the bulk of the book is dedicated to the perseverance component of grit, so that’s where we’re going to spend the most time as well. Professor Duckworth describes perseverance as the capacity to practice – after you’ve developed an interest in an area, it’s the devotion to a rigorous, committed, never-ending practice that leads to mastery. It’s finding your weaknesses and addressing them, day after day, and saying “whatever it takes, I want to improve!.” Our society is actually quite biased against the kind of practice it takes to be great. We want to believe it happened because a person was deeply talented. Professor Chia-Jung Tsay at University College London conducted an experiment where she had professional musicians listen to clips of two musicians playing the piano – one is described as an innately talented player while the other is a ‘striver’ who has worked hard. The professional researchers didn’t know that the two players were actually the same player, playing different parts of the same piece. In direct contradiction to their stated beliefs about the importance of effort versus talent, the professional musicians said the naturally talented pianists to be more likely to succeed and more hireable. In a follow-up study, a set of adults read a profile of a ‘striver’ entrepreneur, while another set read a profile of a ‘naturally talented’ entrepreneur. All participants then listened to the same audio recording of a business proposal and were told it was made by the entrepreneur they’d read about. Again, the naturally talented entrepreneur was judged as more likely to be successful and more hireable. When the participants were asked to back one entrepreneur or the other, the striver had to have four more years of leadership experience and an additional $40,000 in start-up capital before the participants were as likely to invest with the striver than with the natural. As a profile of Professor Duckworth in The Atlantic so eloquently put it, “We don’t like strivers because they invite self-comparisons. If what separates, say, Roger Federer from you and me is nothing but the number of hours spent at “deliberate practice” – as the most extreme behaviorists argue – our enjoyment of the U.S. Open could be interrupted by the thought There but for the grace of grit go I.”
So as a society we value natural talent, but if hard work gets people to the same place and they can just hide the hard work, we can be accepting of that as well. We don’t want to see those hours of practice or the mistakes that went into making something great (the Atlantic article author, Jerry Useem, did as Professor Duckworth suggested and tried to find video footage of people practicing, and wasn’t able to find much at all. He said the closest he got was the discovery of an early Rolling Stones draft of “Start Me Up,” which apparently does not work at all well as a reggae tune).
The attractiveness of the perseverance narrative, of course, cannot be underestimated for an American audience. We might prioritize talent above all else, but the country’s story is built on the idea of the value of hard work and its ability to lift you out of whatever circumstances you might find yourself in. It’s the old Protestant work ethic in new clothes. The narrative isn’t always true, of course: there are plenty of people who find themselves in circumstances that hard work cannot get them out of, despite what conservative politicians might have us believe. But I think the idea that they should *try anyway* is very American – perhaps this partly explains why Professor Duckworth’s book is ranked number 286 in all books on Amazom.com, but only number 764 on Amazon.co.uk. Hardly a scientific study, of course, since Professor Duckworth is American and does a lot more publicity work here, but perhaps the difference in culture is one factor.
Professor Steven Maier at the University of Colorado has done a lot of work on understanding how rats respond to stress. He found that if he gave young rats electric shocks that they could switch off by turning a wheel, they grew up to be more adventurous than normal rats. But young rats who had no control over the duration of their electric shocks grew up with what psychologists call “learned helplessness” – if they were shocked as adults, they behaved very timidly. When I think about the cultural implications of this, I imagine American children in disadvantaged circumstances pushing against the sides of the box in which they find themselves, getting shocked over and over again, and learning not to push any more. But being English myself, I imagine English children looking at the box in which they find themselves and thinking “yup, it’s a box. I’m supposed to be in a box.” And they don’t even try to touch the sides.
So there are a number of ideas to explore here. Professor Duckworth was a math teacher before she went back to graduate school; first she taught in a private school (although its website says it is not and has never been a “fancy private school” that is “chiefly interested in serving whoever wishes to enroll.” Later, she taught in the only public school in San Francisco that admits students on the basis of academic merit. As an aside here, Professor Duckworth doesn’t mention that the school in New York was private and actually implies it was a pretty gritty public school when she says that most of her students “lived in the housing projects clustered between Avenues A and D” in Manhattan, which made me think that her students were from a disadvantaged background but then I found out that the tuition is listed on the school’s website as $20,500/year for incoming kindergarteners. When she got to San Francisco, one of her students was in her ‘regular’ math class rather than ‘Advanced Placement’ math class but he turned in consistently perfect work, so she got him transferred to the AP class. He didn’t always get As in the AP class, but he went to the teacher and asked for help when he needed it, and he ultimately ended up getting a PhD in mechanical engineering from UCLA – he quite literally became a rocket scientist. This is just one example of how some of Professor Duckworth’s former students appeared to be using effort to overcome potential deficiencies in talent and effort. Now isn’t that an attractive idea? That just through persistent, dogged, hard work, students who are at some kind of disadvantage can overcome the shadow of their...