Author and psychologist Angela Duckworth argues that people with high levels of grit (a combination of passion and perseverance) learn to organize their lives around a single top-level goal that guides all of their decisions. Duckworth’s own “life-organizing goal” is simple but specific: “use psychological science to help children thrive.” Indeed, her life, work, and writing are a testament to the power of behavioral science. In Grit, she shows that countless psychologists (as well as sociologists, neuroscientists, and even philosophers) have dedicated their careers to understanding the human mind through the scientific method. And their work has paid off: it has given scholars a wide range of techniques for understanding and modifying people’s behaviors, thoughts, and perceptions. In particular, psychology is one of humanity’s main strategies for harnessing its own potential. In other words, beyond studying how people grow over time and achieve their goals, psychology also helps people grow and achieve even more ambitious goals. Thus, Duckworth shows that psychology and behavioral science should be seen as central tools in humanity’s attempts to improve itself.
But Duckworth also clearly identifies psychology’s limits—she admits that there are certain topics that psychologists can’t study (and many that they simply haven’t gotten to yet). For instance, she notes that psychologists can’t ethically run experiments assigning children to different extracurricular activities, which means that evidence about extracurriculars’ implications for success is still limited. Similarly, Duckworth frequently points out where her conclusions are only provisional, as psychologists need more studies to answer specific research questions (like whether warm or stern parenting is more likely to foster grit). This may seem to limit the power and validity of her conclusions, but actually, it just bolsters her credibility further. By explaining exactly where the evidence for her beliefs begins and ends, Duckworth affirms that she only makes claims that she knows to be true. Moreover, by pointing to directions for future research, she suggests that researchers likely will be able to answer many open questions about grit and success in the future, which reaffirms that psychology is a key engine of human progress.
Duckworth also shows how psychological research benefits the world by generating practical solutions to the problems that people face. In particular, since she focuses on the psychology of success, she notes how psychology research has opened new possibilities for human achievement. First, experimental psychology points people to effective behavioral interventions that can make them more successful. For example, researchers have found that a specific practice routine called deliberate practice is by far the most effective way for people to improve their skills. Through deliberate practice, people have achieved unprecedented levels of mastery in a wide variety of fields, ranging from Olympic swimming to the National Spelling Bee. This shows how cutting-edge psychological research actually expands the realm of human possibility by giving people skill-improvement strategies that are scientifically proven and that they wouldn’t have known about otherwise. Next, psychology also shows how people can change their lives simply by changing the way they think. For instance, Duckworth emphasizes that learning “optimistic self-talk”—or viewing situations in a positive light and blaming “temporary and specific causes” for problems—is one of the most important changes people can make in order to develop grit. (This is because optimists are more likely to see themselves as capable of overcoming problems, try to overcome those problems, and actually succeed in doing so.) This is another example of how psychologists have given people a whole new set of tools for improving their lives—in this case, by demonstrating how thought shapes behavior.
For Duckworth, grit is so valuable because it enables people to push past what they perceive to be their limits. It allows them to develop abilities and accomplish feats that may have seemed improbable in the past. But she also shows that, in many ways, psychology has done the same for humanity: it has allowed people to understand and improve on their natural programming in ways that no individual could ever do on their own. Thus, while Duckworth’s book is still primarily about the value of grit, it’s also a clear defense of the scientific method, scientific community, and generations of past psychologists that have made her research possible.
Psychology and Human Development ThemeTracker
Psychology and Human Development 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
“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.”
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?
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.