GRIT is about the power of Passion and Perseverance. I first got acquainted with this topic more than a year ago, when I was searching for an inspirational speech topic. At that point in time, not much information was available about the Angela's research. So I was extremely happy when a condensed version of Angela's more than 8 years of research, finally came out in the form of a book.
The book did not disappoint me, but I knew I had to put those ideas into an abridged format so I can refer to them later, and share with others. So here goes.
'Grit' is divided into 3 parts:
- What Grit is and Why it matters
- Growing Grit from the Inside Out
- Growing Grit from the Outside In
Reading the titles of the sections would have made you realize that 'Grit' can grow and people can become grittier if they want to. But first, let's try to understand what Grit is and why it is important.
1. What Grit is and Why it matters
1.1 Showing up
Eighty percent of success in life is showing up!
The United States Military Academy at West Point hires only the best of the best. After a rigorous admission process that includes high SAT/ACT scores, outstanding high school grades, superlative marks in a fitness assessment that includes running, push-ups, sit-ups, and pull-ups, only a mere 1200 out of the initial 14000 applicants get admitted and enrolled. After almost 2 years of hard work and preparation trying to get into one of the most prestigious military institutions, one in five cadets will drop out before graduation, and most of them, in their very first summer (in the first 2 months). These first 2 months are probably one of the most difficult, because of an intensive 7-week training program called the ‘Beast Barracks’.
Who makes it through the Beast? When research after research failed to predict who would continue or who would drop out, Angela decided to take a deeper look into the issue. Her initial discussion with Mike Matthews, a military psychologist who has been a WestPoint faculty member for years, made it clear that rising to the occasion had almost nothing to do with talent. Anyone who lands at West Point is obviously talented and motivated. Angela's intuition was that the 'Grit' lens seemed useful in understanding the phenomenon. Slowly, but steadily, Angela's research at West Point went on to conclude that what mattered was a ‘never give up’ attitude. In other words, Grit turned out to an astoundingly reliable predictor of who made it through West Point and who didn’t.
As a graduate student trying to probe the psychology of success, Angela tried to replicate the result across other domains, like Sales, public schools, graduate schools, Army Special Operations Forces, Spelling Bee Contest, etc. Every result consistently pointed in the direction of Grit. What emerged from Angela’s interviews with leaders in business, art, athletics, journalism, academia, medicine, law, etc. was that 'Some people are great when things are going well, but they fall apart when things aren’t'. High achievers described in her interviews really stuck it out! No matter what the domain, the highly successful had a kind of ferocious determination that played out in two ways:
- One, they were unusually resilient and hard working
- Second, they knew in a very, very, deep way what they wanted.
They not only had determination, they had direction. It was the combination of passion and perseverance that made high achievers special. In a way, they had grit.
The separation of grit from talent, was one of the biggest eye-openers in psychology that pushed Angela’s research into the frontlines. Based on the research data, Angela came to the conclusion that:Our potential is one thing. What we do with it is quite another.
1.2 Distracted by Talent
As a math teacher teaching 12 and 13 year olds, Angela realized quite early that talent is not directly correlated to excellence in math. For example, at the end of the first marking period, she was surprised to find that some of her very able students weren’t doing as well as she had expected. In contrast, several of the students who initially struggled were faring better than she had expected. Such ‘overachievers’ would reliably come to class every day with everything they needed. Instead of playing around and looking out the window, they took notes and asked questions. When they didn’t get something the first time around, they tried again and again sometimes coming for extra help during their lunch period or afternoon electives. Their hard work showed in their grades.
Apparently, aptitude did not guarantee achievement; talent for math was different from excelling in math class. She had started the year with the assumption that for those whom things came easily would continue to outpace their classmates. She expected that the achievement gap separating the naturals from the rest of the class would only widen over time. She realized she had been distracted by talent. In a way, we all have this natural bias towards talent. We all love to say. 'Oh, she's a natural!'. But do we realize the hours and hours of hard work that went into that?
