At wits' end...
At wits' end...

My humble attempt at coming to terms with modern technology

An optimistic, happy-go lucky person who hails from Kerala, the 'Gods own Country'. As a passionate marketeer and an avid reader I enjoy sharing my views on Books, Social Issues, and Public Speaking.




At wits' end...

'Grit' by Angela Duckworth - Book Summary Part II

Ramya VasudevanRamya Vasudevan

In the first part of this book summary (Part1), we looked at what 'Grit' is, and why is it important. We understood that like Calculus or Piano, 'Grit' can be an acquired skill. It was evident from one of the studies that Grit could either be influenced by the cultural setting in which you grow up, or Grit could get better as we mature. Angela points out that it could be both. This article is a follow-up on that; an attempt to look at the impact of those two influences on Grit - how can we develop Grit from within, and how can we build a culture that develops Grit.

Angela's book is divided into 3 sections, and we've already covered the first section. The next sections are as follows:

  1. Growing Grit from the Inside Out
  2. Growing Grit from the Outside In

I'm pretty sure, we will get time to cover only the first topic in this article, I'll leave the last one for the third part of this book summary.

1. Growing Grit from the Inside Out

Angela's research reveals that:

The psychological assets that mature paragons of Grit have in common are four - Interest, Practice, Purpose, Hope

Understanding these 4 psychological assets is the basis of growing Grit from the Inside Out. Let's start with the first one - Interest.

1.1 Interest

Follow your passion is a popular theme of commencement speeches. Will Shortz, long-time editor of the New York Times crossword puzzle, told students at Indiana University: My advice for you is, figure out what you enjoy doing the most in life, then try to do it full-time. Life is short. Follow your passion. But how many of us truly believe that it's possible? More often than not, practicality overtakes our quest for passion. So we end up doing the jobs we don't like, to spend the money we haven't earned, to buy the things we don't want, to impress people that we don't like. That's the reality. But there has to be a way out...

Research shows that:

So the reasoning for finding a job that interests you definitely makes sense. But is it that easy to find/follow your passion? Then what about these commencement speakers who epitomise Grit? How did they find their passion? We're about to find out!

Angela confesses that when she first started interviewing grit paragons, she assumed that they'd all have stories about that singular moment when, suddenly, they'd discovered their God-given passion. In my mind's eye, this was a filmable event, with dramatic lighting and a soundtrack of rousing orchestral music commensurate with its monumental, life-changing import, she says. But it turns out, most grit paragons she's interviewed told her they spent years exploring several different interests, and the one that eventually came to occupy all of their waking (and some sleeping) thoughts wasn't recognizably their life's destiny on first acquaintance.

Olympic gold medalist swimmer Rowdy Gaines told her: When I was a kid, I loved sports. When I got to high school, I went out for football, baseball, basketball, golf and tennis, in that order, before I went for swimming. I kept plugging away. I figured I'd just keep going from one sport to the next until I found something that I could really fall in love with. Swimming stuck, but it wasn't love at first sight. The day I tried for the swim team, I went to the school library to check our track and field because I kind of had a feeling I was going to get cut. I figured I'd try out for track and field next.

Meanwhile, Julia Child, an American chef, author, and television personality who brought French cuisine to the American public, once said: It has taken me 40 years to find my true passion.

So while we might envy those who love what they do for a living, we shouldn't assume that they started from a different place than the rest of us, reminds Angela. Chances are, they took quite some time figuring out exactly what they wanted to do with their lives.

Barry Schwartz, who has been a psychology professor at Swarthmore College for 45 years, thinks that what prevents a lot of young people from developing a serious career interest is unrealistic expectations - they're holding out for perfection. They are not ready to experiment; they want the perfect job right away! A related problem, he says, is the mythology that falling in love with a career should be sudden and swift. 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. Well that requires that you stick with it.

Angela summarizes this in a beautiful sentence: Passion for your work is a little bit of discovery, followed by a lot of development and then a lifetime of deepening.

If you feel demotivated, just remember:

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

Even the most accomplished of experts start out as unserious beginners

Remember: Grit paragons don't just discover something they enjoy and develop that interest, they also deepen it. To better understand the 'enduring' interests of grit paragons, Angela turned to Paul Silvia, the psychologist who is a leading authority on the emotion of interest.

Paul takes the example of babies. He says, If babies didn't have a strong drive for novelty, they wouldn't learn as much, and that would make it less likely they'd survive. So interest - the desire to learn new things, to explore the world, to seek novelty, to be on the lookout for change and variety - it's a basic drive.

In that case, how can grit paragons stay with the same interest for such long periods of time?

