I had an article in Boston Globe Ideas section on the psychology of grit. For more on the subject, check out the incredibly interesting work of Angela Duckworth. You can also take the grit survey here.
It’s the single most famous story of scientific discovery: in 1666, Isaac Newton was walking in his garden outside Cambridge, England – he was avoiding the city because of the plague – when he saw an apple fall from a tree. The fruit fell straight to the earth, as if tugged by an invisible force. (Subsequent versions of the story had the apple hitting Newton on the head.) This mundane observation led Newton to devise the concept of universal gravitation, which explained everything from the falling apple to the orbit of the moon.
There is something appealing about such narratives. They reduce the scientific process to a sudden epiphany: There is no sweat or toil, just a new idea, produced by a genius. Everybody knows that things fall – it took Newton to explain why.
Unfortunately, the story of the apple is almost certainly false; Voltaire probably made it up. Even if Newton started thinking about gravity in 1666, it took him years of painstaking work before he understood it. He filled entire vellum notebooks with his scribbles and spent weeks recording the exact movements of a pendulum. (It made, on average, 1,512 ticks per hour.) The discovery of gravity, in other words, wasn’t a flash of insight – it required decades of effort, which is one of the reasons Newton didn’t publish his theory until 1687, in the “Principia.”
Although biographers have long celebrated Newton’s intellect – he also pioneered calculus – it’s clear that his achievements aren’t solely a byproduct of his piercing intelligence. Newton also had an astonishing ability to persist in the face of obstacles, to stick with the same stubborn mystery – why did the apple fall, but the moon remain in the sky? – until he found the answer.
In recent years, psychologists have come up with a term to describe this mental trait: grit. Although the idea itself isn’t new – “Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration,” Thomas Edison famously remarked – the researchers are quick to point out that grit isn’t simply about the willingness to work hard. Instead, it’s about setting a specific long-term goal and doing whatever it takes until the goal has been reached. It’s always much easier to give up, but people with grit can keep going.
While stories of grit have long been associated with self-help manuals and life coaches – Samuel Smiles, the author of the influential Victorian text “Self-Help” preached the virtue of perseverance – these new scientific studies rely on new techniques for reliably measuring grit in individuals. As a result, they’re able to compare the relative importance of grit, intelligence, and innate talent when it comes to determining lifetime achievement. Although this field of study is only a few years old, it’s already made important progress toward identifying the mental traits that allow some people to accomplish their goals, while others struggle and quit. Grit, it turns out, is an essential (and often overlooked) component of success.
“I’d bet that there isn’t a single highly successful person who hasn’t depended on grit,” says Angela Duckworth, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania who helped pioneer the study of grit. “Nobody is talented enough to not have to work hard, and that’s what grit allows you to do.”
The hope among scientists is that a better understanding of grit will allow educators to teach the skill in schools and lead to a generation of grittier children. Parents, of course, have a big role to play as well, since there’s evidence that even offhand comments – such as how a child is praised – can significantly influence the manner in which kids respond to challenges. And it’s not just educators and parents who are interested in grit: the United States Army has supported much of the research, as it searches for new methods of identifying who is best suited for the stress of the battlefield.
The new focus on grit is part of a larger scientific attempt to study the personality traits that best predict achievement in the real world. While researchers have long focused on measurements of intelligence, such as the IQ test, as the crucial marker of future success, these scientists point out that most of the variation in individual achievement – what makes one person successful, while another might struggle – has nothing to do with being smart. Instead, it largely depends on personality traits such as grit and conscientiousness. It’s not that intelligence isn’t really important – Newton was clearly a genius – but that having a high IQ is not nearly enough.
Consider, for instance, a recent study led by Duckworth that measured the grittiness of cadets at West Point, the elite military academy. Although West Point is highly selective, approximately 5 percent of cadets drop out after the first summer of training, which is known as “Beast Barracks.” The Army has long searched for the variables that best predict whether or not cadets will graduate, using everything from SAT scores to physical fitness. But none of those variables were particularly useful. In fact, it wasn’t until Duckworth tested the cadets of the 2008 West Point class using a questionnaire – the test consists of statements such as “Setbacks don’t discourage me” – that the Army found a measurement that actually worked. Duckworth has since repeated the survey with subsequent West Point classes, and the result is always the same : the cadets that remain are those with grit.
Read the whole thing here.