In Professor Angela Duckworth’s TED talk, she says of her research: “One characteristic emerged as a significant predictor of success. And it wasn’t social intelligence. It wasn’t good looks, physical health, and it wasn’t IQ. It was grit.”
The effusive blurbs on the book cover go even beyond Professor Duckworth’s own dramatic pronouncements: Daniel Gilbert, the author of Stumbling on Happiness, says: “Psychologists have spent decades searching for the secret of success, but Duckworth is the one who has found it…She not only tells us what it is, but how to get it.”
Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking (which we’ve looked at previously in an episode on supporting your introverted child) says: “Impressively fresh and original…Grit scrubs away preconceptions about how far our potential can take us…Buy this, send copies to your friends, and tell the world that there is, in fact, hope. We can all dazzle.”
Don’t we all want to dazzle? Don’t we all want our children to dazzle? Is grit the thing that will help them do it?
It turns out that Professor Duckworth’s own research says: perhaps not. Listen in to learn how much grit is a good thing, how to help your child be grittier, and why it might not be the factor that assures their success.
Other episodes mentioned in this show
Crede, M., Tynan, M.C., & Harms, P.D. (2017). Much ado about grit: A meta-analytic synthesis of the grit literature. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 113(3), 492-511.
Del Giudice, M. (2014, October 14). Grit trumps talent and IQ: A story every parent (and educator) should read. National Geographic. Retrieved from http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/10/141015-angela-duckworth-success-grit-psychology-self-control-science-nginnovators/
Denby, D. (2016, June 21). The limits of “grit.” The New Yorker. Retrieved from https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/the-limits-of-grit
Duckworth, A.L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M.D., & Kelly, D.R. (2007). Grit: Perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 92(6), 1087-1101. Full article available at https://www.ronaldreaganhs.org/cms/lib7/WI01001304/Centricity/Domain/187/Grit%20JPSP.pdf
Duckworth, A.L., & Yeager, D.S. (2015). Measurement matters: Assessing personal qualities other than cognitive abilities for educational purposes. Educational Researcher 44(4), 237-251.
Duckworth, A.L. (2016). Grit: The power of passion and perseverance. New York, NY: Scribner. (Affiliate link)
Eskreis-Winkler, L., Shulman, E.P., Young, V., Tsukayama, E., Brunwasaser, S.M., & Duckworth, A.L. (2016). Using wise interventions to motivate deliberate practice. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 111(5), 728-744.
Farrington, C.A., Roderick, M., Allensworth, E., Nagoka, J., Keyes, T.S., Johnson, D.W., & Beechum, N.O. (2012). Teaching adolescents to become learners: The role of noncognitive factors in shaping school performance: A critical literature review. The University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research. Retrieved from https://consortium.uchicago.edu/sites/default/files/publications/Noncognitive%20Report.pdf
Forsyth, D.R., & Kerr, N.A. (1999, August). Are adaptive illusions adaptive? Poster presented at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association, Boston, MA.
Hannon, B. (2014). Predicting college success: The relative contributions of five social/personality factors, five cognitive/earning factors, and SAT scores. Journal of Educational and Training Studies 2(4), 46-58.
Heckman, J.J. (2013). Giving kids a fair chance (A strategy that works). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Kamenetz, A. (2016, May 25). MacArthur ‘genius’ Angela Duckworth responds to a new critique of grit. NPR. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2016/05/25/479172868/angela-duckworth-responds-to-a-new-critique-of-grit
Kapoor, M.L. (2017, June 27). 12 books expelled from Tucson schools. High Country News. Retrieved from http://www.hcn.org/articles/education-tucsons-mexican-american-studies-ban-goes-back-to-court
Kohn, A. (2014). Grit: A skeptical look at the latest educational fad. Author. Retrieved from http://www.alfiekohn.org/article/grit/
No byline. (1998, March 15). Weddings; Jason Duckworth, Angela Lee. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/1998/03/15/style/weddings-jason-duckworth-angela-lee.html
Sparks, S.D. (2015, June 2). ‘Nation’s Report Card’ to gather data on grit, mindset. Education Week. Retrieved from http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2015/06/03/nations-report-card-to-gather-data-on.html
The Leadership Conference. (2015, May 5). Civil rights groups: “We oppose anti-testing efforts.” Author. Retrieved from https://civilrights.org/civil-rights-groups-we-oppose-anti-testing-efforts/
The Learning Project Elementary School. Website. Author. Retrieved from http://www.learningproject.org/
The Nation’s Report Card (n.d.). Percentage of fourth-grade students at or above Proficient not significantly different compared to 2013. Author. Retrieved from https://www.nationsreportcard.gov/reading_math_2015/#reading/acl?grade=4
Tough, P. (2016). Helping children succeed: What works and why. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Useem, J. (2016, May). Is grit overrated: The downsides of dogged, single-minded persistence. The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/05/is-grit-overrated/476397/
Zernike, K. (2016, February 29). Testing for joy and grit? Schools nationwide push to measure students’ emotional skills. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/01/us/testing-for-joy-and-grit-schools-nationwide-push-to-measure-students-emotional-skills.html?_r=0
