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Book review: Grit is a tool in the toolbox, not the silver bullet



West Point cadets endure a gru­el­ing lev­el of phys­i­cal exer­tion, emo­tion­al chal­lenge, and social abuse. The stan­dards for com­plet­ing the train­ing are high, as is the dropout rate.

Accord­ing to psy­chol­o­gist Angela Duck­worth, who has stud­ied these cadets, what sets the grad­u­ates apart from those who don’t com­plete the train­ing isn’t innate tal­ent or intel­li­gence, but grit: a com­bi­na­tion of pas­sion and per­se­ver­ance that helps peo­ple tran­scend dif­fi­cul­ty and suc­ceed in attain­ing their goals.

Duck­worth has stud­ied grit for the last 10 years, look­ing at elite ath­letes, spelling bee cham­pi­ons, and oth­ers who are at the top of their game. She’s devel­oped a grit scale by ask­ing peo­ple things like how much they agree with the state­ment “I have over­come set­backs to con­quer an impor­tant chal­lenge,” or “I fin­ish what­ev­er I begin.” Then, using this mea­sure­ment of grit, she’s tried to show that grit pre­dicts tenac­i­ty in reach­ing a goal and resilience in the face of dis­ap­point­ment.

<a href=“”>Scribner, May 2016, 352 pages</a>

In one study recount­ed in her book, Grit: The Pow­er of Pas­sion and Per­se­ver­ance, Duck­worth was asked to mea­sure the grit lev­els of high school juniors from pub­lic schools in Chica­go. A year lat­er, 12 per­cent of those stu­dents failed to grad­u­ate. Analy­ses showed that those who grad­u­at­ed had scored high­er in grit, and their grit score was a more pow­er­ful pre­dic­tor of grad­u­a­tion “than how much stu­dents cared about school, how con­sci­en­tious they were about their stud­ies, and even how safe they felt at school.”

Duck­worth believes that research like this shows that grit is crit­i­cal to suc­cess, and being gift­ed or tal­ent­ed is not nec­es­sar­i­ly that impor­tant. “Our poten­tial is one thing,” she writes. “What we do with it is anoth­er.” In study after study, and in inter­views with many suc­cess­ful peo­ple, she recounts how hav­ing a pur­pose in life, being will­ing to work hard for it, and hav­ing some resilience when faced with set­backs are the keys to suc­cess.

In many ways, her mes­sage is a pos­i­tive one, and her book is a fun read. We hear the voic­es of many who’ve suc­ceed­ed in life and see how their sto­ries illus­trate her points. Her the­sis also dove­tails nice­ly with Car­ol Dweck’s, whose research has shown that chil­dren suc­ceed when encour­aged to have a growth mind­set over a fixed mind­set. In oth­er words, effort mat­ters.

Still, some of the sci­ence recount­ed in the book seems thin, par­tic­u­lar­ly giv­en how few pop­u­la­tions have been stud­ied. Even more prob­lem­at­ic, oth­er ingre­di­ents for suc­cess are giv­en short shrift.

For exam­ple, just after Duck­worth out­lines her for­mu­la for how one gets from tal­ent to achievement—which involves effort at both ends—she men­tions the role of social or envi­ron­men­tal fac­tors in suc­cess, too…but only in pass­ing.

Of course, your opportunities—for exam­ple, hav­ing a great coach or teacher—matter tremen­dous­ly, too, and maybe more than any­thing about the indi­vid­ual,” she writes. But “my the­o­ry doesn’t address these out­side forces, nor does it include luck.”

This is an impor­tant admis­sion; but Duck­worth leaves it unex­am­ined. Instead, she plows on with her the­sis, as if social sup­ports like these are sec­ondary, when some research has shown they are any­thing but.

And, there are oth­er impor­tant points that get lit­tle atten­tion. For exam­ple, in talk­ing with a swim­ming coach, Duck­worth is told that “the most accom­plished swim­mers almost invari­ably had par­ents who were inter­est­ed in the sport and earned enough mon­ey to pay for coach­ing, trav­el to swim meets, and not the least impor­tant: access to a pool.” In oth­er words, it took mon­ey and par­ents who were avail­able to their kids to devel­op the elite ath­letes whose grit she applauds.

The book left me scratch­ing my head at points. Does hav­ing grit real­ly pre­cede suc­cess or does suc­cess breed grit? How much of grit is just sit­u­a­tion-depen­dent and not real­ly a char­ac­ter trait? What are the impacts of things like inad­e­quate schools, vio­lent neigh­bor­hoods, pover­ty, or lack­adaisi­cal par­ent­ing on grit? To her cred­it, Duck­worth admits that the research is still in its infan­cy, which is a plus. But when she makes rec­om­men­da­tions to par­ents and schools any­way, it’s less so.

Inter­est­ing­ly, some recent research—no doubt pub­lished after the book was written—has found lit­tle to no con­nec­tion between grit and aca­d­e­m­ic suc­cess, which should give teach­ers and par­ents pause. Yet, Duckworth’s research has led to a grow­ing move­ment to require grit test­ing in schools, as if the research on grit were sound and defin­i­tive. This makes some edu­ca­tors wor­ry that grit is being used to blame kids for their failures—especially at-risk students—taking atten­tion away from sys­temic prob­lems in our edu­ca­tion­al sys­tem. Besides, it’s not yet clear that, even if grit were help­ful, it can be taught.

While grit may indeed be a good thing, we do a dis­ser­vice to stu­dents if we sug­gest it’s the num­ber one thing they need to suc­ceed. Instead of cham­pi­oning grit, per­haps Duck­worth should con­sid­er more the role envi­ron­men­tal fac­tors play in stu­dent achieve­ment. Pro­vid­ing stu­dents with excit­ing and chal­leng­ing aca­d­e­m­ic oppor­tu­ni­ties, teach­ers and men­tors who are mind­ful and sup­port­ive, and schools where they feel safe to devel­op cog­ni­tive and emo­tion­al skills have all been shown to improve aca­d­e­m­ic per­for­mance. It seems much more like­ly that pur­su­ing these fix­es will lead to bet­ter out­comes than try­ing to make stu­dents per­se­vere with­out those sup­ports.

So, before we start issu­ing grit exams, we may just need to take a deep breath and back off…at least until the sci­ence catch­es up. Per­haps doing that would give us time to recon­sid­er some­thing else: the legit­i­ma­cy of our goals. It may be that, with more fore­thought, we decide that look­ing for ways to help West Point cadets bet­ter endure their abu­sive train­ing is less impor­tant than trans­form­ing the train­ing pro­gram to be less abu­sive.

jill_suttie.thumbnail— Jill Sut­tie, Psy.D., is Greater Good‘s  book review edi­tor and a fre­quent con­trib­u­tor to the mag­a­zine. Based at UC-Berke­ley, Greater Good high­lights ground break­ing sci­en­tific research into the roots of com­pas­sion and altru­ism.

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