In the early 1900s, Harvard psychologist, William James, took up the question of how people differ in their pursuit of goals (you can read more on the topic in his essay, 'The Energies of Men'). Without denying that our talents vary, James asserted that 'the human individual lives usually far within his limits; he possesses powers of various sorts which he habitually fails to use. He energizes below his maximum, and he behaves below his optimum.' In James' opinion,
The plain fact remains that men the world over possess amounts of resource, which only very exceptional individuals push to their extremes of use
Why do we assume that it is our talent, rather than our effort, that will decide where we end up in the very long run? Psychologist Chia-Jung Tsay conducted a survey on musical experts, who when asked, reliably endorsed effortful training as more important than natural talent. A follow up study was done in the field of entrepreneurship. When Chia probed all of their attitudes more indirectly, she exposed biases that tipped in exactly the opposite direction: We love naturals. The musicians chose people whom they thought were naturals, rather than strivers. The same thing happened in the case of entrepreneurs. The Naturals were expected to be more successful than the strivers. This 'naturalness bias' is a hidden prejudice against those who've achieved what they have because they worked for it, and a hidden preference for those whom we think arrived at their place in life because they are naturally talented. We may not admit this to others, we may not even admit it to ourselves, but this bias is evident in the choices we make.
Just listen to Chia's own life story:
Chia holds several degrees from Harvard. Her first was a bachelor's degree in psychology; she graduated magna cum laude with highest honors. She also has two master's degrees: one in the history of science and the other in social psychology. And finally, while completing her PhD in organizational behavior and psychology at Harvard, she also picked up a secondary PhD in music. Chia also has degrees from the Peabody Conservatory in piano performance and pedagogy - and she's performed at the Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center, and at the palace recital commemorating the presidency of European Union. She is now a professor at University College London, she publishes her scholarly work in the most prestigious of academic journals.
If you only saw her credentials, you might leap to the conclusion that Chia was born gifted than anyone you know. There is a vast amount of research on what happens when we believe that a student is especially talented. We begin to lavish extra attention on them, hold them to higher expectations. We expect them to excel, and that expectation becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. But Chia's thoughts on her musical accomplishments are as follows: Well, I guess I may have some talent. But I think more than that, I loved music so much I practiced 4-6 hours a day all throughout childhood. And in college, despite a punishing schedule of classes and activities, she made time to practice almost as much. So yes, she has talent, but she is a striver too.
So, Is talent a bad thing? Are we all equally talented? Angela gives an emphatic, 'No' and 'No'. The ability to quickly climb the learning curve of any skill is obviously a very good thing, and like it or not, some of us are better at it than others. But by shining our spotlight on talent, we are inadvertently sending the message that the other factors including grit don't matter as much as they do. Focus on talent distracts us from something that is at least as important, and that is effort.
1.3 Effort counts Twice
If we overemphasize talent, we underemphasize everything else. Dan Chambliss, sociologist and author of a study of competitive swimmers titled, "The Mundanity of excellence', observes: 'Talent is perhaps the most pervasive lay explanations we have for athletic success.' It is as if talent were some invisible 'substance behind the surface reality of performance, which finally distinguishes the best among our athletes'. And these great athletes seem blessed 'with a special gift, almost a thing inside of them, denied to the rest of us - perhaps physical, genetic, psychological, or physiological. Some have it and some don't. Some are natural athletes, and some aren't'.
Angela says, If we can't explain how an athlete, musician, or anyone else has done something jaw-droppingly amazing, we're inclined to throw up our hands and say, 'It's a gift! Nobody can teach you that.' In other words, when we can't easily see how experience and training got someone to a level of excellence that is so clearly beyond the norm, we default to labelling that person, a 'natural'
German philosopher, Nietzsche wrote: With everything perfect, we do not ask how it came to be. Instead, we rejoice in the present fact as though it came of the ground by magic. We want to believe that Mark Spitz was born to swim in a way that none of us were, and that none of us could. We don't want to sit on the pool deck and watch him progress from amateur to expert. We prefer our excellence fully formed. We prefer mystery to mundanity. Why do we do this? Angela's explanation (which I completely concur with) is this:
Mythologizing natural talent lets us all off the hook. It lets us relax into the status quo
So what is the reality of greatness? Nietzsche came to the same conclusion as Dan Chambliss: Great things are accomplished by those people whose thinking is active in 'one' direction, who employ everything as material, who always zealously observe their own inner life and that of others, who perceive everywhere models and incentives, who never tire of combining together the means available to them.
And what about talent? Nietzsche implored us to consider exemplars to be, above all else, craftsmen: Do not talk about giftedness, inborn talents! One can name great men of all kinds who were very little gifted. They 'acquired' greatness, became 'geniuses' (as we put it)... They all possessed that seriousness of the efficient workman which first learns to construct the parts properly before it ventures to fashion a great whole; they allowed themselves time for it, because they took more pleasure in making the little secondary things well than in the effect of a dazzling whole.
