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