Hello and welcome to the Your Parenting Mojo podcast. We have a pretty interesting topic lined up for today, or I think so at least: we’re going to talk about grit. If you’ve heard about grit over the last couple of years it’s probably because of one woman named Angela Duckworth, who is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and who invented what she calls The Grit Scale – she won a MacArthur Genius award for her research on grit in 2013. She tells a story about how she developed this scale that goes like this: several years ago the U.S. Army was having trouble figuring out which of their 1200 new cadets were going to make it through the grueling 7-week training program at West Point, and which were going to flunk out. They had developed their own measure called the Whole Candidate Score, which was a weighted average of SAT or ACT exam scores, high school rank, expert appraisal of leadership potential, and performance on physical fitness tests, but it turned out that the Whole Candidate Score actually wasn’t very good at predicting who would make it through the 7-week training. In 2004, Professor Duckworth gave the Grit Scale that she’d been developing to the incoming class of West Point cadets which asks questions like how likely you are to get discouraged by setbacks and how often your interests change, and it turned out that while the quitters had indistinguishable Whole Candidate Scores from the cadets who made it through the training, the Grit Scale was an “astoundingly reliable” predictor of who made it through training and who did not.
At this point you might be wondering how gritty you are yourself which is easy to test: just Google “Grit Scale” and hit the first link that pops up; I’ll put the link in the references as well. (I just took it and I scored 4.5 on a scale of 1-5, which is apparently higher than 90% of the population “in a recent study” that isn’t named). I guess I’m not enormously surprised; I think of myself as a pretty determined person; I think carefully before signing up to a project or a goal but once I sign up I’m *in* and am 100% committed to the end. So grit isn’t about talent or luck or how intensely you might want something *in the moment,* but instead it’s about your passion and perseverance for long-term goals. The test is pretty easy to fake, though – it’s not hard to guess what the ‘right’ answer is when you have to rate your response to the statement “I am a hard worker” or “I am diligent. I never give up.”
Professor Duckworth wrote about all this in her 2016 book “Grit: The power of passion and perseverance,” which I read recently. My first instinct after reading a book that seems pretty good and is well-referenced is to reach out to the author and ask if she might like to be interviewed, but then I started doing some reading around. The first thing I found was a long profile of her in National Geographic, of all places, saying that she routinely declines requests for interviews, including the one from the National Geographic journalist, who finally tracked down her personal phone number and reached her directly – apparently the journalist’s grittiness persuaded Professor Duckworth to do the interview. And then secondly I found some studies saying that maybe – just maybe – grit isn’t quite such the big deal that Professor Duckworth makes it out to be – she hopes it will be the thing we can teach poor children that will help them to succeed in school, and it turns out that that is far from clear. So ultimately I decided we could have more fun by digging into this ourselves and seeing, by the end of the episode, whether grit is a trait we want to try to encourage in our children – or not.
So we’ve said that grit is about passion and perseverance. Professor Duckworth spends most of her book talking about the perseverance side of the equation, so we’ll just touch briefly on passion first. Passion is sparked by an interest; an intrinsic enjoyment in what you do. I wrote my psychology master’s thesis on what motivates children to learn so I can say she’s right on the mark here; we don’t know much about what it is that get us interested in a topic, but once we are interested in it if we learn more about it (and are encouraged to learn more about it by the people we love), that interest can blossom into a passion. Professor Duckworth provides case studies throughout the book of highly successful people she’s interviewed, as well as some highly successful people who she apparently wasn’t able to interview but she read their books and quotes them as if she had interviewed them, and I think it’s fair to say that all of them were passionate about their work. This isn’t too hard to wrap your head around; a lot of studies have come to the conclusion that people are not only happier but they perform better when they are interested in their work. For many people, this interest is linked to the concept of purpose – the idea that their work somehow matters in the world, because it’s connected to the wellbeing of others (or, I suppose to another thing, like the planet). As a side note, the book never resolves the tension between applying the concept of grit to classroom-based learning, and the fact that interest and passion are a key component of grit. Unfortunately, much of learning in school is not based on students’ interest; it’s based on what other people say they think students *should* find interesting. So in a way, if we’re looking at grit as a way of improving student outcomes (which Professor Duckworth apparently hopes we can do), we’re trying to improve students’ perseverance on things they don’t care much about. It seems like that could be a problem. But we’ll come back to that later.
In addition to passion and purpose, Professor Duckworth briefly mentions that hope is apparently important as well; a rising-to-the-occasion kind of perseverance that keeps us going when things get tough, and to get back up when we get knocked down.