Angela's equation is very simple:
- talent * effort = skill
- skill * effort = achievement
What this theory says is that when you consider individuals in identical circumstances, what each achieves depends on just two things, talent and effort. Talent - how fast we improve in skill - absolutely matters. But effort factors into the calculations twice. Effort builds skill. At the very same time, effort makes skill productive.
John Irving, the celebrated American novelist and Academy Award-winning screenwriter, recalls earning a C in high school English. His SAT verbal score was 475/800, which means almost two thirds of the students who took the SAT did better than him. He needed to stay in high school an extra year to have enough credits to graduate. Irving recalls that his teachers thought he was both lazy and stupid.
He wasn't both. He was severely dyslexic. So he allowed himself more time. I was an underdog...If my classmates could read our history assignment in an hour, I allowed myself two or three. If I couldn't learn to spell, I would keep a list of my most frequently misspelt words.
Since reading and writing didn't come easily, Irving learnt that to do anything well, you have to overextend yourself... In my case, I learned that I just had to pay twice as much attention. I came to appreciate that in doing something over and over again, something that was never natural becomes almost second nature. You learn that you have the capacity for that, and that It doesn't come overnight.
Another example is of the Grammy award winning musician and Oscar nominated actor Will Smith. He doesn't view himself as particularly talented, he says. Where I excel is ridiculous, sickening work ethic, he opines. Accomplishment, in Will's eyes, is very much about going the distance. When asked to explain his ascendancy to the entertainment elite, Will said:
The only thing that I see that is distinctly different about me is: I'm not afraid to die on a treadmill. I will not be outworked, period. You might have more talent than me, you might be smarter than me, you might be sexier than me. You might be all of those things. You got it on me in nine categories. But if we get on the treadmill together, there is two things: You're getting off first or I'm going to die. It's really that simple.
The separation of talent and skill, Will Smith points out, is one of the most misunderstood concepts for people who are trying to excel, who have dreams, who want to do things. Talent you have naturally. Skill is only developed by hours and hours and hours of beating on your craft.
There are many other examples as well in the book that illustrates this point. So in conclusion, Angela points out:
With effort, talent becomes skill and, at the very same time, effort makes skill productive
1.4 How Gritty are you?
According to Angela, Grit is about working on something you care about so much that you're willing to stay loyal to it. It's not just falling in love, but staying in love. Remember, how talented you are says nothing about your Grit. So do you want to know how Gritty you are? Angela has developed a Grit Scale that will tell you exactly that (mine is 3.7, meh).
Angela is quick to remind us: Do keep in mind that your score is a reflection of how you see yourself right now. How gritty you are at this point in your life might be different from how gritty you were when you were younger. And if you take the Grit scale again later, there is every reason to believe that grit can change.
Grit has two components: passion and perseverance. For a lot of people, passion is synonymous with infatuation or obsession. But in interviews about what it takes to succeed, high achievers often talk about commitment of a different kind. Rather than intensity, what comes up again and again in their remarks is the idea of consistency over time.
Enthusiasm is common, endurance is rare
One important aspect that Angela highlights in this chapter is this: Passion is not something that falls into your lap all of a sudden. It's not love at first sight. It could take years and years of exploring different options and trying your hand at multiple things before you can arrive at your passion. For some, it may be relatively simpler, but for people like Jeffrey Gentleman, it wasn't just a process of passive discovery - of unearthing a little gem hidden inside his psyche - but rather of active construction. Jeff didn't just go look for passion; he helped create it.
Jeff has been the East Africa bureau chief for the New York Times. In 2012, he won the Pulitzer prize for International Reporting for his coverage of conflict in East Africa. But Jeff's passion, it turns out, is not journalism. For a very long time, I've had a very clear sense of where I wanted to be, Jeff told Angela on the phone. And that passion was to live and work in East Africa. Angela quizzed, 'If you could only be a journalist or live in East Africa, which one would you choose?' She expected Jeff to pick journalism. He didn't'. Here is his story:
Moving to Ithaca, New York, from Evanston, Illinois, Jeff at 18 years old, could not have predicted his future career. At Cornell, he ended up majoring in philosophy, in part because it was the easiest to fulfill the requirements. Then the summer after freshman year, he visited East Africa. And that was the beginning of a beginning. As soon as he got back to Cornell, Jeff started taking courses in Swahili, and after sophomore year, he took a year off to backpack around the world. During that trip, he returned to East Africa, experiencing the same wonder he'd felt the first time he visited.
