Even if talent is natural and unchangeable, Angela Duckworth argues, grit is learnable. This is excellent news for readers: since Duckworth believes that grit is the most important ingredient for success in most areas of life, she thinks that absolutely anyone can succeed if they learn to apply certain principles and techniques to their lives. As sociologist Dan Chambliss puts it, “greatness is many, many individual feats, and each of them is doable.” Specifically, Duckworth argues that people can improve their own grit by developing the four traits that underlie it: interest, practice, purpose, and hope. Meanwhile, parents, teachers, colleagues, or even friends can help others develop grit by serving as role models and mentors. Because there are so many tried-and-true ways to build grit, Duckworth concludes that anyone can become gritty and successful if they’re willing to put in the necessary work.
People can become grittier by working on the four key traits that underlie grit: interest, practice, purpose, and hope. First, people who want to build grit have to develop their interests. While many people expect to discover their passion in a moment of insight, the empirical evidence suggests that successful people actually start by experimenting with many different interests, then gradually finding and developing their main passion over time. For instance, most Olympic athletes played and quit several sports as children before finding success in a particular one. Similarly, before they can reach the level of expertise required for true grit, young people need to experiment with different interests, usually for years, and then develop one particular interest for several more years. In fact, everyone has to pass through this process in order to develop true interests, which means that nobody is simply born with grit—all gritty people have had to develop it. Similarly, people can also actively cultivate a sense of purpose. Once they identify their interests, Duckworth argues, people ought to look for ways to serve others through their work and seek out role models who already dedicate their lives to serving others. This increases grit because it gives people an additional motivation to keep working toward a single goal and never give up when they encounter obstacles.
Next, people can build grit through deliberate practice, a special technique for improving skills. Most people don’t know about deliberate practice and certainly don’t do it, but scientists understand that it is the most effective way to train specific skills and have broken it down into a series of straightforward requirements. People should focus on their weaknesses, aim for specific goals that exceed their current ability, concentrate and work as hard as they can, seek critical feedback as soon as they’re done, and repeat this whole cycle as much as possible (preferably by making it a habit). Through deliberate practice, Duckworth argues, people can master the skills necessary to perform at a high level in their field. Finally, Duckworth argues that people can develop the kind of hope and perseverance (or growth mindset) that is key to grit by taking on manageable challenges. In short, the more that people can successfully overcome smaller challenges, the more likely they are to try harder when they encounter larger ones. Marty Seligman and Steve Maier’s research on rats suggests that the brain learns to respond to challenges people can control with courage, but to challenges they can’t with hopelessness. Thus, Duckworth argues that people can train their own brains to persevere—and thereby develop grit—by deciding what kind of challenges to take on and thinking of their own abilities as changeable rather than fixed.
In addition to building grit “from the inside out,” Duckworth argues, people can also help others build grit “from the outside in.” First, adults—especially parents, but also teachers, mentors, or even friends—can help young people develop grit by modeling it. Specifically, gritty people should treat others with the same combination of support and high standards they have for themselves. Psychologists know that this helps young people become more confident, persistent, and passionate. For instance, psychologist David Yeager ran a study in which he gave students their teachers’ essay comments with a post-it note that said, “I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them.” Students who received this note were twice as likely to revise and resubmit their drafts. If this minor signal can make such a difference, more comprehensive mentorship can transform people’s lives, so long as it’s both supportive and demanding. Next, Duckworth suggests that parents and mentors should help young people develop grit by seeking out situations that are both supportive and demanding. For instance, Duckworth strongly recommends signing children up for extracurricular activities like dance, sports, or music lessons, because this teaches them that it’s possible for certain pursuits to be both fun and hard. It can also help them build their interests and learn deliberate practice. According to Duckworth, this sets young people up for the challenges they will face later in life. Finally, Duckworth argues that culture can effectively spread grit, because people who belong to the same group tend to reinforce one another’s values. Thus, by joining a gritty culture—whether that of a team like the Seattle Seahawks, a corporation like JPMorgan, or even a country like Finland—people can both become and help others become grittier. Duckworth’s advice is simple: “to be grittier, find a gritty culture and join it.”
The core lesson of Grit is that achievement depends more on effort than talent. As Duckworth puts it, skill is just talent multiplied by effort, and achievement is skill multiplied by effort again. But grit itself is a skill—and arguably the single most important one for achievement. This means that people can build it through effort, and this is why Duckworth highlights different strategies for doing so throughout her book.
