In my most recent article examining the success factor of grit, I discussed several of the reasons the concept is important and a few of the issues I have with the current understanding of it. As a result of all the reading needed for that article, I sent a few questions to Angela Duckworth, who I mentioned is the main researcher responsible for promoting the concept. In her email reply, she mentioned David Meketon. That led me to watch two videos: one of Meketon presenting about grit at a community college and another suggested by YouTube of Duckworth explaining grit.
I was so riled up by a few of the comments in each video, that I came home and ranted to my wife for almost 30 minutes on the topic and eventually ended with me deciding to write this article on the importance of understanding adaptation for researchers, teachers, and students. It also inspired me to begin another new series that I’ll name “Key Concepts”. Understanding adaptation is, quite simply, the single most important concept I know and could share with others.
The video below discusses several concepts, from self-control, perseverance, grit, to optimism and passion.
About halfway through the video above, Meketon states, “Here’s where the sweet spot really is. What it really takes is working at the edge of your ability. Let me describe that for you. You are trying to do something and it is as hard as anything. It’s right at the edge. That’s the sweet spot.
You’ve heard the old saying ‘no pain, no gain’. Well guess what? I have to break it to you, it’s true. If you’re not working at the edge of your ability. If you’re not working just a little harder than you can stand. If it is not unpleasant, you’re not working hard enough!
When you are saying, ‘This is hard! I’m frustrated. I don’t wanna do it.’ That’s where you’re supposed to be. That’s where we want you to be.”
Before discussing this quote, I want to share the second video and the comments from Duckworth that also provided the motivation for this article.
“Effective, results-producing work is not dependent upon the total volume of work primarily.
In the beginning of the video Duckworth says, “Grit is really more about your stamina. How consistently you’re working in a certain direction than how hard you’re working in that direction. It is not about intensity.
We don’t look for bursts of unusual productivity or effort, but we really look for constancy of effort over time.”
Now let’s take a look at what adaptation is and how it occurs before analyzing these two sets of comments.
Adaptation is an extremely important concept related to biology and evolution, specifically fitness. In evolutionary science, fitness is the ability to survive and reproduce and generally speaking, the more adaptable an individual or species is, the better fitness it has. On a less grand scale, fitness in health and exercise science is often described as the ability to do a task.
In a nutshell, adaptation encompasses all the changes that occur following stress in order to better cope next time the stress occurs. If an individual undergoes a stressful workout, she adapts by becoming stronger. If a child is abandoned and never develops proper attachment to a parent, it often adapts by becoming less trustful and curious of others. As one can see, adaptations can be both helpful and harmful.
Learning is the main form of adaptation for the majority of people in regards to personal and professional success. When we are presented with difficult problems, we work on them until we adapt and figure out how to deal with them more easily next time.
Math is always a great example. How difficult was multiplication for you as a child? Probably very difficult when first presented to you. However, over time you adapted (learned) to this new stress in your life and now multiplication comes easily with no stress at all. The same occurred as you learned division, algebra, geometry, etc. That is thanks to the wonderful ability of your brain to adapt to new stresses (in this case math).
So how do we drive adaptation most effectively? Physical training has many well known answers to this question that can be transferred beautifully to other areas, such as intellectual, emotional, and professional development.
Possibly the single most concise and easily understood explanation for driving effective adaptations I’ve seen comes from Alwyn Cosgrove. The full article is well worth the read as it takes only a minute or so, but here is the most important chunk:
In order to understand intensity and volume better, Mike Tuchscherer has written extensively on their relationship to adaptation and training effect. “I’ve said many times before that Intensity is mostly what determines your training effect. Volume determines the magnitude of that training effect” (All About Volume). This corroborates Cosgrove’s idea that adding volume before deciding the correct intensity is wasted effort. Tuchscherer further states in a later article, “If you’re training with a purpose in mind – any purpose – and you don’t pay attention to your intensity, then there is a good chance that you will not achieve the effect that you’re after. What’s more is the better you understand the training effect that each intensity can produce, the more surgical you can be in your own training. And precise training is effective training” (All About Intensity).
Although both Cosgrove and Tuchscherer agree that intensity is a higher priority for in designing effective work, Tuchscherer does clarify, “This is something that you have to understand if you want to improve your strength, size, or fitness. The reason is because continued improvement often hinges on volume. The reason for this is that volume and not intensity is the main driver of stress in your workouts. Some stress can be derived from intensity, but to a great extent that comes from psychological arousal. But that’s a topic for another time” (You Are Not Overtrained).