Still, it wasn't clear how he'd make a life there. How did he hit on journalism as a career path? A professor who admired his writing suggested as much, and Jeff remembers thinking, 'That's the dumbest idea I had heard...who wants to work for a boring newspaper?' Eventually, Jeff did work for the student paper, the Cornell Daily Sun - but as a photographer, not a writer.
When he got to Oxford, he was pretty lost academically. It was shocking to the Oxford professors that he didn't really know what he wanted to do. But by his second year at Oxford, he figured out that journalism was an even better fit. 'Once I learned more about being a journalist and how that could get him back to Africa, and how that actually would be fun, and I could write more creatively than I first imagined journalism was, then I was like: Screw it, this is what I am going to do. I set out a deliberate path that was possible, because the journalism industry is very hierarchical, and it was clear how to get from A to B to C to D, et cetera.'
Step A was writing for Oxford's student newspaper, Cherwell. Step B was a summer internship at a small paper in Wisconsin. Step C was the St. Petersburg Times in Florida on the Metro beat. Step D was the Los Angeles Times. Step E was the New York Times as a national correspondent in Atlanta. Step F was being sent overseas to cover war stories, and in 2006 - just over a decade since he'd set himself the goal - he finally reached Step G: becoming the New York Times' East Africa bureau chief.
It was a really winding road that took me to all kinds of places. And it was difficult, and discouraging, and demoralizing, and scary, and all the rest. But eventually, I got here. I got exactly where I wanted to be.
What Jeff's journey suggests is that passion is a compass - the thing that takes you some time to build, tinker with, and finally get right, and that then guides you on your long and winding road to where, ultimately, you want to be. One problem with most people is their impatience to get to where they want. I think it's an issue mainly with the current generation because right from their childhoods, they are so used to their parents giving them what they want - they've grown up in relative affluence and have never had to strive for something. The advent of Digital revolution has added oil to the flames. Any information is available on our finger tips any time we want. Nobody has the time to sow the seeds of ideas, water them, and wait till they grow into a wonderful tree. But that's a topic for another day.
The stories of Seattle Seahawks' coach Pete Carroll, and Bob Mankoff, the cartoon editor for the New Yorker, are also quite awe-inspiring. You may want to read the book to know more. One of the take-aways from their stories is that we all need to have a top-level goal as a compass that gives direction and meaning to all the goals below it. The middle and low level goals are just supporting factors in helping you get where you want. For example, in Jeff's case, his top level goal was to live in East Africa. Whatever he did as a consequence, was his way of taking baby steps towards that goal. Grit is about holding that top-level goal for a very long time. This 'life philosophy', as Pete Carroll might put it, 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 other, related to that ultimate goal. In contrast, a lack of grit can come from having less coherent goal structures.
Angela adds, I've met many young people who can articulate a dream - for example, to be a doctor or to play basketball in the NBA - can vividly imagine how wonderful it would be, but they can't point to the mid-level and lower-level goals that will get them there. Their goal hierarchy has a top-level goal, but no supporting mid-level or low-level goals.
1.5 Grit Grows
Angela often faces the question: How much of Grit is in our genes? We have an intuitive sense that some things about us, like our height, are pretty much determined in the genetic lottery, while other things like, whether we speak English or French, are a result of our upbringing and experience. Many people want to know whether Grit is more like height or more like language.
Angela says the short answer to the question is in part. The long answer is more complicated. She says with complete conviction that every human trait is influenced by both genes and experience. She gives the example of height, but frankly, it's not that convincing. Hence I am skipping it (you can read the details from the book, if you are interested). But what I am convinced of, is that Grit can be both genetically influenced, as well as influenced by experience.
Very recently, researchers in London administered the Grit Scale to more than 2000 pairs of teenage twins living in the United Kingdom (Identical twins share the same DNA, while fraternal twins share only about half, on an average). The study estimated the heritability of the perseverance component to be 37% and the passion component to be 20%. These estimates are on par for heritability estimates for other personality traits, and in the simplest terms, this means that some of the variation in grit in the population can be attributed genetic factors, and the rest can be attributed to experience. Angela also adds that almost all human traits are polygenic, which means that the traits are influenced by more than one gene. So in summary,
- Grit, talent and all other psychological traits relevant to success in life are influenced by genes and also by experience
- There is no single gene for Grit, or indeed any other psychological trait
- Heritability estimates explain why people differ from the average, but they say nothing about the average itself. The average itself keeps increasing over time (Military records show that the average British man was 5'5" tall about 150 years ago, but today that average is 5'10". In Netherlands, the average height of a man is 6'1" - a gain of more than 6" over the last 150 years)
Data shows that Grit is higher for higher age groups. One of the explanations for why Grit and Age go hand-in-hand could be that adults in their seventh decade of life are grittier because they grew up in a very different cultural era, perhaps one whose values and norms emphasized sustained passion and perseverance more than has been the case recently. In other words, it could be that the Greatest Generation is grittier than the millennials because cultural forces are different today than yesterday.
