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

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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=“http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1501111108?ie=UTF8&tag=gregooscicen-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=1501111108”>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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As seen in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC News, CNN, Reuters,  SharpBrains is an independent market research firm tracking how brain science can improve our health and our lives.

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