Tuchscherer is making the point that doing a bunch of volume at 50% intensity won’t deliver the results you are after, but neither will one repetition at 80-100%. You must train with enough intensity to get progress (stronger, smarter, faster) and then add volume to ensure an actual stress occurs so your body or brain has a reason to adapt.
Back to the Videos
I know this has been a long ride. I introduced two videos, then talked about adaptation, and then went onto physical training. However, without the understanding that physical training can shed on adaptation, analysis of the videos won’t make much sense.
Meketon stresses that we have to be frustrated, have feelings of unpleasantness, and be working at our absolute edge. Looking at the information just given, this seems more correct than Duckworth’s assertion that grit isn’t about intensity. However, it goes too far.
We do not have to be constantly frustrated to make progress. We do need to pick the appropriate intensity, which will sometimes be unpleasant, but not necessarily frustratingly so. After all, stress by it’s very nature is something we aren’t adapted to, so it will be uncomfortable. That doesn’t mean we need to be in pain though. The more appropriate saying in training circles is often, “stimulate, don’t annihilate”.
Duckworth misses the point in the other direction, believing that grit can make you successful via volume and frequency without regard to intensity. If you just work a long time, you will be alright. This is absolutely false. You cannot progress without increasing the average intensity over time. This is known as progressive overload in physical training and is the main driving force for improvement. In education circles, most of these ideas are encapsulated by Vygotsky’s “zone of proximal development” or Krashen’s “i + 1”. We must build intensity to progress, and yes this means that work never gets easier, only the work we’ve already mastered will be easy.
Rather than adopting the view that a marathon like approach to grit will make you successful, it makes more sense to think of success as resulting from a series of sprints. This requires people to work intensely for a short time, rest, recover, adapt, and then work at higher intensity over and over again in an endless iteration. The iteration over a long time is what creates success and is “marathon-like” only in the sense that it lasts a long time, but not in the sense of going slowly without breaks.
This cycle has been understood in medicine and physical training circles for over a half century now. It’s time education and achievement researchers figure it out.
Stress. Rest. Adapt. Iterate.
Further Reading and References
I quickly realized after publishing my last article, that there was no way a single post would capture what I had to say on the topic of causal factors of success and the way I think about the topic in general. So I decided to make it into a recurring series and tackle one factor at a time. The first factor that was immediately mentioned to me by an old friend from Korea was grit. Naturally, I dove into past books I've read to refresh my knowledge and looked to the research to see what there was to learn about the topic.
Grit is consistently defined by psychologist Angela Duckworth, the researcher largely responsible for bringing the word into everyday use, as “the tendency to pursue long-term challenging goals with perseverance and passion” (p. 3). She further states that, “Grit entails working strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity, and plateaus in progress. The gritty individual approaches achievement as a marathon; his or her advantage is stamina. Whereas disappointment or boredom signals to others that it is time to change trajectory and cut losses, the gritty individual stays the course” (p. 1-2).
The term is often conflated with self-control, a related, but significantly different concept. Duckworth explains, “Self-control entails aligning actions with any valued goal despite momentarily more-alluring alternatives; grit, in contrast, entails having and working assiduously toward a single challenging superordinate goal through thick and thin, on a timescale of years or even decades. Although both self-control and grit entail aligning actions with intentions, they operate in different ways and over different timescales” (p. 2). Essentially, self-control deals with the day-to-day distractions of everyday living in the modern world (i.e. Facebook at work, cake while on a diet, etc.), while grit is more concerned with a timeline of years, decades, or possibly even a lifetime.
Importance for students and teachers
Now that grit is understood and how it differentiates itself from self-control, it’s time to look at why it’s received so much attention. Basically, the Grit Scale - a questionnaire that self-assesses grit using eight or 12 questions, depending on the version - has been shown to be a remarkably accurate predictor of success in a variety of activities from the United States Military Academy at West Point to national spelling bees.
A few other interesting points about grit’s relevance are that it is:
Directly above, Duckworth explains that success is often constrained by the length of time devoted to the activity in question, rather than natural talent or work capacity over the short term. It is essential to understand that expertise and the deliberate practice required to reach an expert level often take years to accumulate. Whether you can work intensely for a couple of months on a particular interest is often not relevant to producing world class achievement or success. It takes grit or sustained effort over years.