But the bulk of the book is dedicated to the perseverance component of grit, so that’s where we’re going to spend the most time as well. Professor Duckworth describes perseverance as the capacity to practice – after you’ve developed an interest in an area, it’s the devotion to a rigorous, committed, never-ending practice that leads to mastery. It’s finding your weaknesses and addressing them, day after day, and saying “whatever it takes, I want to improve!.” Our society is actually quite biased against the kind of practice it takes to be great. We want to believe it happened because a person was deeply talented. Professor Chia-Jung Tsay at University College London conducted an experiment where she had professional musicians listen to clips of two musicians playing the piano – one is described as an innately talented player while the other is a ‘striver’ who has worked hard. The professional researchers didn’t know that the two players were actually the same player, playing different parts of the same piece. In direct contradiction to their stated beliefs about the importance of effort versus talent, the professional musicians said the naturally talented pianists to be more likely to succeed and more hireable. In a follow-up study, a set of adults read a profile of a ‘striver’ entrepreneur, while another set read a profile of a ‘naturally talented’ entrepreneur. All participants then listened to the same audio recording of a business proposal and were told it was made by the entrepreneur they’d read about. Again, the naturally talented entrepreneur was judged as more likely to be successful and more hireable. When the participants were asked to back one entrepreneur or the other, the striver had to have four more years of leadership experience and an additional $40,000 in start-up capital before the participants were as likely to invest with the striver than with the natural. As a profile of Professor Duckworth in The Atlantic so eloquently put it, “We don’t like strivers because they invite self-comparisons. If what separates, say, Roger Federer from you and me is nothing but the number of hours spent at “deliberate practice” – as the most extreme behaviorists argue – our enjoyment of the U.S. Open could be interrupted by the thought There but for the grace of grit go I.”
So as a society we value natural talent, but if hard work gets people to the same place and they can just hide the hard work, we can be accepting of that as well. We don’t want to see those hours of practice or the mistakes that went into making something great (the Atlantic article author, Jerry Useem, did as Professor Duckworth suggested and tried to find video footage of people practicing, and wasn’t able to find much at all. He said the closest he got was the discovery of an early Rolling Stones draft of “Start Me Up,” which apparently does not work at all well as a reggae tune).
The attractiveness of the perseverance narrative, of course, cannot be underestimated for an American audience. We might prioritize talent above all else, but the country’s story is built on the idea of the value of hard work and its ability to lift you out of whatever circumstances you might find yourself in. It’s the old Protestant work ethic in new clothes. The narrative isn’t always true, of course: there are plenty of people who find themselves in circumstances that hard work cannot get them out of, despite what conservative politicians might have us believe. But I think the idea that they should *try anyway* is very American – perhaps this partly explains why Professor Duckworth’s book is ranked number 286 in all books on Amazom.com, but only number 764 on Amazon.co.uk. Hardly a scientific study, of course, since Professor Duckworth is American and does a lot more publicity work here, but perhaps the difference in culture is one factor.
Professor Steven Maier at the University of Colorado has done a lot of work on understanding how rats respond to stress. He found that if he gave young rats electric shocks that they could switch off by turning a wheel, they grew up to be more adventurous than normal rats. But young rats who had no control over the duration of their electric shocks grew up with what psychologists call “learned helplessness” – if they were shocked as adults, they behaved very timidly. When I think about the cultural implications of this, I imagine American children in disadvantaged circumstances pushing against the sides of the box in which they find themselves, getting shocked over and over again, and learning not to push any more. But being English myself, I imagine English children looking at the box in which they find themselves and thinking “yup, it’s a box. I’m supposed to be in a box.” And they don’t even try to touch the sides.
So there are a number of ideas to explore here. Professor Duckworth was a math teacher before she went back to graduate school; first she taught in a private school (although its website says it is not and has never been a “fancy private school” that is “chiefly interested in serving whoever wishes to enroll.” Later, she taught in the only public school in San Francisco that admits students on the basis of academic merit. As an aside here, Professor Duckworth doesn’t mention that the school in New York was private and actually implies it was a pretty gritty public school when she says that most of her students “lived in the housing projects clustered between Avenues A and D” in Manhattan, which made me think that her students were from a disadvantaged background but then I found out that the tuition is listed on the school’s website as $20,500/year for incoming kindergarteners. When she got to San Francisco, one of her students was in her ‘regular’ math class rather than ‘Advanced Placement’ math class but he turned in consistently perfect work, so she got him transferred to the AP class. He didn’t always get As in the AP class, but he went to the teacher and asked for help when he needed it, and he ultimately ended up getting a PhD in mechanical engineering from UCLA – he quite literally became a rocket scientist. This is just one example of how some of Professor Duckworth’s former students appeared to be using effort to overcome potential deficiencies in talent and effort. Now isn’t that an attractive idea? That just through persistent, dogged, hard work, students who are at some kind of disadvantage can overcome the shadow of their backgrounds? Even though the public high school in San Francisco that Professor Duckworth taught at was the only one in the city that admits students based on academic merit so once again, these are hardly highly disadvantaged students.