Paul explains,

Novelty for a beginner comes in one form, and novelty for an expert in another. For the beginner, novelty is anything that hasn't been encountered before. For the expert, novelty is nuance

For example, an expert has the accumulated knowledge and skill to see what a beginner cannot. That is what keeps them going. So if you like something, there is enough and more you can do to sustain your interest and be the best in that field.

In sum, the directive to follow your passion isn't bad advice. But what may be even more useful is to understand how to find and foster your passion so you can make a living out of it.

1.2 Practice

Say, you've found your interest. Now let's see what to do with it.

In one of Angela's earliest studies, she found that grittier kids at the National Spelling Bee practiced more that their less gritty competitors. These extra hours of practice, in turn, explained their superior performance in the final competition. Angela points out that grit paragons are all about 'Kaizen' or 'Continuous improvement'.

In her interviews with 'mega successful' people, journalist Hester Lacey has noticed that all of them demonstrate a striking desire to excel beyond their already remarkable level of expertise. An actor might say, I may never play a role perfectly, but I want to do it as well as I possibly can. And in every role, I want to bring something new. I want to develop. A writer may say, I want every book I do to be better than the last.

It's a persistent desire to do better, Hester explains. It's the opposite of being complacent. But it's a positive state of mind, not a negative one. It's not looking backward with dissatisfaction. It's looking forward and wanting to grow.

Angela's own interview research made her wonder whether grit is not just about the quantity of time devoted to interests, but also the quality of time. Not just more time on task, but also 'better' time on task. The 10,000 hours of practice or the 10-year rule is quite famous in this context. The cognitive psychologist who conducted the research, Anders Ericsson, points out: Unlike most of us, experts are logging thousands upon thousands of hours of something called deliberate practice.

What is deliberate practice? Here's how experts practice:

First, they set a stretch goal, zeroing in on just one narrow aspect of their overall performance. Rather than focus on what they already do well, they strive to improve specific weaknesses. They intentionally seek out challenges they can't yet meet. It involves working hard to find your Achilles' heel. Then, with undivided attention and great effort, experts strive to reach their stretch goal. Interestingly, many choose to do so while nobody is watching. Basketball great Kevin Durant has said:

I probably spend 70% of my time by myself, working on my game, just trying to fine-tune every piece of my game

Likewise, the amount of time musicians devote to practicing alone is a much better predictor of how quickly they develop than the time spent practicing with other musicians.

As soon as possible, experts hungrily seek feedback on how they did. Necessarily, much of this feedback is negative. This means that experts are interested in knowing what they did wrong - so they can fix it - than what they did right. Active processing of this feedback is as essential as its immediacy.

After feedback, experts do it all over again, and again, and again. Until they have finally mastered what they set out to do. Until what was a struggle before is now fluent and flawless. Until conscious incompetence becomes unconscious competence.

Then experts start all over again with a new stretch goal...

Angela says, If you judge practice by how much it improves your skill, then deliberate practice has no rival. If, however, you judge practice by how it feels like, you might come to a different conclusion. For example, on an average, the Spelling Bee participants rated deliberate practice as significantly more effortful and significantly less enjoyable, than anything else they did to prepare for the competition. In contrast, spellers experienced reading books for pleasure and playing word games like scrabble as effortless and enjoyable as 'eating your favorite food'.

Dancer Martha Graham says, Dancing appears glamorous, easy, delightful. But the path to the paradise of that achievement is not easier than any other. There is fatigue so great that the body cries even in sleep. There are times of complete frustration. There are daily small deaths.

It is the mental work, as much as the physical stresses, that makes deliberate practice so strenuous. But for Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, an eminent psychologist who has devoted his career to studying experts, the signature experience of experts is flow, a state of complete concentration that leads to a feeling of spontaneity. Flow is performing at high levels of challenge and yet feeling effortless, like you don't have to think about it, you're just doing it.

That got Angela thinking. Why? Because this state is incompatible with deliberate practice - deliberate practice is carefully planned, and flow is spontaneous; deliberate practice requires working where challenges exceed skill, and flow is most commonly experienced when challenge and skill are in balance; and most importantly, deliberate practice is exceptionally effortful, and flow is, by definition, effortless. How can these two co-exist in an expert?

So Angela collected more data on flow from people who had taken the Grit scale. The participants of this study included men and women of all ages representing all manner of professions. Among these diverse occupations, grittier adults reported experiencing more flow, not less. In other words, flow and grit go hand in hand. Here's Angela's conclusion based on her research:

Gritty people do more deliberate practice and experience more flow

There is no contradiction here, for two reasons. First, deliberate practice is a behavior, and flow is an experience. Second, you don't have to be doing deliberate practice and experiencing flow are the same time

When you are doing deliberate practice, you are in 'problem solving' mode, analyzing everything you do, to bring it closer to the ideal - the goal you set at the beginning of the practice session. You are getting feedback, and you are using that feedback to make adjustments and try again.