Duckworth suggests that, because psychologists study the human mind systematically, they should be the principal authorities on human achievement and improvement. In fact, Duckworth initially became a psychologist because she believed that research was the best way to understand and foster human achievement. After noticing the limits of talent-based explanations while working as a management consultant and middle school teacher, she had a hunch that grit was actually the key to achievement. But she knew she had to test this hypothesis experimentally if she wanted to truly understand how people can use grit to improve their lives. In other words, she knew that experimental psychology is the best method for evaluating hypotheses about human nature because it allows researchers to test people’s perceptions, thoughts, and decisions in real-world environments. This is why, unlike many popular psychology books, Grit constantly grounds theoretical explanations in experimental evidence. Duckworth always describes the studies that support her claims, and she carefully evaluates whether these studies adequately support various conclusions about human achievement. She only uses anecdotes to illustrate the implications of research—and not as a replacement for explaining the research itself. By constantly tying her claims back to rigorous evidence, Duckworth preserves her credibility (and her discipline’s credibility) on the topics she covers in Grit.
Developing Grit ThemeTracker
Developing Grit Quotes in Grit
There was about a month between the MacArthur call and its official announcement. Apart from my husband, I wasn’t permitted to tell anyone. That gave me time to ponder the irony of the situation. A girl who is told repeatedly that she’s no genius ends up winning an award for being one. The award goes to her because she has discovered that what we eventually accomplish may depend more on our passion and perseverance than on our innate talent. She has by then amassed degrees from some pretty tough schools, but in the third grade, she didn’t test high enough for the gifted and talented program. Her parents are Chinese immigrants, but she didn’t get lectured on the salvation of hard work. Against stereotype, she can’t play a note of piano or violin.
It seemed a sure bet that those for whom things came easily would continue to outpace their classmates. In fact, I expected that the achievement gap separating the naturals from the rest of the class would only widen over time.
I’d been distracted by talent.
Gradually, I began to ask myself hard questions. When I taught a lesson and the concept failed to gel, could it be that the struggling student needed to struggle just a bit longer? Could it be that I needed to find a different way to explain what I was trying to get across? Before jumping to the conclusion that talent was destiny, should I be considering the importance of effort? And, as a teacher, wasn’t it my responsibility to figure out how to sustain effort—both the students’ and my own—just a bit longer?
Taken together, the data I’ve collected on grit and age are consistent with two different stories. One story says that our grit changes as a function of the cultural era in which we grow up. The other story says that we get grittier as we get older. Both could be true, and I have a suspicion that both are, at least to an extent. Either way, this snapshot reveals that grit is not entirely fixed. Like every aspect of your psychological character, grit is more plastic than you might think.
Nobody is interested in everything, and everyone is interested in something. So matching your job to what captures your attention and imagination is a good idea. It may not guarantee happiness and success, but it sure helps the odds.
That said, I don’t think most young people need encouragement to follow their passion. Most would do exactly that—in a heartbeat—if only they had a passion in the first place. If I’m ever invited to give a commencement speech, I’ll begin with the advice to foster a passion. And then I’ll spend the rest of my time trying to change young minds about how that actually happens.
Experts and beginners have different motivational needs. At the start of an endeavor, we need encouragement and freedom to figure out what we enjoy. We need small wins. We need applause. Yes, we can handle a tincture of criticism and corrective feedback. Yes, we need to practice. But not too much and not too soon. Rush a beginner and you’ll bludgeon their budding interest. It’s very, very hard to get that back once you do.
If you’d like to follow your passion but haven’t yet fostered one, you must begin at the beginning: discovery.
Ask yourself a few simple questions: What do I like to think about? Where does my mind wander? What do I really care about? What matters most to me? How do I enjoy spending my time? And, in contrast, what do I find absolutely unbearable? If you find it hard to answer these questions, try recalling your teen years, the stage of life at which vocational interests commonly sprout.
As soon as you have even a general direction in mind, you must trigger your nascent interests. Do this by going out into the world and doing something. To young graduates wringing their hands over what to do, I say, Experiment! Try! You’ll certainly learn more than if you don’t!
Ericsson generally finds that deliberate practice is experienced as supremely effortful. As evidence that working at the far edge of our skills with complete concentration is exhausting, he points out that even world-class performers at the peak of their careers can only handle a maximum of one hour of deliberate practice before needing a break, and in total, can only do about three to five hours of deliberate practice per day.
Gritty people do more deliberate practice and experience more flow. There’s no contradiction here, for two reasons. First, deliberate practice is a behavior, and flow is an experience. Anders Ericsson is talking about what experts do; Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is talking about how experts feel. Second, you don’t have to be doing deliberate practice and experiencing flow at the same time. And, in fact, I think that for most experts, they rarely go together.