Because it is such an attractive idea, some schools are already beginning to implement curricular changes to teach grit. Professor Duckworth is affiliated with the Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP group of charter schools, which actually grades children’s levels of grit. The tests for the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which is how we say “54% of American fourth graders read at a basic or below-basic level in 2015” – which is a true statistic, by the way – is going to start including measures of what is known as “noncognitive skills” – which are grit, desire for learning, school climate, technology use, and socioeconomic status. The Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, which is the test that compares how badly our students are doing compared with those in other countries (we’re around number 22-24 for reading literacy based on 2015 data, depending on how many of China’s different territories are separated out or lumped together) is going to start measuring grit too. Schools in nine California districts have started teaching grit and are going to test students on it as well, although in an irony of ironies, they’re using behavioral modification techniques to do it. So they’re not teaching students to be gritty for the sake of getting better at something that’s important to them, but to see how long they can behave respectfully in class so they can win a prize like 20 seconds of putting their feet on their desks or playing rock-paper-scissors. Seriously, I couldn’t imagine a worse way to implement this. It also reminds me of the failed attempt to instill self-esteem in Californian students in the 1980s and 1990s as part of an effort to make Californians more responsible and productive citizens – and save the State a bundle of money by doing so that we discussed in our earlier episode on self-esteem. It turned out that self-esteem wasn’t causally linked with academic performance at all; we still can’t say whether increasing self-esteem will cause a child’s academic performance to improve; it might just be that students who do well in school have high self-esteem as a result. We covered that in much greater depth in the episode called Don’t bother trying to improve your child’s self-esteem.
And it turns out that even Professor Duckworth is against this – she has resigned from the board of the group overseeing the roll-out in California, saying she couldn’t support using grit tests to evaluate school performance. (As an aside, when I was doing research for a paper on multicultural issues in education I was surprised to find a statement from a coalition of civil rights groups representing minorities opposing programs to opt out of standardized testing, because standardized tests are the best measure that these groups have of the disparities in educational outcomes that their students attain. I do wonder if testing for grit could achieve a similar aim?) Professor Duckworth went into much more detail about her hesitation to measure grit in a paper she co-authored with Professor David Yeager of the University of Texas at Austin, which she wrote after she was summoned to the White House to discuss how grit could be used to improve achievement in schools. The paper provides a non-exhaustive list of 12 limitations of questionnaires and performance tasks used to assess things like grit. These limitations include the teacher or student (whoever is doing the reporting) misinterpreting the researcher’s intent in asking the question, the questions may not take into account changes that occur over time (so if I just forgot my homework once last week I might say I’m “less reliable” than if I forgot my homework once last year), and, as we’ve seen, the tests are ridiculously easy to fake. Professors Duckworth and Yeager suggest several elements of a path forward, firstly arguing that if we must measure grit, we should use multiple measures of the characteristics we’re interested in, which can be more reliable than just using one measure. Secondly, if we can come up with a way to measure grit that yields acceptable results and overcomes issues of differing language ability, cultural norms, and the like, we don’t yet have great information about what to do with that information on a state-wide or nation-wide basis. We can’t say “students who scored below a 2 on the grit scale should get intervention X to improve their grittiness” because students have different reasons for not being gritty and won’t all respond to a specific intervention in the same way. Thirdly, it is likely to be far more practical to assess an individual student’s grittiness as part of the “web of daily instruction” that can tailor instruction to a student’s individual needs. Finally, the authors conclude their introduction to the paper by saying that “not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts,” which I think we should take as a maxim.
