In her conclusion to Grit, Angela Duckworth addresses an unusual question: is it possible to have too much grit? Yes, she says, in theory. But in practice, nobody has ever told her they wanted to be less gritty (that is, less passionate and tenacious). Indeed, given the option, most people in modern societies would choose to become grittier. After all, this would help them set and achieve more meaningful goals. Because grit promotes achievement, commitment, and hard work, Duckworth argues, it’s a profound asset to society as a whole: everyone stands to gain when people become grittier. And because norms like grit spread naturally through organizations and societies, people who start to improve their own grit are likely to help others do the same. Thus, Duckworth doesn’t just want to help people tackle their individual problems through grit—she also wants to build a national or even global culture of grit by teaching as many people as possible to recognize and pursue its benefits.
While grit is primarily an individual trait—it describes people’s attitude toward their own goals and accomplishments—it’s also highly dependent on shared cultural norms and identities. This is partially because people make many of their “critical gritty-or-not decisions”—including whether to stick with their commitments and interests—based on their sense of identity. As Duckworth puts it, people don’t simply weigh the costs and benefits of these kinds of important decisions. Instead, they more often ask, “What does someone like me do in a situation like this?” Thus, if grit is part of person’s identity, they’re likely to habitually make gritty decisions. And, importantly, people’s identities are almost always collective—in other words, people define the “someone like me” in terms of their membership in certain groups. For example, after getting shot, soldier Tom Deierlein insisted on outdoing his physical therapist’s expectations and running a 10-mile race because belonging to the military is central to his identity. If most people can form shared identities that involve grit, like Deierlein did, then grit’s benefits are likely to spread far and wide.
Groups can also make people grittier by changing or enforcing certain social norms. For instance, laypeople might view competitive swimmers as extraordinarily dedicated because they wake up to train at four every morning, but swimmers generally surround themselves with peers who do the same, so they don’t see it as unusual. For that reason, it’s easy to see how swimmers who surround themselves with other swimmers are more likely to train regularly. Similarly, Duckworth thinks, entire organizations and cultures can make grit a norm. In fact, Duckworth gives numerous examples of organizations (like the US Military Academy at West Point, the Seattle Seahawks football team, and KIPP charter schools) and even countries (like Finland) that have become successful by building grit into their cultures. For instance, KIPP schools raise more academically successful students than their competitors because they specifically train teachers to adopt and pass on a growth mindset, and Finland mounted a remarkably successful defense during the 1939 Winter War in part because its people believed in a cultural trait called sisu (perseverance). These examples are clear blueprints for how Duckworth thinks society at large can start to value grit. And just as new norms can spread through teams or institutions, they can also spread throughout society as a whole. Duckworth notes that people tend to learn attitudes like grit as children by imitating and emulating the adults around them. Similarly, peers can educate one another—for instance, Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll points out how his star player, Earl Thomas, helps his teammates learn to be grittier. Thus, when some people become grittier, it’s likely that the people around them will also learn about grit (if not actually develop it). This shows that if enough people dedicate themselves to learning and teaching grit, it can spread organically throughout a culture and eventually become a norm.
Because it’s clearly possible to foster and spread grit on a large scale, then, Duckworth views making the world grittier as a key part of her mission as a psychologist. She points out that just like IQ scores, average grit scores do change noticeably over generations. Specifically, younger people’s grit scores are lower than older people’s scores. It’s difficult to say whether this is because they simply haven’t matured yet or because of cultural and societal changes (like new technologies) that make grit less common today. Perhaps it’s both. Regardless, Duckworth’s data shows that it’s possible for a generation’s grittiness to change, which means that it’s also perfectly possible to make society grittier as a whole. In fact, West Point shows how it’s possible for an organization to completely turn around by changing its attitude toward grit. Hazing was the norm at West Point for decades, in part because the US Army believed that it would weed out weak or uncommitted students (in other words, those that lacked grit). But now, instead of encouraging low-grit cadets to drop out, West Point focuses on making them grittier. As a result, more of its cadets graduate and more of them are proficient at the skills they need to succeed in the military. Thus, because West Point has incorporated grit into its culture, it has become a much more successful institution overall. Duckworth sees no reason why other institutions—and society as a whole—can’t do the same and build robust cultures of grit in the process.
Grit’s social implications explain Duckworth’s decision to publicize her Grit Scale (the questionnaire she developed to measure grit) and write this book: she hopes that grit can become a popular movement, at least to a limited extent. For now, it’s all too easy to mistake Duckworth’s “paragons of grit” for talented geniuses and miss the real lessons that their success holds for everyday people. But in time, Duckworth thinks, perhaps popular culture can stop worshipping genius and start worshipping hard work instead.
Grit and Society ThemeTracker
Grit and Society 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.
Chia’s research pulls back the curtain on our ambivalence toward talent and effort. What we say we care about may not correspond with what—deep down—we actually believe to be more valuable. It’s a little like saying we don’t care at all about physical attractiveness in a romantic partner and then, when it comes to actually choosing whom to date, picking the cute guy over the nice one.
The “naturalness bias” is a hidden prejudice against those who’ve achieved what they have because they worked for it, and a hidden preference for those whom we think arrived at their place in life because they’re naturally talented. We may not admit to others this bias for naturals; we may not even admit it to ourselves. But the bias is evident in the choices we make.
“What do we mean by talent?” the McKinsey authors ask in the book’s opening pages. Answering their own question: “In the most general sense, talent is the sum of a person’s abilities—his or her intrinsic gifts, skills, knowledge, experience, intelligence, judgment, attitude, character, and drive. It also includes his or her ability to learn and grow.” That’s a long list, and it reveals the struggle most of us have when we try to define talent with any precision. But it doesn’t surprise me that “intrinsic gifts” are mentioned first.
In my view, the biggest reason a preoccupation with talent can be harmful is simple: By shining our spotlight on talent, we risk leaving everything else in the shadows. We inadvertently send the message that these other factors—including grit—don’t matter as much as they really do.
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.
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.
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.
“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.