The Power of Passion and Perseverance
Author: Angela Duckworth
“. . . persuasive and fascinating . . .” — Malcolm Gladwell, New York Times bestselling author of The Tipping Point, Outliers, and Blink
Grit: The word has mouth feel. It sounds like something John Wayne would chaw on. Who wouldn’t want grit? Wusses. Forget ’em.
Angela Duckworth, the psychologist who has made “grit” the reigning buzzword in education-policy circles, would surely recoil at any association between it and Wayne’s outmoded machismo. Duckworth is a scholar you have to take seriously. She has been featured in two best- selling books (“How Children Succeed,” by Paul Tough, and “The Power of Habit,” by Charles Duhigg), consulted by the White House and awarded the MacArthur “genius” fellowship for her work on this obviously desirable trait. At the University of Pennsylvania’s Duckworth Lab, grit is gender-neutral. It’s self-control and stick-to-it-iveness. The two big ideas about grit that have made Duckworth famous are first, that it predicts success more reliably than talent or I.Q.; and second, that anyone, man or woman, adult or child, can learn to be gritty.
Nonetheless, the word has a cowboy kick, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It harks back to America’s pioneering days. It took grit to light out for the territory, as Huck Finn might have said. The notion that talent is born, not made, is the modern-day version of the caste system those Americans were fleeing. The cult of genius reinforces passivity and dampens ambition. “If we think of genius as something magical, we are not obliged to compare ourselves and find ourselves lacking,” Nietzsche wrote in a passage quoted by Duckworth in her new book, “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.”
Grit, on the other hand, is egalitarian, or at least a less class-based indicator of future accomplishment than aptitude. Measurable intelligence owes something to genetic endowment but also depends heavily on environmental inputs, such as the number of words spoken to a child by her caregivers. The development of grit does not rely quite so much on culturally specific prompts. Moreover, grit appears to be a better engine of social mobility.
Giving character training to the underprivileged will not level America’s increasingly Dickensian inequalities, of course, but Duckworth’s ideas about the cultivation of tenacity have clearly changed some lives for the better. Duckworth has worked closely with influential figures in the education-reform movement, like the founders of the KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) charter school network, which now has 183 schools in 20 states. She helped them devise the tough-love or “no excuses” pedagogical approach increasingly common among charter schools, which holds students to high standards and employs stern disciplinary methods meant to cultivate good habits. Thanks to her, social and emotional education appears on public school lesson plans throughout the country. There’s even a movement to test schools on how well they teach these noncognitive skills, as they’re called, although it must be said that Duckworth strongly opposes this. She argues that any test of character worth giving is too subjective to standardize, and too easy to game.
In this book, Duckworth, whose TED talk has been viewed more than eight million times, brings her lessons to the reading public. My guess is you’ll find “Grit” in the business section of your local bookstore. As marketing strategies go, it’s not a bad one, although the conventions of the self-help genre do require Duckworth to boil down her provocative and original hypotheses to some rather trite-sounding formulas.
If this book were a Power Point presentation, as it surely has been, the best slide would be the two equations that offer a simple proof for why grit trumps talent: Talent × effort = skill. Skill × effort = achievement. In other words, “Effort counts twice.” My grandfather, an immigrant, knew this. He would have called grit Sitzfleisch. (Malcolm Gladwell, in his best-selling “Outliers,” called it the “10,000-hour rule.”) Moreover, you don’t just need Sitzfleisch. You need focused Sitzfleisch. Thirteen-year-old Kerry Close logged more than 3,000 hours of practice to become the National Spelling Bee champion, but that wasn’t the reason she won. Close’s competitive edge came from her fearless approach to practicing. At her tender age, she had the guts to identify and fix her mistakes, over and over again.
I’m a person who takes to her bed when forced to confront her own failures, so I was daunted by Close and the other indefatigable people — “grit paragons” — profiled by Duckworth: West Point cadets who endure a grueling rite of initiation; a woman who overcame cerebral palsy to become one of the most successful comics in Britain. I got the lowest possible score on Duckworth’s Grit Scale, and dropped right onto my fainting couch. But there is hope for me yet. Duckworth offers what amounts to a four-step program, the last step of which is to overcome pessimism by cultivating what her fellow psychologist Carol Dweck calls a “growth mind-set.” I just have to complete Steps 1 through 3 first: (1) identify a burning interest; (2) practice it a lot; and (3) develop a sense of higher purpose, by which Duckworth means I must believe that my passion will improve the world.
Step 3 strikes me as the least plausible of the four, even though Duckworth offers evidence that people who think their pursuits contribute to the well- being of others are more likely to meet their “top-level goals.” Success is heartwarming, but does not always make the world a better place. One paragon of “purpose-driven grit” is Kat Cole, the child of a cash-strapped single mother, who rose from a waitressing gig at Hooters to become president of the Cinnabon bakery chain. Cole’s Horatio Algeresque tale may inspire readers, but her philosophy of giving back will not awaken anybody’s altruistic instincts. “If I could help companies, I could help brands,” she asserts. “If I could help brands, I could help communities and countries.” This is corporate sloganeering, not an ethical stance. At 880 calories and 36 grams of fat apiece, Cinnabon buns help no one.
The feebleness of this example exposes a flaw in this book and, to a lesser degree, in Duckworth’s doctrine: A focus on grit decouples character education from moral development. Duckworth never questions the values of a society geared toward winning, nor does she address the systemic barriers to success. She is aware of the problem, and includes the necessary to-be-sure paragraph. “Opportunities — for example, having a great coach or teacher — matter tremendously,” she writes. “My theory doesn’t address these outside forces, nor does it include luck. It’s about the psychology of achievement, but because psychology isn’t all that matters, it’s incomplete.” She concludes with a section praising the writer and MacArthur fellow Ta‑Nehisi Coates for being “especially gritty,” though I wonder how Coates, who has written extensively about structural racism in America, might feel about being used to exemplify her up-by-the-bootstraps ethos.
You can’t blame Duckworth for how people apply her ideas, but she’s not shy about reducing them to nostrums that may trickle down in problematic ways. On the one hand, some of the “no excuses” charter schools that her research helped to shape have raised math and literacy scores among minority and poor students. On the other hand, a growing number of scholars as well as former teachers at those schools report that some of the schools, at least, feel more like prisons than houses of learning. Schools that prize self- regulation over self-expression may lift a number of children out of poverty, but may also train them to act constrained and overly deferential — “worker-learners,” as the ethnographer Joanne W. Golann calls them. Meanwhile, schools for more affluent children encourage intellectual curiosity, independent reasoning and creativity. Ask yourself which institutions are more likely to turn out leaders. Perhaps an approach to character training that’s less hard-edge — dare I say, less John Wayne-ish? — and more willing to cast a critical eye on the peculiarly American cult of individual ascendancy could instill grit while challenging social inequality, rather than inadvertently reproducing it.
Review by: Judith Shulevitz, a contributing opinion writer at The Times, is the author of “The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time.”