But what if we were somehow, magically or otherwise, able to overcome the issues of measuring grit, would that help struggling students to get ahead? Once again, the allure is strong – could we give students from poor backgrounds? Professor Maier – who did the experiments on shocking rats – says about these children: “I worry a lot about kids in poverty. They’re getting a lot of helplessness experiences. They’re not getting enough mastery experiences. They’re not learning: ‘I can do this. I can succeed in that.’ My speculation is that those earlier experiences can have really enduring effects. You need to learn that there’s a contingency between your actions and what happens to you: ‘If I do something, then something will happen.’” The problem here is that the approach assumes that poor children and prosperous children are essentially the same except for their lack of mastery experiences, and if we could shift that, we could shift their outcomes. But David Denby, writing in the New Yorker, argues that this is not the case. Kids who grow up in harsh environments can be badly hurt before they even leave infancy, and those harsh environments are often associated with poverty. It’s not to say that poverty causes stress in children, but that conditions children find stressful are often found in poor households (although they can certainly also be found in some rich households too). David Denby’s argument is based on journalist Paul Tough’s 2012 book Helping Children Succeed which argues that stress causes at least two reactions in children: chronic stress causes chronically elevated levels of the hormone cortisol, which can compromise the child’s immune system, and also create a stress-response system that is over-prepared to fight back. Paul Tough says “Small setbacks feel like crushing defeats; tiny slights turn into serious confrontations. In school, a highly sensitive stress-response system constantly on the lookout for threats can produce patterns of behavior that are self-defeating: fighting, talking back, acting up in class, and also, more subtly, going through each day perpetually wary of connection with peers and resistant to outreach from teachers and other adults.” Secondly excessive stress in early childhood can damage the development of the prefrontal cortex, which means that executive functions like memory, self-regulation, and cognitive flexibility don’t develop properly, and these are exactly the types of brain structures that are needed for a person to develop grit. So it’s entirely possible that we could ‘diagnose’ a child as having ‘low grit,’ but find that it was caused by circumstances entirely beyond their control and which they may be powerless to change because it has become a structural part of their brain. Potential solutions to this problem abound, from improving parenting skills to providing better infant nutrition; from improving the quality of preschools to making them more affordable. But in the current political climate, it seems unlikely that we are going to see any investment in children even if it would most likely save a lot of money in the long run. “You’d better have that baby,” they say, “but you’re on your own in figuring out how to care for it.”
Getting off my soapbox – the political one, at least – I also want to take issue with the overall goals of developing grittiness. The book is stuffed with case studies on businesspeople like Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates. Kat Cole is also featured: she was raised by a single mother and rose from being a waitress at Hooters (which, for those of you who live in more enlightened cultures, is a restaurant where the invariably beautiful waitresses wear low-cut tops and very short shorts) to being the CEO of Cinnabon, which sells calorically intense but otherwise nutritionally devoid baked goods and is now the Group President of Focus Brands, which owns Cinnabon as well as a half dozen other restaurants serving food of suspect nutritional quality. In her paper arguing against the measurement of Grit, Professor Duckworth says that the Grit Scale was developed through exploratory interviews with lawyers, businesspeople, academics, and other professionals. But when you think about this some more, you come up with some troubling problems. Firstly, Jeff Bezos appears several times in the book, and each time you get a glimpse of either his creativity or his passion. His persistence is never discussed. Bill Gates used to decide which software programmers to hire by giving them a task that he knew would require hours of tedious troubleshooting, to see which ones would stick with the task. No mention is made of their passion, and did they all go on to be *incredible* programmers? We have no idea. So do the two really always go together? Recruiting high-achieving people and then designing a theory to fit around them isn’t exactly a scientifically valid way to understand what really makes people successful. How would we know what qualities other than grit contribute to their success? And how would we know about what prompted people who have been successful but aren’t gritty to achieve that success? We need a random sampling of successful people to understand how important grit has been to their success, not a selection of successful people who agree to be interviewed because success has been important to them, supplemented with quotes from successful people’s autobiographies that support the case for grit.
And while we can’t argue that going from being raised by a single working mother who struggled to make ends meet to a CEO probably takes both persistence and passion, is this really the kind of passion we want in our world? The kind where our goal is to use women’s bodies to peddle chicken wings and convince people they need a cinnamon roll that provides them with almost half of their recommended daily caloric intake? David Denby, the author of the New Yorker article, says that Professor Duckworth worked with the founder of KIPP and the head of a private school in New York to distil a long list of character traits into seven virtues. Grit is one; the others are self-control, zest, optimism, social intelligence, gratitude, and curiosity. Denby notes that this list is devoid of any mention of anything like honesty, courage, integrity, kindliness, responsibility for others, ethics, or moral development. Indeed, at the beginning of Grit, when Professor Duckworth mentions the importance of being driven by a sense of purpose, but it seems as though this purpose exists only to serve the individual. David Denby observes that the list “would seem to be preparing children for personal success only – doing well at school, getting into college, getting a job, especially a corporate job where such docility as is suggested by these approved traits (like gratitude) would be much appreciated by managers. Putting it politically, the character inculcated in these students is perfectly suited to producing corporate drones in a capitalist economy. Putting it morally and existentially, the list is timid and empty.”
