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 III

Ramya VasudevanRamya Vasudevan

Welcome to the third and final part of the Book Summary; I hope you are finding the results of Angela's research on Grit interesting and useful. If nothing, it would have served as a myth-buster on many levels. Here are my quick take aways so far:

In Part1, we covered what Grit is and why it matters, and in Part2, we looked at the possibility of growing grit from the inside out using the 4 psychological assets - interest, practice, purpose and hope. The third part of the book is all about growing grit from the 'outside in'. Here, Angela tries to answer the questions like how can we influence our kids to be more gritty or how can we build a culture of grit.

These are the three topics Angela focuses on:

Let's start with Parenting for Grit.

This chapter is not just about parenting, because Angela says, parenting derives from Latin and means 'to bring forth'. So according to Angela, parenting doesn't necessarily imply that you have to be a parent. In fact, you can use the techniques mentioned in this chapter to encourage grit in anyone you care for.

Let's start with the tough question: Do kids with authoritarian parents become grittier than the ones with more liberal parents or is it the other way around?

When we open the floor for discussion, we are prone to get multiple perspectives. Some believe grit is forged in the crucible of adversity. Others are quick to paraphrase Nietzsche: What doesn't kill you makes you stronger. Angela says, such invocations conjure an image of scowling mothers and fathers dispensing endless criticism on the sidelines of the games that had better be victories, or chaining their children to the piano bench or violin, or grounding them for the sin of an A-.

A common belief assumes that offering loving support and demanding high standards are two ends of a continuum, with the authoritarian parents of the gritty far to the right centre.

In his best-selling 1928 parenting guide, Psychological Care of Infant and Child, John Watson, then chair of psychology at Johns Hopkins University, advises: Never hug and kiss them. Never let them sit in your lap. If you must, kiss them once on the forehead when they say good night. Shake hands with them in the morning. Give them a pat on the head if they have made an extraordinarily good job of a difficult task. Watson further recommends letting children cope with problems on their own 'almost from the moment of birth', rotating different caregivers to prevent unhealthy attachment to any one adult, and otherwise avoiding the coddling affection that prevents a child from 'conquering the world'.

Occasionally, people take the opposite stance. They're convinced that children will thrive and flourish in environments where they have unconditional affection and support. These champions of kinder and gentler parenting advocate big hugs and long leashes and point out that children are by nature challenge-seeking creatures whose innate desire for competence needs only our unconditional love to reveal itself. These parents fall to the left of centre in the continuum between supportive and demanding parenting.

Truth be told, there is a lot of research on Parenting, some on Grit, but no research yet on parenting and grit. So, as a mother herself, Angela's approach here was quite different - she probed the evidence for each side, trying to figure our if there is a right approach to parenting for grit. Let's start with Steve Young.

Steve Young, the legendary quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers was twice named Most Valuable Player in the National Football League. He was selected Most Valuable Player of Super Bowk XXIX, during which he completed a record-breaking six touchdown passes. At retirement, he was the highest-rated quarterbacks in NFL history.

My parents were my foundation, Steve says. Good parenting is something I wish everyone could have.

He remembers one of his conundrums on joining Brigham Young University as their eighth-string quarterback. As seven other quarterbacks stood between Steve and playing time, his coach relegated him to the 'hamburger squad' - a unit composed of the least valuable players whose primary role was to run plays so the BYU defensive line could practice. Man, I wanted to go home. I went to school my whole first semester with my bags packed...I remember calling [my Dad] and saying, 'Coaches don't know my name. I'm just a big tackling dummy for the defence. Dad, it's horrible. And this is just not what I expected...and I think I'd like to come home'.

Steve's father, whom Steve describes as the ultimate tough guy, told him: You can quit...But you can't come home because I'm not going to live with a quitter. You've known that since you were a kid. You're not coming back here. Steve stayed.