Each of the basic requirements of deliberate practice is unremarkable:
• A clearly defined stretch goal
• Full concentration and effort
• Immediate and informative feedback
• Repetition with reflection and refinement
But how many hours of practice do most people accomplish that checks all four of these boxes? My guess is that many people are cruising through life doing precisely zero hours of daily deliberate practice.
Most people first become attracted to things they enjoy and only later appreciate how these personal interests might also benefit others. In other words, the more common sequence is to start out with a relatively self-oriented interest, then learn self-disciplined practice, and, finally, integrate that work with an other-centered purpose.
Writing this book made me realize that I’m someone who had an inkling about my interests in adolescence, then some clarity about purpose in my twenties, and finally, in my thirties, the experience and expertise to say that my top-level, life-organizing goal is, and will be until my last breath: Use psychological science to help kids thrive.
I like to think of a growth mindset this way: Some of us believe, deep down, that people really can change. These growth-oriented people assume that it’s possible, for example, to get smarter if you’re given the right opportunities and support and if you try hard enough and if you believe you can do it. Conversely, some people think you can learn skills, like how to ride a bike or do a sales pitch, but your capacity to learn skills—your talent—can’t be trained. The problem with holding the latter fixed-mindset view—and many people who consider themselves talented do—is that no road is without bumps. […] With a fixed mindset, you’re likely to interpret these setbacks as evidence that, after all, you don’t have “the right stuff”—you’re not good enough. With a growth mindset, you believe you can learn to do better.
Collectively, the evidence I’ve presented tells the following story: A fixed mindset about ability leads to pessimistic explanations of adversity, and that, in turn, leads to both giving up on challenges and avoiding them in the first place. In contrast, a growth mindset leads to optimistic ways of explaining adversity, and that, in turn, leads to perseverance and seeking out new challenges that will ultimately make you even stronger.
growth mindset optimistic self-talk perseverance over adversity
“There was an underlying selflessness to the tough love,” Steve continued. “I think that’s vital. If any of the tough love is about the parent just trying to control you, well, kids smell it out. In every way possible, I knew my parents were saying, ‘We’re looking to see your success. We’ve left ourselves behind.’ ”
Growing up with support, respect, and high standards confers a lot of benefits, one of which is especially relevant to grit—in other words, wise parenting encourages children to emulate their parents.
“You don’t need to be a parent to make a difference in someone’s life. If you just care about them and get to know what’s going on, you can make an impact. Try to understand what’s going on in their life and help them through that. That’s something I experienced firsthand. It made the difference.”
The bottom line of this research is this: School’s hard, but for many kids it’s not intrinsically interesting. Texting your friends is interesting, but it’s not hard. But ballet? Ballet can be both.
So far, there hasn’t been a corresponsive principle study of grit.
Let me speculate, though. Left to her own devices, a little girl who, after failing to open a box of raisins and saying to herself, “This is too hard! I quit!” might enter a vicious cycle that reinforces giving up. She might learn to give up one thing after another, each time missing the opportunity to enter the virtuous cycle of struggle, followed by progress, followed by confidence to try something even harder.
But what about a little girl whose mother takes her to ballet, even though it’s hard? […] What if that little girl was nudged to try and try again and, at one practice, experienced the satisfaction of a breakthrough? Might that victory encourage the little girl to practice other difficult things? Might she learn to welcome challenge?
The bottom line on culture and grit is: If you want to be grittier, find a gritty culture and join it. If you’re a leader, and you want the people in your organization to be grittier, create a gritty culture.
Indeed, the calculated costs and benefits of passion and perseverance don’t always add up, at least in the short run. It’s often more “sensible” to give up and move on. It can be years or more before grit’s dividends pay off.
And that’s exactly why culture and identity are so critical to understanding how gritty people live their lives. The logic of anticipated costs and benefits doesn’t explain their choices very well. The logic of identity does.
If each person’s grit enhances grit in others, then, over time, you might expect what social scientist Jim Flynn calls a “social multiplier” effect. In a sense, it’s the motivational analogue of the infinity cube of self-reflecting mirrors Jeff Bezos built as a boy—one person’s grit enhances the grit of the others, which in turn inspires more grit in that person, and so on, without end.
“Failure is probably the most important factor in all of my work. Writing is failure. Over and over and over again.”
“You’re no genius,” my dad used to say when I was just a little girl. I realize now he was talking to himself as much as he was talking to me.
If you define genius as being able to accomplish great things in life without effort, then he was right: I’m no genius, and neither is he.
But if, instead, you define genius as working toward excellence, ceaselessly, with every element of your being—then, in fact, my dad is a genius, and so am I, and so is Coates, and, if you’re willing, so are you.