True Grit: The Surprising, and Inspiring, Science of Success

The importance of perseverance

Angela Duckworth’s work suggests that perseverance is a predictor of success. During her graduate student days she created a “grit scale” which she subsequently tested throughout her career. She characterized “grit” as working hard and finishing what one begins and gives the example of Will Smith explaining in an interview that if he was in a competention on a treadmill, there would be only two outcomes: he would be the last one running or he’d die on that treadmill because he “will not be out worked.”

This grit, or perseverance, leads to a consistency and duration of passion. This leads to the ability to focus on one project at a time. Millennials, potentially handicapped by technology and culture, may yet mature into developing this perseverance. Can we nurture this maturation?

She gave two examples of thinkers who support her claim:

  • In correspondences between Francis Galton and his cousin Charles Darwin, they spoke of talent and zeal being requirements for success.

  • Catherine Cox suggests curiosity alone is inadequate but curiousity with direction leads to purpose and avoids distraction by novelty.

  • West Point candidate success was better predicted by the grit score than the “Whole Candidate Score” (act sat gpa athleticism and leadership).

Direction, zeal or effort count twice as much compared to talent in the achievement of success.

Pseudo math

  • Talent x effort = skill

  • Skill x effort = achievement

  • ∴ talent x effort² = achievement (effort counts twice)

Grit may just be a partial component of a better validated psychological scale of the “big five personality traits” that have been shown to be predictors of success. They spell CANOE or OCEAN.

    Openness to experience.

The Importance of Perseverance in Deliberate Practice

She next presented deliberate practice as an application of grit. achievement gap.

Performance increases with the amount of hard work (in the form of deliberate practice) that you can put in. Since deliberate practice is grueling work, it requires internal motivation.

The process of deliberate practice is described elsewhere (put a link here).

Designing Situations to Maximize Success

We have limited reserves of will power and the more we extend, the less we have to apply to other tasks. This is demonstrated by a study showing math problems are harder while abstaining from eating cookies than if the cookies weren’t there. Zettelkasten book

We should design the environment in which we perform to maximize success.

Identifying areas in which you can have strong motivation

It is important to try lots of activities before settling on one to dedicate one’s effort. So ask my kids to try and quit lots of different clubs and see which ones interest them. However, dont let them quit when they’re losing. Duckworth’s father told her “Get good then quit, don’t quit on a bad day” to avoid failure masking an area in which you have interest but aren’t yet succeeding.

So in addition to grit, one needs a growth mindset. Or to quote Tony Horton, “you don’t say I cannot do pull-ups, you say I am currently struggling with doing pull-ups.”

Once one finds something in which they have interest, then start developing that before training weaknesses. We need small wins to power us through the later challenges of training weaknesses.

Ultimately, you cultivate a purpose – a higher reason – for continuing. The desire to succeed in that interest is to serve others, not just to become an expert. Lower level goals lead to higher level and higher purpose goals. Higher purpose gives one motivation to achieve the lower level goals. From a motivation perspective, purpose trumps pleasure in giving one the reason to continue to work at a task.

In the diagram below, she shows the hierarchy of goals of a cardiologist, coauthor of HBR article and her cousin.

Similarly, institutions need a goal heirarchy to develop institutional grit.

Audience Questions

  • How does grit relate to burnout?

  • Those people with grit play a long game. They don’t persevere in the face of exhaustion but take care of themselves.

  • Do we encourage perseverance in the context of persistent failure?

  • No, but you can use someone’s goal hierarchy to find other ways for them to achieve their goal. Be gritty at the top, flexible at the bottom.

  • What about today’s practice of giving everyone a trophy?

  • Kids are tough. They will be as tough as we teach them to be. There is no reason to reward those who don’t perform well.

  • Can you instill grit in someone?

  • Most gritty people don’t have external motivation, they don’t have tiger parents. Their motivation comes from within.

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