All season, Steve was the first to practice and last to leave. After the team's last game, he stepped up his private workouts. From the beginning of January to the end of February, he threw over 10,000 spirals. His arm hurt, but he wanted to be a quarterback. And by sophomore year, Steve moved up from number-eight quarterback to number-two. By his junior year, he was BYU's starting quarterback. In his senior year, Steve received the Davey O'Brien award for the most outstanding quarterback in the country.

There were several other times in his athletic career when his confidence faltered. Each time, he wanted desperately to quit. Each time, he appealed to his father - who wouldn't let him quit.

If we look at the narrative of Steve Young's improbable ascent, you might conclude that parents of gritty children are authoritarian. You might leap to the conclusion that they're entered on their own standards and fairly insensitive to their childrens' particular needs. But if you sit down with Steve's parents, you'll realise that Steve's father LeGrande Young is himself an epitome of grit. He is all about hard work and being tough and not whining. When it came to raising their children, Sherry and LeGrande very deliberately set out to provide them with challenges. Steve's dad says, My goal was to teach them discipline and to go at things hard like I learnt to do. You have to learn those things. They don't just happen. It was important to me to teach the kids to finish what you begin.

In no uncertain terms, Steve and his siblings were made to understand that, whatever they signed up for, they 'had' to see it through to the end. Once you commit, you discipline yourself to do it. There's going to be times you don't want to go, but you've got to go.

Though this sounds strict, if you listen closely, the Youngs were also tremendously supportive. Once, as a 9-year old, when Steve got tackled, he remembers looking up to see his mom, still carrying her purse, striding right past him to grab a boy on the opposing team by the shoulder pads to tell him that he would not be illegally neck tackling Steve again. As Steve and his siblings got older, their home became a favourite hangout. On another occasion when Steve, in second-grade, wouldn't go to school, Sherry ended up sitting in his classroom for weeks until, at long last, Steve felt comfortable going to school by himself.

When you ask Steve to elaborate on his first troubled semester at BYU, pointing out that, if someone only heard that anecdote, they might conclude that his father was a tyrant, this was his response:

Everything is contextual, right? The context was that my dad 'knew' me. He knew all I wanted to do was sprint home, and he knew that if he let me do that, it would be letting me give into my fears. It was a loving act. It was tough, but it was loving.

But it's a fine line between tough love and bullying, Angela says.

Steve continues, I knew the decision was mine. And I knew my dad didn't want me to be him. Number one, a parent needs to set a stage that proves to the child, 'I'm not trying to just have you do what I say, control you, make up for what I didn't do'. My dad showed me early that it wasn't about him and what he needed. It truly was 'I'm giving you all I got'. There was an underlying selfishness to the tough love. I think it's vital. If any of the tough love is about the parents just trying to control you, well, kids smell it out. In every way possible, I knew my parents were saying, 'We're looking to see your success. We've left ourselves behind'.

Angela says, if getting to know the Youngs helps you understand that 'tough love' isn't necessarily a contradiction in terms, hold that thought - and meet Francesca Martinez and her parents Tina and Alex.

Named by the Observer as one of the funniest comics in Britain, Francesca performs to sold-out audiences around the world. Francesca was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at age 2 - she prefers the term 'wobbly'. When her parents Tina and Alex were told that their daughter would never lead a normal life, they quickly decided that no doctor could foretell who their daughter might become. Achieving comedic stardom takes grit no manner who you are, but more so perhaps when it's a challenge merely to enunciate your consonants or walk to the stage. So, like other aspiring comics, Francesca has endured 4-hour drives (each day) to perform for 10 minutes for no pay, and made countless cold calls to impassive and busy television producers. But unlike her peers, she needs to do breathing and voice exercises before each show.

I don't take credit for my hard work and passion, she says. I think these qualities came from my family, which was very loving and very stable. Their overwhelming support and positivity are why there is no limit to my ambition. Even when the counsellors at Francesca's school were doubtful of entertainment as a career for a girl who struggled to walk and talk at a normal cadence, Alex told her, Go and follow your dreams, and if they don't work out, then you can reassess. Her parents were very encouraging - they were happy for her to leave formal education at 16 to act on television, and they let her spend her weekends clubbing with friends...

