American psychologist Angela Duckworth’s book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance announces its main argument in its title. Most people wrongly assume that success depends on people’s inborn talents, but Duckworth argues that effort—specifically the combination of passion and perseverance that she calls grit—is actually far more important. Duckworth began to understand the importance of grit while working as a middle school teacher, management consultant, and youth nonprofit leader. Then, she became a professional psychologist and conducted more than a decade of research on high achievers in fields as diverse as art, athletics, and academia. Duckworth’s research has confirmed her hypothesis: grit is a key predictor of success. Specifically, gritty people succeed because they are passionate about a particular issue that’s both interesting to them and meaningful to others, and they chase that passion with perseverance—which means they work tirelessly toward their goals, even when they experience major setbacks. Duckworth concludes that grit is the key ingredient for success because, while talent might determine people’s potential, grit determines whether they translate that potential into actual performance.
Most people attribute success to talent, but Duckworth argues that this explanation is completely wrong: success actually depends on grit. Duckworth uses her father as a typical example of how laypeople understand success. Duckworth’s father constantly told her that she was “no genius”—he worried that she wasn’t talented enough to succeed, as he thought that geniuses are born, not made. National surveys show that most Americans feel the same way: they attribute success primarily to inborn talent. But Duckworth argues that this commonsense explanation is wrong: the available scientific evidence shows that effort is more important than talent for success. For instance, sociologist Dan Chambliss has found that champion swimmers succeed by mastering many small habits over the course of years, and Duckworth’s research has found that grit strongly predicts success in the National Spelling Bee and West Point’s Beast Barracks summer program, while verbal IQ (for the Spelling Bee) and admissions scores (for Beast Barracks) do not. Thus, the common bias toward talent-based explanations actually distracts people from the truth. Duckworth’s theory also explains why effort counts more than talent. She argues that to achieve their goals, people have to first build skills and then apply them. She defines this process through two equations: “talent × effort = skill” and “skill × effort = achievement.” Building and applying skills both require effort, which is why Duckworth says that “effort counts twice.” And Duckworth argues that the key to effort is grit—a steady long-term commitment to specific goals (passion) plus a stubborn insistence on pursuing those goals no matter what (perseverance). The dozens of gritty people Duckworth profiles throughout her book, like potter Warren MacKenzie and writer John Irving, show how grit is the key to effort, which is in turn the key to achievement.
Duckworth further links grit to success by breaking down the specific traits that make gritty people high achievers: interest, practice, purpose, and hope. First, gritty people have a strong interest in their field—which is why they willingly dedicate most of their time and energy to it. Whereas most people are disengaged at work and try out many different hobbies, gritty people find ways to love their work and deepen their interest in a single field over time. For instance, Jane Golden has been overseeing the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program for more than 30 years, but she’s so passionate about getting to know the city, its communities, and its artists that she still gladly works late every day, often seven days a week. Golden shows that interest is the key to building the deep, consistent commitment that enables gritty people to succeed. Second, gritty people consistently practice to improve the skills that are crucial for success in their field. Specifically, they do deliberate practice, which means they specifically and intensively train to improve their weaknesses. For instance, Olympic gold medalist swimmers Rowdy Gaines and Katie Ledecky attribute their success primarily to their rigorous, punishing routines of deliberate practice. Without practice, Duckworth argues, nobody can reach the level of mastery necessary to truly stand out in their field. Third, gritty people generally feel a sense of purpose in their work, which means they want to help others through whatever they’re doing. This makes their work more fulfilling and more strongly commits them to it. For instance, after college, Duckworth worked tirelessly to build a youth development program because she cared so strongly about helping her community. This shows how a sense of purpose can strongly motivate people to do important work that benefits others. Finally, gritty people have a special kind of hope—they believe that “[their] own efforts can improve [their] future.” This encourages them to see failure as a learning experience, which leads them to keep trying and improving whenever they run into obstacles. Multiple studies have found that students and teachers with this kind of attitude—also known as a growth mindset—achieve superior academic outcomes. This shows why Duckworth argues that believing in one’s own ability to improve is the first step to actually improving. People who don’t believe they’re inherently capable of improvement are much more likely to give up than to reach a high level in any field.