I’ve done a lot of reading over the last couple of years about where power lies in society and in schools, and I have to say that I agree with Denby’s critique. We might know and choose not to think about it, or we might just never have thought of it before, as I had not before I started studying for all these master’s degrees, but one of the major purposes of school is to pass on society’s culture and values to the next generation of children. It is the government (the national government in many societies, with power increasingly being devolved to the states here in the U.S.) that sets educational policy and works with private corporations to determine the curriculum that students must learn and will be tested on. Standardized tests are couched in the language of student success, but ultimately what we want them to be successful at is getting a job, so they can earn money, pay taxes, and create demand for American products. And it’s not just “generic” culture that’s passed on, it’s the cultural values of the dominant culture, which is why it’s acceptable in schools to use language in the way that most white children do and not like many black children do. Families who don’t speak English well are assumed to have values, histories, and ways of learning that are inferior to those of the dominant culture, and *if only these families could learn to do things our way,* their children would get on so much better in our society. Given what we’ve learned about the potential futility of telling children who have experienced emotional trauma when they were very young to “be grittier,” is it possible that children from non-dominant cultures may also find that there are reasons that they cannot or would not want to increase their own levels of grit? Perhaps the single-minded pursuit of excellence that Professor Duckworth espouses might be less-than-compatible with the familial emphasis of Latinos, for example, who may not make decisions about individuals without consulting with the family?
Paul Tough’s book Helping Children Succeed quotes a section of a report from 2012 called Teaching Adolescents to Become Learners which was written by Professor Camille Farrington and her colleagues. Her review of the research on grit found that it actually may not be possible to instill a universal sense of grit in children, but it might be possible to increase their gritty actions in specific circumstances, like in studying at school. There are four key beliefs that cause a student to persevere more in the classroom, and these are firstly a sense that “I belong in this community,” secondly that “my ability and confidence grow with my effort,” thirdly that “I can succeed at this,” and fourthly “This work has value for me.” We don’t have the time here to dissect each of these beliefs in-depth, but I want to briefly address two of them. Let’s take the last one first: “This work has value for me.” As we’ve already said, this is obviously a challenge in school where for most of the day someone else has determined what the student has learned and how they will learn it, and the students learn that the best reason to persevere is that they get to put their feet up on their desks if they do. The first one, “I belong in this community,” is also a tough one for students who don’t belong to the dominant culture when *everything we teach in schools* says that they don’t actually belong. We teach Native Americans that whites had a right to settle across the United States through their belief in Manifest Destiny; the first – and often last – thing we teach about black people is that slavery happened to them, and the State of Arizona prohibits students in predominantly-Latino schools from taking a Mexican-American Studies course even though students in the course showed higher academic achievement than students who didn’t. More than half of our students are now of a race other than white, but over 80% of teachers are white. Many studies have shown that it’s difficult for people in general and teachers in particular to have empathy for people who are different from them, and empathy is a critical precursor for developing the kind of relationship with a student that would lead them to believe “I belong in this community.”
So who, then, is grit for? Is it possible that it’s mostly for white and Asian parents (Professor Duckworth’s maiden name is Lee; her parents were immigrants from China) who seem to care most about wanting their children to ‘get ahead’? And how much can it actually help them to get ahead anyway? Well, perhaps not as much as we might think from reading Grit and from watching Professor Duckworth’s TED talk. Professor Marcus Crede (which might be pronounced “Creday”) published a study in 2017 called “Much Ado About Grit: A Meta-Analytic Synthesis of the Grit Literature.” Anya Kamenetz, a journalist for NPR, pored through that highly technical paper and simplified one of its key findings for us. In 2009, Professor Duckworth and a co-author said that West Point Cadets’ score on the grit test was highly predictive of whether or not they would make it through basic training. The exact phrase they used was “Cadets who scored a standard deviation higher than average on the Grit-S were 99% more likely to complete summer training.” But it turns out that while the tables and statistics in Professor Duckworth’s paper are entirely correct, her phrasing leads us to believe that the grittiest cadets are 99% more likely to get through basic training – perhaps they bounce from 40% to close to 80%. But what actually happened was that 95% of all cadets get through basic training, compared to 98% of the very “grittiest candidates.” The difference is that the *odds* of making it through improved by 99% – or in other words, by three percentage points. Professor Duckworth conceded this point in an email to Anya Kamenetz, reiterating that the tables and statistical analysis is correct, and her intent was not to mislead. Professor Duckworth doesn’t cite the statistics in her book, but she does describe the study in a way that implies that the grit score makes a massive difference between who succeeds and who fails: “By the last day of basic training, 71 cadets had dropped out. Grit turned out to be an astoundingly reliable predictor of who made it through and who did not. The next year, I returned to West Point to run the same study. This time, sixty two candidates dropped out, and again grit predicted who would stay. In contrast, stayers and leavers had indistinguishable Whole Candidate Scores. So what matters for making it through basic training? Not your SAT scores, not your high school rank, not your leadership experience, not your athletic ability. Not your Whole Candidate Score. What matters is grit.” The association between grit and success is held up high throughout the book, as well as in Professor Duckworth’s TED talk, where she says “One characteristic emerged as a significant predictor of success. And it wasn’t social intelligence. It wasn’t good looks, physical health, and it wasn’t IQ. It was grit.” As Alfie Kohn points out, though, what does this actually prove? That people who say on a questionnaire that they stick with things actually stick with things? Surely what Professor Duckworth is actually testing is the cadets’ honesty, not their grit?
