The Frontal Cortex

Grit

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.

Comments

  1. #1 Comrade PhysioProf
    August 3, 2009

    This also fits in really well with the idea that in order to truly become an expert at a highly complex pursuit, it takes about 20,000 hours of engagement with the pursuit. This is about ten years of full-time effort. So, if you don’t have it in you to persevere for at least ten years in pursuing a particular goal, you will never become expert enough to achieve that goal.

  2. #2 Michael F. Martin
    August 3, 2009

    Poincare’s explanation fits better with my own experience. The solution may indeed come in a flash; but as observed, the flash is preceded by months of study.

  3. #3 Sean D'Souza
    August 4, 2009

    Too much of our history has been spent on the myth of talent. Grit matters a lot. Grit is what takes absolute beginners and makes them pros over time. And it doesn’t even take that much time. It really depends on who’s teaching whom, and the methods that are being used. Yes, there’s the 10,000 hour rule etc., but I’ve seen moderately talented people turn around in under three-four months.

  4. #4 clew
    August 5, 2009

    Another point for the belief that grit can be taught, or undermined; I once read a very good essay in a boxing-supplies catalogue on how to choose fights for boxers in training. The coach was arguing that it would be equally disastrous to choose easy fights, which would make a real contest a shock, or to choose fights too hard for the student, because you could wear out almost anyone’s courage.

  5. #5 Roland Branconnier, MA
    August 5, 2009

    Grit by any other name. Grit seems to be related to Flow Psychology.

    According to Wikipedia: “Flow is the mental state of operation in which the person is fully immersed in what he or she is doing by a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity.

    Colloquial terms for this or similar mental states include: to be on the ball, in the zone, or in the groove.”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flow_(psychology)

    The classic work describing Flow Psychology is:

    Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper and Row.

    http://www.amazon.com/Flow-Psychology-Experience-Mihaly-Csikszentmihalyi/dp/0060920432

  6. #6 Haider
    August 5, 2009

    What’s often overlooked in “self-help” literature is a person’s acceptance of reality, and the willingness to do what’s required, rather than get frustrated when reality doesn’t conform to our wishes and expectations.

    Those who readily give up are basically saying: “I don’t like how reality plays the game of life, so I’m not gonna play.” This doesn’t simply come down to a personality trait, but a particular understanding of reality, and how we relate to it.

    Intelligence is how well we can manage concepts and abstractions, so it goes without saying that it’s not the only factor that determines success.

  7. #7 jb
    August 6, 2009

    Yes grit is important. One must be persistent and empassioned about what one does including training hard. But scientists and artists don’t come up with new ideas by thinking about them. Yes they have to do the thinking and attack the problem to be solved from different angles but at some point they will reach the limit of rational thought; they have to give up thinking about the problem. Then in a state of mental and physical relaxation and openness, ‘the bolt out of the blue’ will strike and the new idea will appear often triggered by an observation of some ordinary phenomenon. These moments are accessbile to everyone; they don’t happen very often to most people because most people are ensnared by the default mode network, ie they are lost in thought, most of the time.
    Then, once the new idea arises it will have to be tried and tested by thinking and experimentation.
    For good book about all of this see “Chase, Chance and Creativity” by James. H. Austin, MD, a neurologist.

  8. #8 OftenWrongTed
    August 6, 2009

    Mahalos to jb for the book tip, the title is available at amazon as a used hardcover, several for $.01+$4 shipping. I look forward to reading this book.

  9. #9 jb
    August 8, 2009

    For OftenWrongTed and others: be aware there are two editions to the book I recommended above, the 1978 edition and the revised 2003 edition. Plus Austin has other related books, the most recent of which came out this spring: “Selfless Insight” published by the MIT Press.

    To get a glimpse of how insightful new ideas arise compared to solving problems with rational thought and logic, try doing the daily Word Jumble in your local newspaper. Sometimes the answer to the jumble will just appear as you look at the cartoon and read the caption. At the other extreme, you’ll have to methodically unscramble each of the clue words and try to unscramble the circled letters in them to come up with the words that complete the caption. Or not; sometimes they’ll wait til you are present for unloading the dishwasher to appear, out of the blue, in their unscrambled form.

  10. #10 nik bergenske
    August 24, 2009

    thanks for this post. i’m interested in more formally assessing grit during recruiting processes.

  11. #11 Hooplehead32
    September 3, 2009

    I never noticed the word “patience” come up in the article or the subsequent posts about the article. I have found that when I am interested in something my patience with the subject matter is inversely proportional to my level of interest.