When asked about her 'follow your dream' advise, Alex says, We never put pressure on either of our kids to become doctors or lawyers or anything like that. I truly believe that when you do something you really want to do, it becomes a vocation. Francesca and her brother are incredibly hard workers, but they feel passionately about their subjects, so to them it's not at all oppressive.

Tina adds, It's just a question of creating the right environment - a soil that is nurturing, that is listening and responsive to their needs. Children carry within them the seeds of their own future. Their own interests will emerge if we trust them.

Francesca connects the unconditional support that her 'absurdly cool' parents lavished on her to the hope she maintained even when hope seemed lost. So much of sticking with things is believing you can do it. That belief comes from self-worth. And that comes from how others have made us feel in our lives.

So far, Alex and Tina seem the epitome of permissive parenting. Angela asked them whether they see themselves as such.

Actually, I'm allergic to spoiled children, Alex said. Children must be loved and accepted, but then, without complications, they need to be taught - 'No, you cannot hit your sister on the head with that stick. Yes, you must share. No, you don't get everything you want when you want it'. It's no-nonsense parenting.

As an example, Alex pushed Francesca to do the physical therapy exercises prescribed by her doctors. She hated them. For years, she and her father battled. Francesca couldn't understand why she couldn't simply work around her limitations, and Alex believed his responsibility was to stand firm. As she says in her book: Though happy in many ways, the next few years were punctuated with intense rows replete with door-bangings and tears and the throwing of objects.

Angela says, What strikes me about this aspect of Francesca's childhood is the notion that an affectionate, follow-your-dreams parents can nevertheless feel compelled to lay down the law on matters of discipline. Suddenly, the one-dimensional view of Alex and Tina as hippy-dippy parents seems incomplete.

So what can we learn from the stories of Steve Young and Francesca Martinez or from how other grit paragons describe their parents? Here are Angela's findings:

  1. First and foremost, there is no either/or trade-off between supportive parenting and demanding parenting. There is no reason why you can't do both. Both the families we looked at were child-centred in the sense that they clearly put their childrens' interests first, but neither family felt that children were always the better judge of what to do, how hard to work, and when to give up on things. Wise parenting or Authoritative parenting requires that the parents be accurate judges of the psychological needs of their children. They are demanding, yet supportive. They appreciate that children need love, limits, and latitude to reach their full potential. Their authority is based on knowledge and wisdom, rather than power.

  2. One of the major discoveries of parenting research is that what matters more than the messages parents aim to deliver are the messages their children receive. No matter how others perceive your parenting style, at the end of the day, it's the child's experience that really matters.

  3. Growing up with support, respect, and high standards confers a lot of benefits, one of which is especially relevant to grit - in other words, wise parenting encourages children to emulate their parents. When parents are loving, respectful, and demanding, children not only follow their example, they revere it. They do not just comply with their requests, they understand why they are making them. They become especially eager to pursue the same interests - for instance, it's no coincidence that Steve's father was himself a standout football player at BYU, or that Francesca, like her father, developed an early love of writing. Clearly, these exemplars of grit grew up not just imitating their parents but also emulating them.

One thing to note here is that not all children with psychologically wise parents will grow up to be gritty, because not all psychologically wise parents model grittiness. Angela says, if you want to bring forth grit in your child, first ask yourself how much passion and perseverance you have for your own life goals. Then ask yourself how likely is it that your approach to parenting encourages your child to emulate you. If the answer to the first question is 'a great deal', and your answer to the second is 'very likely', you're already parenting for grit.

Angela adds, it's not just mothers and fathers who lay the foundation for grit; there's a larger ecosystem of adults that extends beyond the nuclear family. All of us can play our part in being supportive but demanding mentors to other people's children and have a huge impact. There are some brilliant anecdotes in the book to support this.

One we understand how to parent for grit, the next step is too look for options to develop grit outside of our family.