On the contrary, the flow state is intrinsically pleasurable. You don't care whether you're improving some narrow aspect of your skill set. And though you're concentrating one hundred percent, you're not at all in 'problem solving' mode. You're not analyzing what you're doing, you're just doing. You're getting feedback, but because the level of challenge just meets your current level of skill, that feedback is telling you that you're doing a lot right. You feel like you are in complete control because you are! You are floating. You lose track of time. No matter how fast you're running or how intensely you are thinking, when you're in flow, everything feels effortless.

In other words, deliberate practice is for preparation, and flow is for performance.

But to get there, you need to do deliberate practice, and deliberate practice is hard. Martha Graham says, attempting to do what you cannot yet do is frustrating, uncomfortable and even painful. Fun isn't the right word, but it neither is bitter. The thrill of getting better is quite an amazing motivator.

So here are Angela's suggestions on how to get the most out of your deliberate practice:

  1. Know the science - A clearly defined stretch goal, full concentration and effort, immediate and informative feedback, repetition with reflection and refinement are all important aspects of deliberate practice.
  2. Make it a habit - Experts are all creatures of habit. So figure out when and where you are most comfortable doing deliberate practice. Routines are a godsend when it comes to doing something hard. A mountain of research including Angela's own suggest that if you have a habit of practicing at the same time and in the same place every day, you hardly have to think about getting started. You just do.
  3. Change the way you experience it - Swimming coach Terry Laughlin says, Deliberate practice can feel wonderful. If you try, you can learn to embrace the challenge rather than fear it. You can do all the things you're supposed to do during deliberate practice - a clear goal, feedback, all of it - and still feel great while you're doing it.

The point is, when you just look at the successes of grit paragons, you might get a feeling that they are all naturals. That's because nobody wants to show you the years and years of becoming. They'd rather show the highlight of what they've become. Similarly, you need to figure out what you want to do, and put in deliberate practice to get to where you want to be.

1.3 Purpose

Interest is one source of passion. Purpose - the intention to contribute to the well-being of others - is another. The mature passions of gritty people depend on both

Angela says, When I talk to grit paragons, and they tell me that what they're pursuing has purpose, they mean something much deeper than mere intention. They're not just goal-oriented; the nature of their goals is special.

When they are probed, there sometimes follows an earnest, stumbling struggle to put how they feel into words. But always - always - those next sentences mention other people. Sometimes it's very particular ('my children', 'my clients', 'my students') and sometimes quite abstract ('this country', 'the sport', 'science', 'society'). However they say it, the message is the same: the long days and evenings of toil, the setbacks and disappointments and struggle, the sacrifice - all this is worth it because, ultimately, their efforts pay dividends to other people.

Angela points out that Aristotle was among the first to recognize that there are at least 2 ways to pursue happiness. He called one 'eudaimonic' - in harmony with one's good (eu) inner spirit (daemon) - and the other 'hedonic' - aimed at positive, in-the-moment, inherently self-centered experiences. Aristotle clearly took a side on the issue, deeming the hedonic life primitive and vulgar, and upholding the eudaimonic life as noble and pure. But in fact, both of these approaches to happiness have very deep revolutionary roots. On one hand, human beings seek pleasure because, by and large, the things that bring us pleasure are those that increase our chances of survival. If our ancestors did not crave for food and sex, they wouldn't have lived very long or had many offspring.

On the other hand, human beings have evolved to seek meaning and purpose. In the most profound way, we're social creatures. Because, the drive to connect with and serve others also prompts survival. Because people who co-operate are more likely to survive than loners. Society depends on stable interpersonal relationships, and society in so many ways keeps us fed, shelters us from the elements, protects us from enemies. The desire to connect is as basic a human need as our appetite for pleasure. So to some extent, we are all hardwired to pursue both hedonic and eudaimonic happiness. But the relative weight we give these 2 kinds of pursuits can vary. Some of us care about purpose much more than we care about pleasure, and vice versa.

In Angela's research, she found that in terms of pleasure-seeking, gritty people are just like anyone else; pleasure is moderately important no matter how gritty you are. In sharp contrast, you can see that grittier people are dramatically more motivated than others to seek a meaningful, other-centered life. Higher scores on purpose correlate to higher scores on the Grit Scale.

Fortunate indeed are those who have a top-level goal so consequential to the world that it imbues everything they do, no matter how small or tedious, with significance

Consider the story of bricklayers. Three bricklayers are asked: What are you doing?

