A narrative of 'grit'

January 16, 2021

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Angela Duckworth's concept of the personality trait 'grit' is an interesting one, but it's actually rather less helpful than the narrative about success she weaves in her book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.


Angela Duckworth's concept of the personality trait 'grit' is an interesting one, but it's actually rather less helpful than the narrative about success she weaves in her book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.

There are two reasons for this. The primary reason is that the same factors that characterise 'grit' can be equally well accommodated by any kind of measure for the perseverance of effort, including the more traditional personality factor of conscientiousness. To put it another way, one could view 'grit' as a clever rebranding effort for something less sexy.

The second, and perhaps more concerning, feature of Duckworth's personality construct is the fact that it's liable to be misinterpreted. As Anders Ericsson, the researcher behind the concept of deliberate practice and a core feature of Duckworth's book noted:

It may seem natural to assume that these people who maintain intense practice schedules for years have some rare gift of willpower or 'grit' or 'stick-to-itiveness' that the rest of us just lack, but that would be a mistake

This is, I'd wager, not what Duckworth intends. Indeed, the conceit of her book is exactly this—that grit comes not as a gift, but that it is in part the product of intensive practice. But, alas, this kind of misinterpretation is inevitably what humans do as Duckworth herself laments.

So let's trace instead Duckworth's narrative of Grit, rather than explore her personality construct.

The talent distraction

Duckworth commences by sketching out the ways in which we are:

distracted by talent

Angela Duckworth, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance

Listing her own experiences as an educator, the emphasis of top-tier management consultancies like McKinsey & Company, and academic research, Duckworth notes that humans are fundamentally biased towards thinking that excellent performance comes from innate talent.

But, for Duckworth this is nothing but a distraction. Rather, talent is more often than not the product of extraordinary effort. Noting the observations of luminaries such as Galton, Darwin, and Nietzche, highlighting the experiences of high-performing athletes and celebrities, as well as research from the famous Grant study, her own studies, and the literature on expertise including that of the aforementioned Ericsson's work on deliberate practice and Mihály Csíkszentmihályi's flow, Duckworth concludes that "effort counts twice" over any kind of natural ability. That skill is the result of hours of practice, and:

skill is not the same thing as achievement, either. Without effort, your talent is nothing more than your unmet potential. Without effort, your skill is nothing more than what you could have done but didn’t. With effort, talent becomes skill and, at the very same time, effort makes skill productive.

Effort is a product of clear goals

Duckworth's research eventually led her to two final noteworthy attributes of successful people that scaffold her grit paradigm.

The first is that, like many psychological faculties, our capacity to persevere at something can grow over time. No particular exemplar of a 'gritty person' appears to have started out with a clear intent and a drive to succeed at whatever it is they had become known for. Rather, her examples appeared to become increasingly invested in a project over time, and their ability to devote their attention to that project increased in tandem.

This was, Duckworth suggests, because these people had discovered a passion; an ultimate goal; a "life philosophy". For Duckworth, gritty people—that is people who can devote substantial effort to something for the years required to appear talented—develop an interest in something that is so compelling that it organises many of their lower-order goals. Something that is:

so interesting and important that it organizes a great deal of your waking activity. In very gritty people, most mid-level and low-level goals are, in some way or another, related to that ultimate goal. In contrast, a lack of grit can come from having less coherent goal structures.

Thus, grit comes from clear goals and fewer distractions. A single, or a tiny number of high-level goals that organise lower level ones. And thus, the ability to hold the same top-level goal or goals for a very long time.

And with those conclusions:

  • talent is overrated;
  • effort is more important in determining success; and
  • effort directed in an organised way is the thing that distinguishes those that persevere from those that don't;

Duckworth moves on to explore how gritty people become.

Developing grit

As the eponymous title of her book suggests, for Duckworth:

grit is passion and perseverance.

Grit is the result of some small number of top-level goals which are so compelling for a person, they devote their life to the effort. Duckworth highlights that only a small proportion of the capacity for passion and perseverance appears to be heritable, which suggests that, in the main, these are developed skills. And Duckworth has some very interesting ideas about how. Specifically, she outlines the four key attributes of the gritty person.

1. Developing interest

It would appear that most people have quite unrealistic expectations about developing vocational interests. Citing psychologist Barry Schwartz of paradox of choice fame:

It’s really the same problem a lot of young people have finding a romantic partner ... you can’t find [something that] is absolutely the best in every way. [People] don’t listen. They’re holding out for perfection ... There are a lot of things where the subtleties and exhilarations come with sticking with it for a while, getting elbow-deep into something. A lot of things seem uninteresting and superficial until you start doing them and, after a while, you realize that there are so many facets you didn’t know at the start, and you never can fully solve the problem, or fully understand it, or what have you. Well, that requires that you stick with it ... a potential match—not the one-and-only perfect match, but a promising one—is only the very beginning.