The playing fields of grit

As a parent, Angela believes, like a lot of parents, that grit is enhanced by doing activities like ballet or piano or football or any structured extracurricular activity. She says, these activities have 2 important features that are hard to replicate in any other setting. First - there's an adult in charge - ideally, a supportive and demanding one - who is not the parent. Second, these pursuits are designed to cultivate interest, practice, purpose and hope.

Even though the evidence for such a bold recommendation is incomplete, Angela points to a research were kids were equipped with beepers to prompt them to report on what they're doing and how they feel at that very moment. When kids are in class, they report feeling challenged - but unmotivated. Hanging out with friends, in contrast, is not very challenging but super fun. But when kids are playing sports or music or rehearsing for the school play, they're both challenged and having fun. There is no experience in the lives of young people that reliably provides this combination of challenge and intrinsic motivation.

There are countless research studies showing that kids who are more involved in extracurriculars fare better on just about every conceivable metric - they earn better grades, have higher self-esteem, are less likely to get in trouble and so forth. And if extracurricular activities are a way of practicing grit, it stands to reason that they're especially beneficial when we do them for more than a year. In fact, lessons learned while working to improve from one season to the next come up repeatedly in Angela's interviews with paragons of grit.

Warren Willingham, the director of the personal qualities project, came up with some interesting revelations from his research that continued for years. Out of the initial 100+ possible predictors of later success in youth, follow-through won by a long stretch. The follow-through rating involved evidence of purposeful, continuous commitment to certain types of activities (in high school) versus sporadic efforts in diverse areas. To Angela, follow-through sounded a lot like grit. So she decided to replicate the result. Her research team calculated Grid Grid scores by quantifying multi year commitment and advancement in up to 2 activities. She found that:

Following through on our commitments while we grow up both requires grit and, at the same time, builds it

Psychologist Brent Robert and other personality researchers have since collected enough longitudinal data - following thousands of people across years and decades - to show that personalities do, in fact, change after childhood. They found that a key process in personality development involves situations and personality traits reciprocally 'calling' each other. The very traits that steer us toward certain life situations are the very same traits that those situations encourage, reinforce, and amplify.

Research suggests that the association between working hard and reward can be learned - it's dubbed learned industriousness

As a parent, how is Angela implementing her learnings? In her family, they have a 'Hard Thing Rule' - it has 3 parts.

  1. First is that everyone - including Mom and Dad - has to do a hard thing. A hard thing is something that requires daily deliberate practice. Psychological research is Angela's hard thing, along with Yoga. Dad tries to get better and better at being a real estate developer; he does the same with running. Her oldest daughter, Amanda, has chosen playing piano as her hard thing. She did ballet for years, but later quit. So did the younger one, Lucy.
  2. Secondly, you can quit, but you can't quit until the season is over, the tuition payment is up, or some other 'natural' stopping point has arrived. You must, at least for the interval to which you've committed yourself, finish what ever you begin. In other words, you can't quit on a day when your teacher yells at you, or you lose a race, or you have to miss a sleepover because of a recital the next morning. You can't quit on a bad day.
  3. Finally, the Hard Thing Rule states that you get to pick your hard thing. Nobody picks it for you because, after all, it would make no sense to do a hard thing you're not even vaguely interested in.

Angela says, Amanda will be in high school next year; her sister will follow the year after. At that point, a fourth rule will be added: each girl must commit to at least one activity, either something new or the piano and viola they've already started, for at least 'two' years. For parents who would like to encourage grit without obliterating their children's capacity to choose their own path, I recommend the Hard Thing Rule.

So now we know how to develop grit in children - either through wise parenting and/or by enrolling them in some multi-year structured activity of their choice. Now, to the third part - building a culture of grit.

Whether we realise it or not, the culture in which we live, and with which we identify, powerfully shapes just about every aspect of our being

Culture doesn't necessarily mean the geographic or political boundaries that divide people as much as the invisible psychological boundaries. At its core, a culture is defined by the shared norms and values of a group of people, Angela says. For example, Seattle Seahawks and KIPPsters do things in a certain way, and they do so for certain reasons. Likewise, West Point has a distinct culture - one that is more than 2 centuries old, and yet, continues to evolve.