Issues with the concept
While grit has been shown to be a valid predictor of success, it is usually classified as a stable personality trait and grouped within the framework of individual differences, even given that it does increase with age and education as mentioned above. A personality trait is by definition a natural or innate disposition towards certain behavior. Of course, our experiences tend to augment or curtail these traits, but it is still unclear to what extent this occurs with grit.
As Duckworth points out in the limitations section of her most cited article on grit, “A case could be made that the sum total of our research is to show that past behavior predicts future behavior. The strong version of this complaint would suggest there is no stable individual difference called grit. Rather, there is consistency of behavior across time, possibly reflecting consistency of situation (Mischel, 1968). Of course this claim questions such a thing as personality exists at all” (p. 13).
This brings me to my general rub with the idea. Even though it’s possible to measure this thing called “grit” does not mean that it necessarily exists. It could be that, “a third variable drove both success outcomes and responses to the Grit Scale” (p. 12).
As one explanation of how a third variable might drive success and responses to the Grit Scale, the now famous parents Laszlo and Klara Polgar were able to raise three daughters to become chess grand masters, the highest rank available in world chess. It seems hard to argue that these three young girls were passionate about chess when starting at the ages of four. They almost certainly would not have been perseverant, if not for their parents attempting to literally use them as experiments to show that deliberate practice over many years could achieve success in a field regardless of talent (p. 68-69).
Neither of the parents were strong chess players and there certainly is not evidence that chess is somehow genetically endowed. The parents did, however, study education and psychology professionally. In fact, if anyone had grit, it was the parents. Yet the grit of the parents, a individual personality trait, was “transferred” to the children. This seems to suggest that people can gain grit through proxy.
Of course, since they were family, the parents’ grit may have been passed down to the children genetically. However, there is enough research to show that people who engage in deliberate practice regardless of being coached by a parent or unrelated coach tend to succeed. Since deliberate practice is a mediating factor between grit and achievement, it seems more logical to stop there. Why reach beyond the importance of deliberate practice to some ephemeral quality deemed “grit”. In this case, we might even postulate that grit was a social trait, bouncing between husband and wife and fostered in the children, who also would have had each other to lean on as well.
Deliberate practice is known to be both teachable and learnable. Grit is some shapeless personality characteristic as of now. Grit also seems to be transferrable from coaches and other adults to second party individuals based on empirical observations like the one above with the Polgars, suggesting that it may not even exist as an independent factor from another third variable (perhaps social grit instead of individual grit, or simply the learned importance of deliberate practice) as discussed by Duckworth above.
Until more research is done to solidify the concept and figure out if it is teachable, it seems like wasted energy focusing on it in educational circles and throwing it around as a new buzz word to rile up staff meetings. There are so many things research has already shown to be effective, focusing on those knowns provides more than enough explanatory power to get started.
Further Reading and References
In the nineteenth century, it was possible to start playing chess at seventeen and still become a grand master. Among players born in the twentieth century, though, no one who started playing after the age of fourteen became a grand master. By the end of the twentieth century, Ericsson found, those who went on to become chess masters had started playing chess at an average age of ten and a half, and the typical grand master had started playing at seven (p. 132).
Intelligence is the dynamic interplay of engagement and abilities in pursuit of personal goals (p. 332).
Notice this definition of intelligence does not have the side effect of labeling students as innately gifted or not. It simply looks at congruence; are people acting in a manner that is congruent with their stated goals?
This ties-in right on the heels of the first point of exposure to a variety of experiences. As stated above, it seems foolish to stop exploring once you have found one thing you're relatively good at it. However, taking the definition to heart also means pursuing those things you have deemed interesting and applying your full engagement and abilities to the goal.
This means following up with anything that sparks an interest and finding out exactly what is needed to break into the field. For example, learning what actuaries are from a trip to an insurance company could lead you to investigate what is needed to become one (hint: about ten years of strenuous math exams you self-study for while working a full-time job).
Knowing what you're up against can drastically improve your odds by increasing your motivation. I have found that I am never motivated when goals are vague and the end point is not clear. By being engaged in the interest, I am able to figure out exactly what needs to be done by learning where to start and what an end point looks like.
Gaining a comparative advantage
Once a student has intelligently pursued her interests by exploring different experiences and investigating what it takes to succeed, it's time to gain a comparative advantage. This is one of the most important terms within the field of economics and essentially means being relatively better at producing some product than your competitors (usually in reference to different countries engaging in international trade).
There is a lot to say about this idea. Suffice to say that as the concept relates to most service or knowledge fields (the end result of most highly educated fields), a comparative advantage is going to depend on gaining expertise in your chosen field. Expertise is popularly thought of as taking 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to reach thanks to the research of Anders Ericsson and pop-nonfiction writer Malcolm Gladwell.