Duckworth suggests that the development of a passion, one half of the grit equation, is no lightbulb moment but instead:

here’s what science has to say: passion for your work is a little bit of discovery, followed by a lot of development, and then a lifetime of deepening.

Duckworth then lists a number of interesting features of a nascent passion:

  • "most people only begin to gravitate toward certain vocational interests, and away from others, around middle school";
  • "interests are not discovered through introspection. Instead, interests are triggered by interactions with the outside world. The process of interest discovery can be messy, serendipitous, and inefficient. This is because you can’t really predict with certainty what will capture your attention and what won’t. You can’t simply will yourself to like things, either";
  • "the initial discovery of an interest often goes unnoticed by the discoverer. In other words, when you just start to get interested in something, you may not even realize that’s what’s happening. The emotion of boredom is always self-conscious—you know it when you feel it—but when your attention is attracted to a new activity or experience, you may have very little reflective appreciation of what’s happening to you"; and
  • "what follows the initial discovery of an interest is a much lengthier and increasingly proactive period of interest development. Crucially, the initial triggering of a new interest must be followed by subsequent encounters that retrigger your attention—again and again and again".

In summary, Duckworth notes:

the reality is that our early interests are fragile, vaguely defined, and in need of energetic, years-long cultivation and refinement.

Only then will our passions reveal themselves.

What is not made explicitly clear here (though it is in the final chapters of the book) is the crucial role of support networks in the development of interests. The support of a parent or teacher in exploring different activities until one sinks its hooks into us, or the role of mentors and coaches in encouraging us to explore different aspects of a skill or ability. Each vignette Duckworth presents of gritty people discovering their interests includes at their core a support network of one or more others encouraging them to explore.

2. Developing practice

Duckworth's core message regarding practice is unsurprising. Very simply, that the mastery of our new interest requires an enormous amount of time spent practicing. In this, she defers to Anders' Ericsson's research on experts. But three aspects of this practice are noteworthy.

The first is the most crucial to the narrative. Namely, that it is through this practice that we discover the elements of an interest that make it take hold and become a passion. We'll explore this idea more in the next section.

The second is that the amount of time skill development requires often exceeds our expectations. Ericsson's research, popularised by Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers, inspired the apocryphal 10,000 hour rule. While it may not take all people 10,000 hours to achieve expertise in all skills, it still hints at the sheer timescale success requires.

The third aspect tells us that not all practice is helpful practice.

image "If you track the development of internationally renowned performers, you invariably find that their skill improves gradually over years. As they get better, their rate of improvement slows. This turns out to be true for all of us. The more you know about your field, the slighter will be your improvement from one day to the next." Importantly, most people drop out before they see the most gains (c.f. Godin's 'The Dip'). And one shouldn't forget that we often need the support of others to push through various plateaus \(c.f. Vygotsky's 'ZPD'\). Graph of skill over time from Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.

Initially, practice results in small gains. Continued practice might see continuous improvement, or it might see a plateau. The type of practice that leads to excellence is, for Ericsson, deliberate practice. Deliberate practice is characterised by:

  • A clearly defined stretch goal
  • Full concentration and effort
  • Immediate and informative feedback
  • Repetition with reflection and refinement

For Duckworth, this kind of practice makes one more likely to be exposed to Csikzentmihalyi's Flow state. Flow states are akin to peak experiences—states of being immersed effortlessly in something we enjoy, and the ecstasy of performing at our best.

Duckworth speculates that grittier people engage in more deliberate practice, and experience more flow. As such, they're motivated by two things: the "thrill of getting better" and the "thrill of performing at one's best". Those who persevere at their passion enjoy hard work because of the rewards they reap in resulting flow states or the appreciation of their skill, and they enjoy hard work for the rewards inherent to improvement.

It is through deliberate practice that we uncover the details of an interest, and find passion in those details.

In her advice to those teaching children the value of deliberate practice come some advice to us also:

  1. We must identify the difference between deliberate practice and other types of practice or study;
  2. No matter our initial talent, all greats improve through deliberate practice;
  3. Behind all 'effortless' performances are hours and hours of practice that goes unseen and is effortful, mistake-ridden and challenging;
  4. Trying to do things that one can't yet do, failing, and learning what to do differently is exactly how experts practice; and finally
  5. Frustration is not a sign of being on the wrong track necessarily, but that wishing we are doing things better is very common during learning.