The first says, 'I am laying bricks'
The second says, 'I'm building a church'
The third says, 'I'm building the house of God'

The first bricklayer has a job. The second has a career. The third has a calling. Though many of us would like to be the third bricklayer, we often identify with the first or second. Every bricklayer has the same occupation, but their subjective experience - how they themselves viewed their work - couldn't be more different. According to management professor Amy Wrzesniewski's research, any occupation can be a job, career, or calling. How you see your work is more important than your job title.

A lot of people assume that, what they need to do is find their calling - Amy says. 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. A calling is not some fully formed thing that you find. It's much more dynamic. Whatever you do - whether you are a janitor or the CEO - you can continually look at what you do and ask how it connects to other people, how it connects to the bigger picture, how it can be an expression of your deepest values.

In other words, a bricklayer who one day says, 'I am laying bricks' might at some point become the bricklayer who recognizes 'I am building the house of God'.

Wharton professor, Adam Grant, says: Most people think self-oriented and other-oriented motivations are opposite ends of a continuum. Yet, I've consistently found that they're completely independent. You can have neither, and you can have both. In other words, you can want to be a top dog and, at the same time, be driven to help others.

In fact, one of the reasons why these grit paragons thrive through all the ups and downs is because of a that social commitment to be useful to others. They feel a huge responsibility toward their employees, clients - in solving others' problems.

Stanford developmental psychologist Bill Damon, points out, Seeing that someone needs our help isn't enough. Purpose requires a second revelation: I Personally can make a difference. Development of this this sort of purpose cannot unfold without the earlier observation of a purposeful role model, he adds.

To our consolation, Angela says, whatever your age, it's never too early or late to begin cultivating a sense of purpose. She gives 3 recommendations:

  1. Reflecting on how the work you're already doing can make a positive contribution to society
  2. Thinking about how, in small but meaningful ways, you can change your current work to enhance its connection to your core values - Amy Wrzesniewski calls this idea 'job crafting'.
  3. Finally, finding inspiration in a purposeful role model

In short, finding purpose in what you do can make you grittier; your life will start revolving around that single thing that brings meaning to your life. Are you ready to give it a try?

1.4 Hope

What is Hope?, Angela asks.

One kind of hope is the expectation that tomorrow will be better than today. It's the kind of hope that has us yearning for sunnier weather, or a smoother path ahead. It comes without the burden of responsibility. The onus is on the Universe to make things better.

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.

Angela points out:

It isn't suffering that leads to hopelessness. It's suffering that you think you cannot control

When Psychologist Marty Seligman and his students asked people: Imagine: You can't get all the work done that others expect of you. Now imagine one major cause for this event. What leaps to mind?, they figured out a way to distinguish between pessimists and optimists.

If you're a pessimist, you might say, I screw up everything or I'm a loser. Note that these explanations are all permanent; there's not much you can do to change them. They're also pervasive; they're likely to influence lots of life situations, not just your job performance. Permanent and pervasive explanations for adversity turn minor complications into major catastrophes. They make it seem logical to give up. If, on the other hand, you're an optimist, you might say, I mismanaged my time or I didn't work efficiently because of distractions. These explanations are all temporary and specific; their 'fixability' motivates you to start clearing them away as problems.

How do grit paragons think about set backs? Overwhelmingly, I've found that they explain events optimistically, Marty says. Journalist Hester Lacey finds the same striking pattern in her interviews with remarkably creative people. 'What has been your greatest disappointment?' she asks each of them. Whether they are artists or entrepreneurs or community activists, their response is nearly identical. Well, I don't really think in terms of disappointment. I tend to think that everything that happens is something I can learn from. I tend to think: 'Well okay, that didn't go well, but I guess I will just carry on.'

In fact, how you look at your life events has a huge impact on your psychological well being. Psychiatrist Aaron Back's highlights that the same objective event - losing a job, getting into an argument with a coworker, forgetting to call a friend - can lead to very different subjective interpretations. And it is those interpretations - rather than the objective events themselves - that can give rise to our feelings and our behavior.

When you keep searching for ways to change your situation for the better, you stand a chance of finding them. When you stop searching, assuming they can't be found, you guarantee they won't

So we have figured that we need to have hope - more importantly, the faith that we can make a difference. But why do some people persevere while others give up under identical situations?

