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[Review] Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance

July 02, 2016

The 10,000-hour rule popularized by New Yorker staff writer Malcolm Gladwell in his bookOutliers is just another way to say practice makes perfect. But what makes us want to continue practicing? In Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, MacArthur Fellow and University of Pennsylvania psychologist Angela Duckworth makes the case for understanding personal achievement through the lens of "grit." Yes, intelligence matters, Duckworth argues, but follow-through and tenacity are just as, if not more, important.

BookImage_GritWith Gladwell-esque verve, Duckworth, a former management consultant at McKinsey who left the firm to teach seventh-grade math in a New York City public school, combines engaging stories with the latest research in her discipline, positive psychology, to explain why achievement should be understood more as a function of continuous effort rather than natural ability, all the while maintaining the reader-friendly language and cadence of pop science.

Duckworth's big idea is based on her graduate work, which she distills into two equations: talent x effort = skill and skill x effort = achievement. "Talent is how quickly your skills improve when you invest effort," she writes. "Achievement is what happens when you take your acquired skills and use them." While she acknowledges that her framework overlooks the role of luck and opportunities provided by nurturing relationships, be it a coach, parent, or mentor, her point is straightforward: concentrated long-term effort is a key ingredient in achieving any goal. "With effort, talent becomes skill and, at the very same time, effort makes skill productive."

So what is grit? Using stories from the NFL, journalism, Wall Street, and even cartooning, Duckworth argues that grit isn't just about working incredibly hard (although that's important); it's about "working on something you care about so much that you're willing to stay loyal to it." Think you've got passion and perseverance? Duckworth includes a "Grit Scale" to help readers calculate just how gritty they are. If you don't score well, despair not. You can change, she says — "grittiness" can be improved.

The "life-organizing goal" that drives Duckworth's work is to "use psychological science to help kids thrive." Her core thesis is that grit can be developed "from the inside out" — through the discovery of a passion or purpose, dedicated hours of practice, and the belief that our efforts will help create a better future — as well as "from the outside in" — through supportive anddemanding parenting, immersion in enriching extracurricular activities, and exposure to a culture of excellence.

Of course, given that economic, educational, and cultural resources are not equitably distributed in society, there's an obvious flaw in Duckworth's promotion of "growing grit" as a solution to systemic educational challenges. And while she admits that social biases and structural impediments can deter even the grittiest students, she really doesn't have an answer as to how those challenges might be addressed.

Reflecting on a conversation with Harvard's dean of admissions, she writes that she was "surprised...how much he worried about the kids who'd been denied the opportunity to practice grit in extracurricular activities." And citing research from political scientist Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone and Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, she acknowledges that the lack of access to pay-to-play activities such as travel sports and private music lessons limits poor kids' ability to develop grit in a structured way. This leads her to conclude that "there is a worrisome correlation between family income and Grit Grid scores."

Despite this admission, and perhaps due to the constraints of her field, Duckworth does not explore how privilege and structural exclusion — be it racial, social, or economic — limits her theory. For example, she doesn't address the possibility that a disadvantaged student might be told that she lacks grit when, in fact, what she really lacks is the opportunity provided, as Geoffrey Canada puts, by "a decent childhood." And even if that student is told she can improve her grittiness, there are often systemic forces at work that impede the kind of success Duckworth admires. In other words, a focus on developing grit, while important, needs to be accompanied by concrete policies aimed at building a more equitable society.

Another problematic aspect of Duckworth's narrative is her focus on people whom she calls "grit paragons." Generally famous, these are people who stuck with their goal until they reached the top of their profession. But in defining success in terms of rarified careers, Duckworth does her theory of grit a disservice — and, in turn, undercuts its power. Surely, people who have weathered economic hardship by working three jobs, who sent loved ones off to serve their country, or who have dealt with other life challenges while holding a family together embody the value of sustained focus and hard work every bit as much as Duckworth's so-called paragons.

Like any broad theory, Duckworth's focus on the power of passion and perseverance has its limitations. But that doesn't mean the book is without merit — far from it. Grit is readable, the stories in it are engaging, and the frameworks Duckworth lays out are interesting, even helpful. She deftly weaves her own life and research into the book — experiences ranging from dealing with a demanding father, to receiving difficult feedback on her less-than-stellar initial attempts to deliver her 2013-TED Talk, to the many hours she spent interviewing National Spelling Bee champs and West Point cadets. Her ability to make academic research both accessible and engaging to a lay audience is a valuable, if all-too-rare, skill. Ultimately, Duckworth leaves us with the powerful message: "To be gritty is to keep putting one foot in front of the other. To be gritty is to hold fast to an interesting and purposeful goal....To be gritty is to fall down seven times, and rise eight."

Yet, as a society, we need to acknowledge that individual stick-to-itiveness, focus, and long-term goal setting are just part of the puzzle. While we can't lose sight of the fact that too many people are denied the opportunities to achieve, we should not despair. Instead, with a more honest, inclusive conversation about the structural impediments to achievement and, yes, a little communal grit, we might just be able to build a more equitable world, one full of opportunities for everyone to achieve. It's too important not to try.

Michael Weston-Murphy is a Lisa Goldberg Fellow at New York University's Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. For more great reviews, visit our Off the Shelf section.

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