Once again, a non-explicit, but obviously crucial aspect of practice involves a mentor or support network. Each vignette Duckworth explores again presents a gritty person whose mentor helped push them through the more difficult aspects of practice—to overcome obstacles they could not overcome themselves, or provide a secure base from which they could draw strength to continue. In this, I am reminded of Lev Vygotsky's zone of proximal development—the zone in any activity where the level of skill required to improve cannot be reached without the guidance of someone more skilled than us.

Developing purpose

As an interest develops into a passion through ongoing practice, it begins to gain a new characteristic—it may take on a sense of purpose. For Duckworth, the purpose of the interests of gritty people have a very specific character. That of:

the intention to contribute to the well-being of others

The "mature passions of gritty people depend on both" interest and the communitarian purpose it introduces. Indeed, interest may in fact follow the discovery of a communitarian purpose. Typically however, Duckworth speculates that interests are usually oriented toward self-interested goals and a self-oriented purpose. Only over time and with practice, the purpose becomes oriented towards others. Duckworth notes the research of Benjamin Bloom who recognised this progression half a century ago:

most people first become attracted to things they enjoy and only later appreciate how these personal interests might also benefit others. In other words, the more common sequence is to start out with a relatively self-oriented interest, then learn self-disciplined practice, and, finally, integrate that work with an other-centered purpose.

This communitarian sensibility, on becoming the top-level goal of a person's goal-hierarchy, appears to mark the moment at which one achieves a stable grittiness. The recognition of how your skill in an interest contributes to the well-being of others appears to be the characteristic that makes that interest:

so interesting and important that it organizes a great deal of your waking activity.

And thus spurs us to clear up our less coherent goal structures.

The way this process occurs appears most often to require practice. The same function of practice that slowly reveals the interesting features of a skill or activity similarly reveal the ways in which these activities can contribute to the well-being of others.

Duckworth ties this notion of purpose to the concept of a vocational 'calling':

Those fortunate people who do see their work as a calling—as opposed to a job or a career—reliably say “my work makes the world a better place.” And it’s these people who seem most satisfied with their jobs and their lives overall.

She notes the research of Amy Wrzesniewski, whose research indicates that "just about any occupation can be a job, career, or calling ... what matters is whether the person doing the work believes that [the work] is just something that has to be done, or instead something that will lead to further personal success, or, finally, work that connects the individual to something far greater than the self". She quotes Wrzesniewski to highlight the theme of discovery that shoots through the notion of passion:

A lot of people assume that what they need to do is find their calling ... I think a lot of anxiety comes from the assumption that your calling is like a magical entity that exists in the world, waiting to be discovered.

And finally, Duckworth notes the essential influence of those around you in the development of an other-oriented passion—the need for a role model. In this she cites the work of Bill Damon, who emphasises that:

there’s a pattern. Everyone has a spark. And that’s the very beginning of purpose. That spark is something you’re interested in ... [then] ... What matters is that someone demonstrates that it’s possible to accomplish something on behalf of others.

It is often only after noting how someone else drives a skill or activity towards others that we can scaffold how to adapt the activity to do the same in line with our own values. Thus, developing an interest into a calling requires us to:

  • reflecting on how the work you’re already doing can make a positive contribution to society
  • [think] about how, in small but meaningful ways, you can change your current work to enhance its connection to your core values
  • [find] inspiration in a purposeful role model

Duckworth's summary of the research of David Yeager, Amy Wrzesniewski, and Bill Damon

Developing hope

The last characteristic of gritty people refers more generally to their mental model of the world. As Duckworth:

Grit depends on a different kind of hope. It rests on the expectation that our own efforts can improve our future. I have a feeling tomorrow will be better is different from I resolve to make tomorrow better. The hope that gritty people have has nothing to do with luck and everything to do with getting up again.

Duckworth, in the main, cites two bodies of research to make her point. The first on Seligman's learned helplessness and the second Dweck's growth mindset.

Each concept is deserving enough of an article of their own, but the core features are a mental model of the world that emphasises our own personal agency to change things in the world and that the things that happen to us are temporary, not permanent. Thus, gritty people believe that the good things that come their way are due to their achievement, and the bad things may be too but at least they can be changed in the future.

Key to the development of these skills are the influences of others. The input of our parents, teachers, and other authority figures scaffolds the shape of the world around out. Later, friends do this too—helping to highlight the ways in which our successes are our own. We can also change the way we consider the world by addressing our automatic thinking using mindfulness techniques like cognitive-behavioural therapy.

