Getting Grit

Recently, I was introduced to a new concept of personality called grit. My only previous understanding of the word was as dirt or, when pluralized, a favorite food of the former Confederate states. The only time I had heard ‘grit’ used to describe a person is in relation to John Wayne and Jeff Bridges.

Grit means eyepatches and alcoholism

Grit means eyepatches and alcoholism

So what is grit? According to researcher Angela Duckworth, it is the single greatest indicator of success in your life! But wait, you might say, what about intelligence? Grit’s better. What about intrinsic talent? No grit, no good. What about the fact that I was genetically engineered by German scientists to be ÜBERMENSCH!… If the wissenschaftlern neglected the grit in the recipe, I may have a tough time of it. So what is grit?

What is grit?

If you have twenty minutes to burn, this talk by the researcher I mentioned above will probably explain it somewhat better than I will:

But if not, the most simple definition of this trait is: “perseverance and passion for long-term goals.”

What Duckworth gets at in the video and what her research has shown her is that intelligence and raw talent isn’t really the greatest indicator of future success. Instead, achievement is the the realm of deliberate practice. Sticking with a task for the long haul. She differentiates this from simple self-discipline, self-denial, or willpower which can help you stick with a diet or abstain from a cigarette. Grit, by contrast, is for setting your eyes farther away, the marathon vs. the sprint, putting in the 10,000 hours of mastery.

Examples cited by Duckworth include using her 12 question Grit Test which rates a persons grittiness on a level of 1 (not so very gritty) to 5 (McGrittle). When she administered this test to a shiny new cadet class at West Point and followed to see which cadets made it (many don’t), her little grit test turned out to be the single greatest indicator of future cadet success. Grit mattered more than intelligence, discipline, strength… Grit was king. When she followed around kids competing in the Scripps’ National Bee, she found similar results. It is often assumed that children who are champion spellers are just little geniuses and that the best child speller is simply the biggest little genius of them all! In truth, this seems not to be the case. Instead of the kids being touched by the Gods of spelling, it turns out those most likely to succeed in the Bee were those who engaged in deliberate practice.

I know. I just blew your mind. PRACTICE makes you BETTER at stuff!?! Thank god I wrote this blog post, or you may have had to tackle your day without that gem of insight. But I found it intriguing that it makes you more successful than any other trait. When I think of genius, it is hard for me to not view it as some sort of divine spark (or for those of us more atheistically bound, genetic lottery). Conjuring the images of Beethoven, Shakespeare or Einstine, I don’t think of average level dudes who just kept working and working and working. I think of demi-Gods. According to a lot of modern researchers, I’m dead wrong.

Got Grit?

As much as I like to point out how awesome I am to people, children, dogs, mannequins or inanimate objects I perceive to be giving me attitude…

What are you looking at, CHAIR!?

What are you looking at, CHAIR!?

I  may not exactly be the grittiest person on earth. To be honest, I have always more or less wandered on through life using the talents that came easiest to me. At a base level, my ego always was willing to whisper in my ear that I would be fine because I was smart and talented. And while my ego probably exaggerated quite a lot, it’s been a fine path of least resistance  I made it through high school with a diploma and a good GPA, college with a degree (ok, ok, it was in pretend, but it’s a degree) and a good GPA.  When you add to that moving to NYC and actually working in my field, I could have done worse.

But as much as I am a fan of myself, a great deal of that has been as a leaf floating on the wind. I have been carried to nice places on the gusts of luck and intelligence, but I wouldn’t say grit has had anything to do with it. More than that, I also am not moving in any specific direction, I’m still floating without a large amount momentum in any specific direction. I fear a lack of grit! I fear I have been a dilettante, scooting from interest to interest without even getting close to mastery of any one area. To give a more specific example, I have made very little progress as writer.

“But wait, Dylan!” you might say if anyone read this blog, “You wrote this. You are writing.” Well yes, but I also fancy myself a creative writer of sorts, but I lack… the grit. Oh I do write, now and again. I have grand ideas. I do plot outlines. I start writing scenes. But eventually, the process becomes difficult, I get discouraged or the overwhelming business of life simply takes the front seat in my life, relegating my more artistic sensibilities to the trunk, bound and gagged. And if I think  hard… heck, if I think soft, I can come up with plenty of other examples of grand ideas or mini-passions I have had which, when the going got tough, I got going… to my laptop to watch Family Guy instead, because doing stuff can be a rather unpleasant thing

I know many of my friends who have had similar trials with a variety of longer term goals. Goals to be healthy, goals to be creative, goals to be… better. But betterment is a bitch. When Duckworth investigated those Spellers, deliberate practice was definitely the most effective indicator of success, but it was also consistently rated as the least pleasant form of self improvement. Grit is the ability to invest your happiness in the future, by locking away your instant gratification for 10,000 hours.

Getting Grit.

And the grand secret to improving one’s grit?

Eating the fuck out of gritty people!

Eating the fuck out of gritty people!

I don’t know. This whole research on grit is fairly new since for much of psychoanalytical history the scientists have been pouring their energies into examining intelligence. Perhaps grit is a hereditary trait that is completely unchangeable in the human psyche and those of us aimless wanderers are doomed to wander aimlessly until the end of our mediocre days.

But I doubt it.

In the Power of Habit, Duhigg talks about how willpower and the act of self-restraint can be trained, exercised like a muscle. Since grit is essentially willpower (and a mix of obsessiveness) over a longer timescale, I imagine one can start gritifying themselves just by starting a goal. Pick something to dedicate your 10,000 hours to. Master something.

Of course this is easier said than done, which is why grit is perhaps a more elusive beast. To master something, to have a long term goal, requires commitment. It requires being able to see down the road ten thousand hours and being comfortable with where you’ll be at the end of that long road. Pick the wrong path and get all gritty about it then you find yourself 10,000 hours off course, potentially, from where you really want to be.

On the other hand, you’ll be a master of something. Not committing, or half-heartedly commiting to a bunch of different mini-passions will leave you equally pulled in a myriad of directions. Net movement: zero. This, however, is only a problem for those of you who are like me and can’t quite settle on anything so serious a life goal.

To those of you who know where your passion lay, your spark of obsession… what are you waiting for? If Duckworth is right and grittiness trumps intelligence and talent, then go! Run to your passion! Run there 40 hours a week and challenge yourself daily and build up those 10,000 hours of mastery. If you put in the time and effort, any shortcomings you perceive in yourself won’t matter according to the Philosophy of Grit. Just your perseverance through the long haul of experience.

And that’s a cool thought.


More On Grit:
“What if the Secret to Success is Failure” by Paul Tough (NY Times)
“Principal Connection / Got Grit?” by Thomas R. Hoerr (Educational Leadership)
“Grit(Personality Trait)” by Wikipedia (Wikipedia)
“Angela Duckworth and the Research on ‘Grit'” by Emily Hanford (American RadioWorks)
“School of Hard Knocks: ‘How Children Succeed’ by Paul Tough” by Annie Murphy Paul (NY Times)
“Got Grit: The Secret Sauce to Success” by Shabbir Dahod (Forbes)

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