At the end of Grit’s first chapter, Duckworth writes, “Our potential is one thing. What we do with it is quite another.” As a psychologist, she hopes to correct conventional ideas about success and failure by showing that people should focus less on their potential and more on what they do with their potential. Still, grit isn’t the only factor that affects people’s success—as Duckworth notes in her conclusion, success also often requires traits like curiosity, conscientiousness, and, of course, talent. But it’s still the most important, because it’s the key factor that determines how much of their potential people actually achieve.
Passion, Perseverance, and Success ThemeTracker
Passion, Perseverance, and Success 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.
In their own eyes, they were never good enough. They were the opposite of complacent. And yet, in a very real sense, they were satisfied being unsatisfied. Each was chasing something of unparalleled interest and importance, and it was the chase—as much as the capture—that was gratifying. Even if some of the things they had to do were boring, or frustrating, or even painful, they wouldn’t dream of giving up. Their passion was enduring.
In sum, no matter the domain, the highly successful had a kind of ferocious determination that played out in two ways. First, these exemplars were unusually resilient and hardworking. Second, they knew in a very, very deep way what it was they wanted. They not only had determination, they had direction.
It was this combination of passion and perseverance that made high achievers special. In a word, they had grit.
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?
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.
We prefer our excellence fully formed. We prefer mystery to mundanity.
But why? What’s the reason for fooling ourselves into thinking Mark Spitz didn’t earn his mastery?
“Our vanity, our self-love, promotes the cult of the genius,” Nietzsche said. “For if we think of genius as something magical, we are not obliged to compare ourselves and find ourselves lacking. . . . To call someone ‘divine’ means: ‘here there is no need to compete.’ ”
In other words, mythologizing natural talent lets us all off the hook. It lets us relax into the status quo.
talent × effort = skill
skill × effort = achievement
I would add that skill is not the same thing as achievement, either. Without effort, your talent is nothing more than your unmet potential. Without effort, your skill is nothing more than what you could have done but didn’t. With effort, talent becomes skill and, at the very same time, effort makes skill productive.
“Grit is about working on something you care about so much that you’re willing to stay loyal to it.”
“It’s doing what you love. I get that.”
“Right, it’s doing what you love, but not just falling in love—staying in love.”
1. New ideas and projects sometimes distract me from previous ones.
2. Setbacks don’t discourage me. I don’t give up easily.
3. I often set a goal but later choose to pursue a different one.
4. I am a hard worker.
5. I have difficulty maintaining my focus on projects that take more than a few months to complete.
6. I finish whatever I begin.
7. My interests change from year to year.
8. I am diligent. I never give up.
9. I have been obsessed with a certain idea or project for a short time but later lost interest.
10. I have overcome setbacks to conquer an important challenge.
The common metaphor of passion as fireworks doesn’t make sense when you think of what passion means to Jeff Gettleman. Fireworks erupt in a blaze of glory but quickly fizzle, leaving just wisps of smoke and a memory of what was once spectacular. What Jeff’s journey suggests instead is passion as a compass—that thing that takes you some time to build, tinker with, and finally get right, and that then guides you on your long and winding road to where, ultimately, you want to be.
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.
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.
What is hope?
One kind of hope is the expectation that tomorrow will be better than today. It’s the kind of hope that has us yearning for sunnier weather, or a smoother path ahead. It comes without the burden of responsibility. The onus is on the universe to make things better.
Grit depends on a different kind of hope. It rests on the expectation that our own efforts can improve our future. I have a feeling tomorrow will be better is different from I resolve to make tomorrow better. The hope that gritty people have has nothing to do with luck and everything to do with getting up again.
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
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.