Alternatively, it could also mean that Grit grows as we figure out our life philosophy, learn to dust ourselves off after rejection and disappointment, and learn to tell the difference between low-level goals that should be abandoned quickly and higher level goals that demand more tenacity. The maturation story is that we develop the capacity for long-term passion and perseverance as we get older.
To distinguish between these two rival explanations (Grit changes as a function of the cultural era in which we grow up versus We get grittier as we get older), we need to do a longitudinal study by following the same set of people as they mature to make a time-lapse movie of their grit over their life course. That will take a while, since the research on Grit is fairly new. But Angela says, both could be true. Like every aspect of our psychological character, grit is more plastic that you might think.
So to the next question: If Grit can grow, then how?
Most people want to be more gritty, but they don't know where to start. According to Angela, a good place to start is to understand where you are today. If you are not as gritty as you want to be, ask yourself why.
A lot of what Angela has learnt about how grit grows comes from interviewing men and women, who epitomize the qualities of passion and perseverance. These are complemented by the quantitative studies she has done in places like West Point and the National Spelling Bee. Together, the research reveals that the psychological assets that mature paragons of Grit have in common. There are four. Now pay attention:
First comes Interest. Passion comes with intrinsically enjoying what you do. Every Gritty person Angela has studied can point to aspects of their work they enjoy less than others and most have to put up with at least one or two chores they don't enjoy at all. Nevertheless, they are captivated by the endeavor as a while and they find it meaningful. That's why you would hear a lot of grit paragons say, 'I love what I do'.
Next comes the capacity to Practice. One form of perseverance is the daily discipline of trying to do things better than we did yesterday. So after you have discovered and developed interest in a particular area, you must devote yourself to the sort of focused, full-hearted, challenge-exceeding-skill practice that leads to mastery. You must zero in on your weaknesses, and you must do so over and over again, for hours a day, week after month after year. To be gritty is to resist complacency.
Let's hear from Rowdy Gaines, the swimmer, on whether he enjoyed his miles and miles of practice laps:
I am not going to lie. I never really enjoyed going to practice, and I certainly didn't enjoy it while I was there. In fact, there were brief moments, walking to the pool at 4 or 4:30 in the morning, or sometimes when I couldn't take the pain, when I'd think, 'God, is this worth it?'
But why didn't he quit? Because he loved swimming. He had a passion for competing, for the result of training, for the feeling of being in shape, for winning, for travelling, for meeting friends. He hated practice, but had an overall passion for swimming.
Olympic gold medalist rower Mads Rasmussen offered a similar account of his motivation: It's about hard work. When it is not fun, you do what you need to do anyway. Because when you achieve results, it's incredibly fun. You get to enjoy the 'Aha' at the end, and that is what drags you along a lot of the way.
So yes, practice is important, even though you might not see immediate results.
Third comes Purpose. What ripens passion is the conviction that your work matters. For most people, interest without purpose is nearly impossible to sustain for a lifetime. For a few, a sense of purpose dawns early, but for many, the motivation to serve others heightens after the development of interest and years of disciplined practice. Regardless, fully mature exemplars of grit invariably tell Angela: My work is important, both to me and to others.
And finally, Hope. Hope, according to Angela, is rising-to-the-occasion kind of perseverance. Angela says, even though hope is described as the last component, hope doesn't define the last stage of grit. It defines every stage. From the very beginning to the very end, it is inestimably important to learn to keep going even when things are difficult, even when we have doubts. We often get knocked down in our lives at various points in big and small ways. If we stay down, grit loses. If we get up, grit prevails.
Angela highlights that these four psychological assets are not You have it or you don't commodities. Like Calculus and Piano, you can learn the psychology of Grit on your own. You can learn to discover, develop and deepen your interests. You can acquire the habit of discipline. You can cultivate a sense of purpose and meaning. And you can teach yourself to hope.
In the next part of this article (Part2), we will look at growing grit from the inside out by focusing on these 4 psychological assets.