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