Grit: Not just a cereal grain — a virtue of highly successful people, too

By catalyst

There is no shortage of maxims concerning the value of hard work. Perhaps the most famous is attributed to Edison and sweetened up by Wonka: “Invention, my dear friends, is 93% perspiration, 6% electricity, 4% evaporation, and 2% butterscotch-ripple.” You get the idea. My favorite is one I had hanging in my room for many months: “Creativity is ultimately a question of total discipline.”

Despite the prevalence of belief in the virtues of hard work, particularly in our Puritanically inspired culture, success has long been considered contingent on intelligence. Psychologists have devoted a wealth of resources to studying and measuring IQ since the mid-1800s. Indeed, intelligence is now better understood than any other stable individual personality trait, more than charisma or self-confidence, for instance.

Despite the commonly held belief that the smartest among us achieve the most, Angela Duckworth, a researcher from the University of Pennsylvania, received much input to the contrary when she interviewed lawyers, investment bankers, journalists, doctors and other professionals. Many of these accomplished individuals “were awed by the achievements of peers who did not at first seem as gifted as others but whose sustained commitment to their ambitions was exceptional. Likewise, many noted with surprise that prodigiously gifted peers did not end up in the upper echelons of their field.” How could that be if, as we’ve been encouraged to believe, intelligence is a guarantor of success? Why do some individuals accomplish more than others of equal intelligence?

new report by Duckworth attributes achievement and success not simply to innate skill or intelligence but rather to an array of virtues – creativity, vigor, extraversion – and one in particular: grit.

Duckworth defines grit as “perseverance and passion for long term goals.” As you might suspect, people with vast stores of grit tend to put in extra effort and persevere when most of us choose to cave:

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.

To investigate her hypothesis that grit is a significant factor in achievement and success (defined as the achievement of “vocational or avocational goals that are recognized by other people” and not, say, how well you’ll raise your kids or how good a friend you are), Duckworth compiled a grit test and gave it to Ivy League undergrads, students at West Point, National Spelling Bee participants and others. You can take the grit test here and find your own grit quotient here.

Duckworth’s initial evidence that grit is likely more predictive of one’s success than intelligence. She also found that being intelligent does not necessarily mean you’re gritty or vice versa, which could imply that those of us unworthy of Mensa membership could, if sufficiently gritty, enjoy more success than our brainiac friends. According to the study, grittier people typically attain higher levels of education and the gritty might get grittier with age. Gritty individuals tend to pick a career and stick with it, and while they may score lower on standardized tests than their peers, they tend to earn higher GPAs. The study also points this out:

Among more than 3,500 participants attending nine different colleges, follow-through was a better predictor than all other variables, including SAT scores and high school rank, of whether a student would achieve a leadership position in college. Follow-through was also the single best predictor of significant accomplishment in science, art, sports, communications, organization, or some other endeavor.

These findings remind me of a study done by a researcher at Florida State University, Anders Ericsson, that attributes the acquisition of expertise to “prolonged efforts to improve performance while negotiating motivational and external restraints.” In other words, Ericsson’s research suggests that expertise – and in turn success – is the result of grit, as narrowly defined by Duckworth and Peterson.

So, is there any hope for those of us who invariably find ourselves blown by the winds from one career to another? Unfortunately, Duckworth relates the implications of her findings principally to children. She suggests that children who demonstrate exceptional commitment to an activity should receive as much support as “gifted” children, that we encourage children to exercise stamina in their work and that colleges and universities “that encourage undergraduates to sample broadly recognize the ineluctable trade-off between breadth and depth.”

Duckworth notes that grit is a “stable” attribute, but they fail to address whether it can be cultivated. There are those of us who have never found that “thing” that seems worth ignoring all the other things to pursue. Instead, these jack-of-all-trades types have lived their lives in pursuit of knowledge and experience in a wide swath of disciplines. They lead rich, adventurous lives, but the grit study suggests that they are unlikely to achieve vocational success, which may or not be important to them.

The valuation of vocational success defined by Duckworth as “recognized by other people” raises a number of questions. First, what are the costs of success? A life of success is not perforce a happy or joyful one. Intense dedication to one’s career often necessitates myriad sacrifices and can carry a heavy emotional price tag or even be terminally stressful. It can also be the case that gritty pursuit of career success wrecks a trail of broken emotional relationships. Allow me to play devil’s advocate for a bit. Is there frequently an inverse relationship between success and happiness? How fulfilling is a life whose success is judged by others? Can you be a success in life if you enjoy it but do not reach exceptional career heights? What about career dockworkers, landscapers, janitors, pizza-delivery people, trash-collectors, cashiers, waiters? Can they be recognized as successful?

If success is what you’re after, the findings of the grit study could be a patchwork road-map. It suggests that you exercise stamina and stick-to-itiveness, finish what you begin and create long-term goals. For starters, that could be as simple as finishing that crossword puzzle, cryptogram or book you started and got bored with. Training to run a marathon is a common goal that requires great dedication and necessarily builds stamina and endurance, which, while physical, could inspire you to cultivate those traits in your professional life. Learning to overcome barriers, follow through on tasks and exercise self-control might just make you a grittier individual. If that’s what you want to be.

This article was originally published on November 5, 2009.