Summary

In summary, gritty people are the product of development, not talent. More to the point, their development comes about most typically through the influence of the community they surround themselves with:

  • interests are developed through an exploration of many skills and activities until we find the aspects of some that attract us, and in this process we require the encouragement of others to feel free to explore;
  • mastery of a skill requires immense quantities of deliberate practice, and only though this process do we begin to develop an interest into a passion by discovering new facets and challenges, often with the help of a mentor or guide;
  • purpose transforms from a self-oriented passion to an other-oriented calling when the communitarian aspect of an interest becomes clear, often after observing a role model; and finally
  • throughout this journey we must maintain a mental model of the world, reinforced by those around us, that celebrates our personal agency and control.

Being the support network

Duckworth closes with advice for those who wish to help develop grit in others, with a special emphasis on developing gritty children. In this, she suggests two main methods—internal and external.

Fostering grit internally

Duckworh presents certain features of parents, friends, mentors, and ourselves that will encourage us to find an interest and practice it until we discover our purpose.

The first she illustrates with the research on Baumrind's parenting styles. Baumrind's research tells us that parents will either be more or less demanding, and more or less responsive to a child's needs:

  • parents unresponsive to needs and undemanding are neglectful: a very damaging parenting style with very poor outcomes for children;
  • parents who are responsive and undemanding are permissive: a style that can make children happy in the short term but fails to foster resilience and success;
  • parents who are unresponsive but demanding are authoritarian: a style that can make children unhappy in the short term and though more successful, still not very resilent; and finally
  • parents who are both responsive to needs and demanding are authoritative: a parenting style with the best possible outcomes for the child.

Again, these parenting styles are worthy of their own article, but the crucial point for Duckworth is that an approach to others that sets very high standards of performance, but simultaneously recognises their wants, needs, weaknessess, and strengths, and working with those things rather than in spite of them encourages grit. It encourages behaviour that is oriented toward performance, but recognises constraints and builds supports to mitigate them.

In that vein, Duckworth encourages a policy of "doing the hard thing". That is, choosing an activity and remaining with it for some explicit period of time before allowing the selection of a new activity. She cites the research of assessment expert Warren W. Willingham, who found the most substantial predictor of success in tertiary education is longevity of activity engagement. Indeed, he suggests that the predictors of success are:

  • academic success;
  • leadership success; and
  • accomplishment success and follow through;

The latter of which being the highest predictor of positive lifelong outcomes across these three categories. These findings have subsequently been adopted by the selection processes of elite Universities such as Harvard.

Duckworth takes special care to note that this engagement must not simply be time investment, but involve accomplishment—the achievement of success in the activity alongside the time spent engaging in the activity.

By encouraging ourselves and others to 'do the hard thing', and stick with it, we're more likely to foster grit and thus success. This kind of follow through:

requires grit, but also develops it.

Fostering grit externally

Duckworth goes on to note that one of the most straightforward ways to foster grit is to create or participate in a gritty culture. For Duckworth, a culture is any group of people who share values. This is because, in the first instance:

The drive to fit in—to conform to the group—is powerful indeed. Some of the most important psychology experiments in history have demonstrated how quickly, and usually without conscious awareness, the individual falls in line with a group that is acting or thinking a different way.

We can distinguish these groups by they way they describe themselves—any group that is self-referential in us vs them terms; people who are in this culture, and those who are not. To develop such a culture requires that a set of core values are developed, followed, and most importantly discussed such that they become part of the identity of the individuals in the group. This facet, that of identity is crucial because:

in the long run, culture has the power to shape our identity. Over time and under the right circumstances, the norms and values of the group to which we belong become our own. We internalize them. We carry them with us. The way we do things around here and why eventually becomes The way I do things and why.

This is perhaps the least developed of Duckworth's conceptual points, relying less on theory and research, and more on a series of case studies. However, the notion that culture—the formation of a group identity—is a powerful force for change is not a new one. Indeed, the phenomenon of cults, destructive and banal is one such example of this in force. So too is the long history of political theory, which centres on a narrative of the role and identity of the individuals in a state.

And, perhaps Duckworth's most clear support for the role of a supportive and gritty culture comes from her own emphasis, in every case study and vignette, in every chapter of the book, that points again and again to the role of our support networks in fostering the passion and perseverance that leads to success.

Outro

In summary, while Angela Duckworth's personality trait for grit may be contested and indeed not particularly useful outside of academic circles, her narrative of success that goes alongside it is fabulously insightful. She weaves together threads of motivation and performance psychology that have long stood apart. Long term success is determined by passion and the perseverance that falls naturally from the orientation of our goals towards that passion. Passions are developed from exploration and deliberate practice of various interests over many years until one begins to call to us. In the effort, a culture that sets high expectations on us, while being responsive to our needs is almost crucial, fostering the eventual discovery of and commitment to a calling which in turn leads us to share that passion for the well-being of others.

And so, in our search for passion and success:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

Leonard Cohen

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