The effusive blurbs on the book cover go even beyond Professor Duckworth’s own dramatic pronouncements: Daniel Gilbert, the author of Stumbling on Happiness, says “Psychologists have spent decades searching for the secret of success, but Duckworth is the one who has found it…She not only tells us what it is, but how to get it.” Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking (which we’ve looked at previously in an episode on supporting your introverted child) says “Impressively fresh and original…Grit scrubs away preconceptions about how far our potential can take us…Buy this, send copies to your friends, and tell the world that there *is,* in fact, hope. We can *all* dazzle.”
Don’t we all want to dazzle? Don’t we all want to know the secret that will help us do it? Well, it turns out that grit might not actually be *the* secret. Professor Crede’s meta-analysis reviewed 88 studies, and found the correlation of 0.18 between grit and academic success. For those of you who have been out of school for a while, a correlation describes a relationship between two factors, or variables. A correlation of 0 says there is no relationship between the variables and a correlation of 1 says there’s a perfect relationship. And most importantly, correlation and causation are very different. Just because we can say there’s a relationship, doesn’t mean we can say which variable impacts the other. Professor Duckworth herself found a correlation of 0.2, which she says are what personality psychologists would describe as a “small-to-medium” effect. Now a correlation of 0.2 isn’t nothing; I was recently corresponding with a friend who is on the verge of getting a Ph.D in something I don’t fully understand related to global health which has a very heavy statistics component, about the impact of homework on academic outcomes. It turns out that the correlation there is about 0.16 – so, lower than the correlation for grit, and my friend described the homework correlation as “not a bad correlation at all in the real world; it’s the difference between failing a class and getting a C, or going form a B to an A+.” So grit is one of a host of factors that predicts student success, and is not as high a predictor as, say, either a SAT score or a high school GPA on a student’s first year college GPA, which have correlations in the neighborhood of 0.5, and is hardly the single unique quality that will enable all of us to dazzle.
It would also be remiss of us if we failed to examine whether grit is even a trait we *want* to encourage. Because by encouraging grit, we have to *discourage* something else. If we encourage single-minded pursuit of academic success, we’re discouraging the other things that student could be spending time on, like being creative, or simply being a generalist: some careers require expertise in one topic, but others derive a great deal of value from pulling together disparate experiences into a whole greater than its parts. If we encourage our children to demonstrate their proficiency on standardized tests, they necessarily have less time available to spend on something they might have chosen to study and pursued with single-minded passion, if they had had the time. Grades and test results are someone else’s judgment of how well a student is doing. If a student were instead engaged in something they actually found interesting themselves, it’s much more likely that they would become their own toughest critic, because they would actually care about the work products, not just the A at the end.
So, as usual, we draw to a close by asking what parents are supposed to do with this information. Well, if you’re a white or Asian parent, I guess you should start by acknowledging that if your child is in one of these schools down the road from my house, where I know a decent number of my listeners live, and if grit is being touted in that school as the amazing thing that’s going to level the playing field for historically disadvantaged students, then now you know there’s a good chance that grit is not going to be the thing that ‘saves’ these students. In fact, there’s a good chance that grit is going to be the thing that puts ever-more distance between these students and your student, who may come from a relatively more well-advantaged background. And that grit may be the thing that helps your student to succeed in school, and college, and in the corporate world, if that’s important to you.
So if after all that you’re thinking grit *is* something you’d like to nurture, how do you do it? Well, first, allow your child to experiment with lots of different activities. If they enjoy ballet or soccer or whatever for one class then they might want to participate for a season, but they might not. Ask your child. Make this initial learning more like play than learning if possible. This approach is more likely to hold your child’s interest, and experimenting with different activities gives them a chance to gain context for what they like and what they don’t.
Once the child does commit to the activity, make sure they understand the value of deliberate practice that’s designed to identify their weaknesses and work on these so they’re no longer weak. One of Professor Duckworth’s studies found that students who had learned about deliberate practice were more likely to give advice to other students related to practicing, and were also more likely to choose to do more deliberate practice in math rather than messing about on social media. For those who hadn’t been doing well in school, this led to increased performance as measured by their grades. The students receiving the self-esteem message actually did worse on the next test, possibly because the message encouraged them to feel better about themselves regardless of the work they put in, which removed the motivation to work hard and resulted in lower test performance. So once your child settles on an activity, make practice a habit; something they don’t even have to think about starting every day.
Next, don’t be afraid of allowing your child to fail. Really; that’s how they learn. Toddlers fail all the time; then they get up and try again. When we rush over to help them out, we teach them that failing is shameful; something to be feared. Once you fear failure, you won’t stick your neck out and take a risk, which makes it more difficult to get better.