However, looking at a quote from How Children Succeed by Paul Tough, which discussed the average age a grand master started playing chess over the last century, quickly illustrates the fact that gaining expertise in a field is relative to how many hours your competitors have spent as well.
I have been teaching for a few months now at an international K-12 school in Singapore. The students are all good kids from nice families with supportive, albeit often very busy, parents who travel frequently. Many are very bright and the majority have privileges that 99% of the world would die to have.
This new experience has made me reflect on what it is we as teachers, schools, and societies want from our students and what success even means. While reflecting on the causal factors of success, three ideas have constantly stood out as related and necessary:
Of course, I do not think these are sufficient. Luck goes a long way to explaining any type of success in life, as does the nurturing of contentment and gratitude. However, leaving aside luck, which we have no control over and the idea of enlightened equanimity through some sort of ascetic meditation, the three ideas above seem to offer a strong explanation for much of a person's success.
Exposure to many and varied experiences
Being that we are embodied beings, experience is how we learn and adapt in the world. The mixture of our interaction with the environment and our genes is responsible for what we are good at and what we take an interest in. It is my belief that many people, myself included, simply never get the exposure needed to decide what opportunities in the world are deemed interesting or worthwhile to them.
As an example, I have developed a huge interest in health and well-being as I've gotten older and now often think it would be wonderful to be a medical doctor. However, this path never occurred to me as a child or student for a number of different reasons. Had I spent some time in and around hospitals, speaking with interesting practitioners, that interest most likely would have developed much earlier.
The main point is that students of all backgrounds need to spend time doing different activities, even ones they may not think will be interesting. Far too often, our youth get tracked into one sport or one activity that they seem to perform relatively good at and then stop exploring. This is awful and limits the field of vision that they can develop for the possibilities of their life. It is very difficult to imagine how your life as an actuary might be if you have never even heard of the profession.
The Theory of Personal Intelligence
Intelligence is a rather controversial field of research. Is there such a thing as g - general intelligence?How about multiple intelligences? How many? Is is fixed at birth? Developed over your lifetime? When it comes to intelligence, I strongly agree with Scott Barry Kaufmann, author of the book Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined, and what he has labeled the Theory of Personal Intelligence.
The author then goes on to discuss how one chess player practiced fourteen hours a day growing up and that his likely total hours of practice had exceeded twenty-five thousand hours, absolutely shattering the "ten thousand hour rule".
This understanding is highly important, as dedication to a profession will likely entail thousands of hours spent studying it. Realizing those numbers early on is a huge advantage. If a typical teacher spends only a few thousand hours deliberately practicing her craft in graduate school and then goes on to teach via autopilot for 20 years, one could theoretically pass and gain a comparative advantage over her relatively quickly by devoting four or five thousand hours of deliberate practice in the field of teaching. Understanding what the requirements for your chosen field are makes the path easier to follow when things get difficult.
Conclusion and Implications
The three factors discussed here attempt to draw the conclusion that individual success in a professional and economic sense can be traced back to gaining a comparative advantage that is developed through intelligent behavior after having spent enough time to develop real interests and gain exposure to the variety of opportunities available to young people.
If you have followed me so far, the implication of this actually goes much further than any musings on individual success. It implies that the basic structure of our schools and societies have missed how progress is made. Progress is often driven by our experts. Rarely are amateurs or dilettantes responsible for scientific breakthroughs or artistic masterpieces. This expertise and resultant progress can be leveraged to achieve whatever personal dreams of success a person might have - higher pay, less working hours, more vacation, etc. - as they are actually rare and valuable, i.e. scarce in the workforce and capable of demanding what they want.
This demands societal priorities. If the average grand master is now beginning to study chess and spend 25,000 hours practicing before reaching their early twenties, then in a very real sense, they are "more of an expert" than any medical doctor today. I would imagine this holds true for other fields like music and drama, where children are allowed to start early in their development. The competition is so high, that one must start while only three to seven years old in order to have any kind of advantage.
What would happen in our worlds of medicine, technology, and science if we had children gaining this kind of experience at a similarly young age. I can only imagine the breakthroughs that would result from a person who had already spent 20 years in medicine by the time most of us graduate from college.
I know there are plenty of ethical and legal issues with this conclusion.
Let me end with asking what the vision of our future is when we take chess and violin more seriously than medicine and technology as fields of expertise?