This is exactly what Psychologist Carol Dweck's field of study is. She came up with the notion of a Growth mindset versus Fixed mindset. Growth mindset is the belief that people can really change. These growth-oriented people assume that it's possible, for example, to get smarter if you are given the right opportunities and support and if you try hard enough and if you believe you can do it. Conversely, some people think that you can learn skills, like how to ride a bike or do a sales pitch, but your capacity to learn skills - your talent - can't be trained. The problem with holding a fixed mindset is that even if you are immensely talented, the moment you hit a bump on the road, like a rejection letter, or a disappointing progress review at work, or any other setback that can derail you, you're likely to interpret these setbacks as evidence that, after all, you don't have the right stuff - you're not good enough. With growth mindset, you believe you can learn to do better.

Angela's next step was to understand whether the grit paragons epitomise a growth mindset or a fixed mindset. So a few years ago, Carol and Angela asked more than 2000 high school graduates to complete a growth-mindset questionnaire. It turns out, students with a growth mindset are significantly grittier than students with a fixed mindset. In further research, Angela could find that growth mindset and grit go together.

If you ask Carol where our mindsets come from, she'll point to people's histories of success and failure and how the people around them, particularly those in a position of authority, have responded to these outcomes. In fact, positive language is one way to cultivate hope. But modeling a growth mindset - demonstrating by our actions that we truly believe people can learn to learn - may be even more important. A simple lesson is that, when you have setbacks and failures, you can't overreact to them. You need to take a step back, analyze them, and learn from them. But you also need to stay optimistic.

How do you develop that mindset? Steve Maier's experiment with rats suggests that if you experience an adversity - something very potent - that you overcome on your own during your youth, you develop a different way of dealing with adversity later on. It's important that the adversity be pretty potent. He thinks that there is plasticity in that circuitry. But just telling someone that they can overcome adversity is not enough. For the rewriting to happen, you have to activate the control circuitry at the same time as those low-level inhibitory areas in the brain (the ones that raise alarm). That happens when you experience mastery at the same time as adversity.

Here are Angela's recommendations for teaching yourself hope:

1. Update your beliefs about intelligence and talent - When Carol and her collaborators try to convince people that intelligence, or any other talent, can improve with effort, she starts by explaining the brain. For instance, she recounts a study published in the top scientific journal Nature that tracked adolescent brain development. Many of the adolescents in this study increased their IQ scores from age 14, when the study started, to age 18, when it concluded. This fact - that IQ scores are not entirely fixed over a person's life span - usually comes as a surprise. What's more, Carol continues, these same adolescents showed sizeable changes in brain structure: 'Those who got better at math skills strengthened the areas of the brain related to math and the same was true for English skills.'

Carol also explains that human brain is remarkably adaptive. Like a muscle that gets stronger with use, the brain changes itself when you struggle to master a new challenge. In fact, there's never a time in life when the brain is completely 'fixed'. Instead, all our lives, our neurons retain the potential to grow new connections with one another and to strengthen the ones we already have. What's more, throughout adulthood, we maintain the ability to grow myelin, a sort of insulating sheath that protects neurons and speeds the signals traveling between them.

2. Practice optimistic self-talk - The link between cognitive behavioral therapy and learned helplessness led to the development of 'resilience training'. In short, it is a preventative dose of cognitive behavioral therapy. In one study, children who completed this training showed lower levels of pessimism and developed fewer symptoms of depression over the next 2 years. So the point is, you can, in fact, modify your self-talk, and you can learn to not let it interfere with you moving toward your goals. With patience and guidance, you can change the way you think, feel, and most important - act, when the going gets tough.

3. Ask for a helping hand - As a transition to the next section of the book, Growing Grit from the Outside In, Angela says, ask for help if needed. During difficult times, you don't always have to get back up on your own. Asking for help is a good way to hold on to hope.

In mathematician Rhonda Hughes' case it was a mentor who knew, even before she did, that she was going to be a mathematician. Once, when she'd done very poorly on one of his tests, she went to his office and cried. All of a sudden, he jumped up out of his chair and, without a word, ran out of the room. When finally, he came back, he said: Young lady, you should go to graduate school in mathematics. But you are taking the wrong courses. And he had all of the courses she should have been taking mapped out, and the personal promises of other faculty that they'd help. Rhonda concludes, I think everyone needs somebody like that. Don't you?

We have now discussed how working on the 4 psychological assets - Interest, Practice, Purpose and Hope, can help you build grit from the inside out. I hope you enjoyed reading this article; I can't wait to see your transformation from a hapless larva to a beautiful gritty butterfly, ready to spread its wings!

In the next and final part, we will look at 'Growing Grit from the Outside In'.

An optimistic, happy-go lucky person who hails from Kerala, the 'Gods own Country'. As a passionate marketeer and an avid reader I enjoy sharing my views on Books, Social Issues, and Public Speaking.