The bottom line on culture and grit is: If you want to be grittier, find a gritty culture and join it. If you're a leader, and you want the people in your organisation to be grittier, create a gritty culture.

Sociologist Dan Chambliss, who spent the first 6 years of his professional life studying swimmers, points out: Speaking for myself, I don't have that much self discipline. But if I'm surrounded by people who are writing articles and giving lectures and working hard, I tend to fall in line. If I'm in a crowd of people doing things a certain way, I follow along.

The drive to fit in - to conform to the group - is powerful indeed. So it seems to me, Dan concluded, that there's a hard way to get grit and an easy way. The hard way is to do it by yourself. The easy way is to use conformity because if you're around a lot of people who are gritty, you're going to act grittier.

But sometimes, the calculated costs and benefits of passion and perseverance don't always add up, at least in the short run. It's often more 'sensible' to give up and move on. It can be years or more before grit's dividends pay off.

Another example of a gritty culture would be that of the Finns. Even though Finland is a tiny Nordic country, the Finns see themselves as one of the world's grittiest people. The Finns have a word similar to Grit - sisu (pronounced see-sue). Quite literally, sisu refers to the insides of a person, their guts. A typical Finn is an obstinate sort of fellow who believes in getting the better of bad fortune by proving that he can stand worse.

Angela wanted to understand how easy/difficult it is, to build such a culture. So, along with a Finnish graduate student Emelia, Angela conducted a research on the Finnish culture. When asked, Do you think sisu can be learned or developed through conscious effort?, 83% said, 'Yes'. One respondent then offered: For example, participation in Finnish scouting association jaunts, where 13-year-olds may be in charge of 10-year-olds alone in the woods, seems to have some correlation with sisu.

Angela says, As a scientist, I don't take seriously the notion that Finns, or members of any nationality, have actual reserves of energy hidden in their intestines, awaiting release at the critical moment. Still, there are two powerful lessons we can take from sisu.

Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JPMorgan Chase says,

Failures are going to happen, and how you deal with them may be the most important thing in whether you succeed. You need fierce resolve. You need to take responsibility. You call it grit. I call it fortitude

In short, culture can play a crucial role in developing your grit.

With that, we get to the end of this book summary. Let me conclude with the following:

But Angela is quick to add: Grit is not the only thing I want my children to develop as they round the corner from childhood to maturity. If forced to choose between greatness and goodness, I would put goodness first. In fact, morality trumps all other aspects of character in importance.

Grit isn't everything. There are many other things a person needs in order to grow and flourish. Character is plural.

One way to think about grit is to understand how it relates to other aspects of character. Angela says, in assessing grit along with other virtues, I find 3 reliable clusters. I refer to them as intrapersonal, interpersonal, and intellectual dimensions of character. You could also call them strengths of will, heart, and mind.

Intrapersonal character includes grit. This cluster of virtues also includes self-control, particularly as it relates to resisting temptations like texting and video games. Collectively, these virtues that make possible the accomplishment of personally valued goals have also been called 'performance character' or 'self-management skills'.

Interpersonal character includes gratitude, social intelligence, and self-control over emotions like anger. These virtues help you get along with, and provide assistance to, other people.

And finally, intellectual character includes virtues like curiosity and zest. These encourage active and open engagement with the world of ideas.

We need a good combination of all of them to be a well-rounded human being. Angela's longitudinal studies show that these three virtue clusters predict different outcomes. For academic achievement, including stellar report card grades, the cluster containing grit is the most predictive. But for positive social functioning, including how many friends you have, interpersonal character is more important. And for a positive, independent posture towards learning, intellectual virtue trumps others. The plurality of character operates against any one virtue being uniquely important.

Parting thought: More often than not, our limits are self-imposed. To be gritty is to keep putting one foot in front of the other. To be gritty is to invest, day after week after year, in challenging practice. To be gritty is to fall down seven times, and rise eight...

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.