When your child comes to you with a success or a failure, what you say next tells them how you view their success or failure. If you say “You’re a natural!,” you show that you value innate talent. If you say “You’re a learner!” you show that you value the effort it took to do the activity, even if your child isn’t a natural at it. If you say “well, at least you tried,” your child may not learn to pick herself up and try again. If you say “Well, that didn’t work. Let’s talk about how you approached it and what might work better,” your child learns that failure is just another step on the learning journey. These examples might sound familiar to you as being related to what Professor Carol Dweck calls the growth mindset; the idea that qualities like intelligence are not fixed, but can be changed through learning. We’ll have to do an episode on that sometime Over time, your child will internalize these ideas as self-talk that she can use to reframe her own failures into lessons from which she can learn. But she may still need your helping hand to identify new strategies to try; to suggest people who may be able to offer expertise; to just listen while she figures things out. In many ways, it’s a harder role than just fixing the thing for her. In the longer run, it’s likely to pay off.
But the best lesson I got out of Grit, and one that I plan to put into effect in our house, is called the Hard Thing rule, which has three parts. Firstly, everyone in the family has to do a hard thing – something that requires daily deliberate practice. I’m already doing mine; my research for this podcast and my master’s in education is my hard thing. I love it, but it’s still hard work – especially the statistics part. Although my husband says that my hard thing should be cleaning the house. He definitely thinks I need the practice at that. My daughter isn’t really old enough at three to choose a hard thing, but in a few years I’ll ask her to choose one. My husband is having a hard time deciding on his hard thing; his best suggestion yet is to stop looking at his phone during every free second of the day.
The second part of the hard thing rule is the part I like the best: you can quit, but not until a natural stopping point has arrived – the season is over, the tuition payment is up, or something like that. Carys isn’t in any classes yet but I’d been wondering what might be the appropriate balance of *sticking with* something without forcing her to do it for my sake rather than hers. The idea is that you have to finish what you committed to in the beginning, which means you can’t just quit on a bad day. The final part of the hard thing rule is that *you* get to pick your hard thing. Obviously you should pick something you enjoy and you should let your child pick something she enjoys. You don’t get to force her into piano lessons for her hard thing if she prefers soccer (or football). (Again, note the irony of allowing your child to pick their hard thing – but somehow hoping, without any apparent evidence, that the resulting grit will translate to environments where passion is not present that is contradicted by the evidence found in Professor Farrington’s report.) Interest in the topic should help to get you (or your child) through the bad days so you can really make a decision when the season is over or that tuition payment is up about the totality of your experience and whether you want to do more of it, rather than just whether it sucks right now. And by modeling a hard thing yourself, you’re providing your child with exactly the kind of role model he needs to become more gritty himself. I plan to only ask my daughter to pick *one* hard thing, and I don’t plan to obsess over whether she is becoming better than anyone else at it. To me, that feels like an appropriate balance of learning what it’s like to be gritty and not getting obsessed with the idea that grit is the be-all-and-end-all of success in life. The actor Will Smith is quoted in the book as saying “I’m not afraid to die on a treadmill. I will not be outworked, period. You might have more talent than me…but if we get on the treadmill together, there are two things: You’re getting off first, or I’m going to die. It’s really that simple.” I’m not interested in raising a child who is so caught up in proving that she’s the best at something that she has to out-compete everyone. She might become highly successful, but it doesn’t seem as though she’d be much fun to be around, and ultimately achieving balance between being productive and being satisfied with what one has achieved seems to be a much better outcome than someone who would rather die than get off a treadmill before someone else.
So, in sum, grit may be *one* of several traits that are important to a child’s success in life, which Professor Duckworth does acknowledge in her own conclusion, after she’s spent a whole book telling us how important grit is. Indeed, she says in the National Geographic article that “there’s more that we don’t know than we do know.” But grit by no means the only characteristic that’s important; Professor Duckworth herself says that she thinks ‘goodness’ is more important than ‘greatness.’ Be wary of school-based interventions that promise to increase grit, especially if they are delivered on a one-size-fits all basis, using rewards to get children to do it, and doubly-especially if they promise to level the playing field between privileged and under-privileged children. Perhaps the best thing you could do on that front would be to mentor an underprivileged youth so they, too, can learn from you what it means to be gritty, and you could also talk with them about what components of grittiness are a fit with their culture. Don’t lose sight of the fact that committing to a goal and sticking your head down and doing the work should also be balanced by looking up every once in a while and making sure the goal is still the right one. College and a corporate job is not the right fit for all children. I have to assume (because Professor Duckworth’s research only focuses on high achievers) that grit can benefit people from all walks of life, with all kinds of life goals. Finally, consider implementing the Hard Thing rule when your child is old enough to choose her hard thing for herself. It could be just the balance you need between allowing your child appropriate choices and helping her to see the value of sticking with a thing even when it gets tough.
Thanks for listening: all of the references from today’s episode can be found at yourparentingmojo.com/grit
Also published on Medium.