Intentional or not, the irony is compelling. The signature philanthropic endeavor of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation is popularly referred to as the “genius grant.” Shrouded in some measure of mystery, “You don’t apply for the MacArthur. You don’t ask your friends or colleagues to nominate you. Instead, a secret committee that includes the top people in your field decides you’re doing important and creative work” (xiii). Angela Duckworth was a MacArthur fellow in 2013, and the core argument that garnered her that distinction is “Grit may matter more than talent” (p. xv).
In many ways, that very argument runs counter to the popular perception of the program now funding its advancement. Inborn talent is the fertile soil from which genius is traditionally believed to bloom. In essence, a chosen few have it while the rest of us do not. Try as I might, for example, I cannot throw a 102 mph fastball, paint a landscape worthy of critical acclaim, or multiply sets of six-digit numbers in my head (or, let’s be honest, sets of three-digit numbers). In some cases, Duckworth would suggest my rationale for those deficiencies might be correct. However, she would likely argue that in most cases, I just failed to apply myself in a manner that would yield such results.
In Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance (Scribner, 2016), Duckworth contends “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” (p. 8). When it comes to throwing a fastball, painting a landscape, or doing multiplication of any complexity, Duckworth would argue I lack the needed determination. More specifically, I lack a vision and a will. The sluggard in me prefers the idea that a lack of talent is my problem. Fortunately for me, the results of Duckworth’s genius-grant-funded research indicate I am not alone.
Duckworth serves on the psychology faculty at the University of Pennsylvania, and her research into talent, grit, and what yields success contains an autobiographical thread—a thread also laced with irony. At the beginning of her book, Duckworth recounts how, when she was growing up, her father repeatedly reminded her and her siblings that none of them were geniuses. In a culture in which every impulse of a child seems to demand affirmation, such an message might sound troubling or, to some, abusive. Duckworth does not indicate that her father’s remarks were problematic. Instead, growing up with the understanding that she was not a genius motivated her not only to work hard, but to work hard at knowing how one becomes a genius.
The irony continues. One of her earliest professional positions was with an organization known for recruiting talent—McKinsey & Company. Later, she took a job teaching high school and became intrigued by why some of her students succeeded while others failed. She dug deep into this question when she returned to graduate school and sought to explain why some of West Point’s incoming cadets made it through the summer training session (known as “Beast Barracks”) while others did not. The results of that research yielded what she came to refer to as “the Grit Scale—a test that, when taken honestly, measures the extent to which you approach life with grit” (p. 9). In the end, she discovered that “how talented a cadet was said nothing about their grit, and vice versa” (p. 9). More than talent, grit was the better indicator of who showed up day in and day out. Grit ultimately determined success.
After dismissing the common perception that inborn talent is necessary for success and, in turn, affirming “that a high level of performance is, in fact, an accretion of mundane acts” (p. 38), Duckworth unveils the details of her “Grit Scale” and the foundation upon which the rest of her book is based. As she notes in the title, “Grit has two components: passion and perseverance” (p. 56), so people need to have a deep love for what they do. In Duckworth’s terms, however, falling in love may be the easy part as infatuation quickly fades. The challenge comes with staying in love, or persevering. More directly stated, “Enthusiasm is common. Endurance is rare” (58). The purpose of the Grit Scale is to measure both.
Although the Grit Scale is a sophisticated instrument, Duckworth will likely leave her fellow behavioral scientists wanting at this point of her book. Beyond the ironic truth that her work demonstrates, part of its value is its sheer accessibility. Most readers who pick up Duckworth’s book will understand what she is arguing. Her prose is clear, her narrative examples are insightful, and the ramifications of her research in a wide range of situations are evident. The hard part about Duckworth’s research does not come in working through it but in working out the details in everyday life. For many of us, the belief (and the hope) in talent dies hard. Personally, while I might want to pitch in the major leagues, I also lack the will to do what is needed.
The accessibility of Duckworth’s research is due in part to the book’s organization. Part One is comprised of five chapters that work together to dispel common myths, propose definitions, and clear the ground necessary for the cultivation of grit. For example, in Chapter Five, Duckworth writes, “A good place to start is to understand where you are today. If you’re not as gritty as you want to be, ask yourself why” (89). If grit is the result of repeated practice, then it’s not surprising to learn that grit is generally learned over time and is thus more the province of the old than the young.
Part Two, or “Growing Grit from the Inside Out,” includes four chapters that focus more deeply on qualities that cultivate grit. These chapters and the qualities they detail—interest, practice, and purpose— culminate in the virtue of hope. Aristotelians will undoubtedly be disappointed by the low level of philosophical detail in the chapters on practice and purpose. The tradeoff, however, is reader-friendly clarity. Those chapters lead into a discussion of hope, or “optimistic ways of explaining adversity, and that, in turn, leads to perseverance and seeking out new challenges that will ultimately make you even stronger” (p. 192).
Duckworth closes her volume with four chapters that discuss “Growing Grit from the Outside In.” Those chapters consider social institutions that can benefit from her research. For example, the first chapter in this section addresses the family and what parents, in particular, can do to nurture grit in their children. Duckworth is quick to note her research to date has not fully explored this topic to the level that her social scientist inclinations find great comfort.
Regardless, she offers some underlying principles that are recognizable. In particular, Duckworth contends “When our parents are loving, respectful, and demanding, we not only follow their example, we revere it” (p. 215). She then weaves variations of that argument into the remaining chapters to explain how other institutions, such as schools, can do the same. In particular, she highlights how schools’ co-curricular activities, such as fine arts and athletic programs, provide a space for young people to develop grit.
One other thread of irony woven into Duckworth’s book is that the very contexts in which young people cultivate grit are often the first to be cut in difficult financial times (i.e., fine arts programs) or are among the most misappropriated (i.e., athletic teams). If academic leaders and parents are interested in cultivating grit, Duckworth would likely recommend holding onto the orchestra, theater, or ceramics program. She may then lobby, especially to parents, that athletic programs are means to cultivate grit, not ends measured merely by wins and losses. In fact, Duckworth’s research suggests that a loss may cultivate grit more than a win.
Even if all her work does is dispel the myths that keep us from those lines of thinking, the irony is that achievement alone would constitute success. Here’s hoping it goes further.
Todd C. Ream serves on the faculty at Taylor University and as a distinguished fellow with Excelsia College (New South Wales). His most recent book, Restoring the Soul of the University (with Perry L. Glanzer and Nathan Alleman), is scheduled for release in March by InterVarsity Press.