Is Angela Duckworth’s Grit worth all the hype? Is having grit really more important than intelligence or natural talent?
Angela Duckworth’s book Grit was published in 2016 and became an instant bestseller—remaining on the New York Times bestseller list for years. Although there have been many criticisms of the book, many swear that Duckworth’s research is revolutionary.
Continue reading for our Grit book review including the book’s context, impact, and critical reception.
Grit Book Review
In her book Grit, Duckworth argues that talent and intelligence matter less to success than grit, which she defines as a combination of perseverance and passion that drives a person to consistently pursue goals over many years.
Duckworth is primarily interested in how to raise gritty kids, and her insights have inspired parents and educators around the globe since the book’s publication in 2016. However, she believes that adults, too, can develop grit, and she lays out specific, measurable ways to do so.
Her work has sparked heated debates about which matters more to success, innate talent or deliberate effort, and whether or not grit is instinctive or can be developed and taught. Throughout our guide, we’ll address these controversies, and we’ll refer to other psychologists who shed additional insight on Duckworth’s ideas.
About the Author
Psychologist Angela Lee Duckworth is a child of Chinese immigrants. Her father was a chemist and research fellow at Dupont who valued intelligence highly and was obsessed with how smart he and his family were, which helped fuel Duckworth’s research interest in what drives accomplishment.
Later in life, Duckworth won a 2013 MacArthur Fellowship, often called the “genius grant,” ironically for her theory, later popularized in Grit, that accomplishment may depend more on passion and perseverance than inborn talent.
Duckworth has a BA in neurobiology from Harvard University, an MSc in neuroscience from Oxford University, and a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Pennsylvania.
Today she serves as a professor at the University of Pennsylvania as well as a faculty co-director of the Penn-Wharton Behavior Change for Good Initiative and Wharton People Analytics. She also runs the Character Lab, a nonprofit devoted to helping children thrive using scientific research and insights.
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The Book’s Publication
Grit was published by Simon & Schuster in 2016. It was a continuation of theories Duckworth had first developed in 2007, when she published a study exploring the importance of grit. The book built off the popularity she achieved after her 2013 TED Talk, which was viewed over 8 million times before the publication of the book (and has been viewed four times that amount since, between both the TED site and YouTube posting).
The Book’s Context
Grit sits in a long line of books aimed at demystifying the psychology of success by emphasizing hard work over natural talent or intellect. In the long-running debate over nature versus nurture, these books bank firmly on nurture, arguing that learned behaviors matter more than your innate cognitive or physical abilities. Importantly, this means that you can control your life rather than being limited by the constraints of your inborn talents, as you can consciously decide how to think and how to act.
Other books that advance these theories include:
- Mindset by Carol Dweck
- Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell
- Atomic Habits by James Clear
- The 5 AM Club by Robin Sharma
- The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle
- Talent Is Overrated by Geoff Colvin
It also sits squarely in a genre of books aimed at teaching your children how to develop characteristics that will lead them to future success, including:
- How Children Succeed by Paul Tough
- The Marshmallow Test by Walter Mishel
- Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua
In focusing on how a personality trait can affect achievement, Grit participates in the discussion of how personality—broadly defined as your unique thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and temperament—affects your life. Many psychologists have explored and written about personality extensively, and four main theories of personality have emerged:
- Psychoanalytic, which incorporates theories of the id, ego, and superego
- Trait, which is more commonly known as the “Big Five” personality scale measuring openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism
- Humanistic, which holds that our personalities are formed according to a hierarchy of needs, starting with basic needs like food and shelter and ending with self-actualization needs that allow us to reach our full potential
- Social cognitive, which contends that our personalities are learned from others
Duckworth’s exploration of grit aligns most closely with one of the five personality characteristics in the Trait theory of personality—specifically, the conscientiousness characteristic.
The Book’s Impact
Duckworth’s book had an enormous impact on the conversation around how grit or perseverance affects success, supercharging the cultural debate on which matters more: nature or nurture.
Many readers were particularly interested in what her research suggested about child development and the importance of raising children with a gritty mindset to best prepare them for future challenges. It sparked debates about how parents and educators can instill grit in children, and it inspired schools to add grit-focused elements to their curriculums, both by testing for grit and trying to teach it.
Other publications reviewed Grit with less enthusiasm—The New Yorker, for example, wondered what readers might actually learn from the book, since the link between hard work and success is fairly well-established.
Overall, several main lines of criticism have emerged in response to Duckworth’s book:
- Grit is no different from the well-known personality trait of conscientiousness.
- Duckworth’s insights are simply common sense—naturally, if you work hard, you’ll be more successful.
- Grit doesn’t actually matter to success—intelligence and talent are what counts.
- A focus on grit engenders a “blame the victim” mentality, crediting a person’s failure to a lack of effort and ignoring the many social and economic obstacles that face some people.
Supporters of Duckworth’s theories, however, respond to these criticisms, saying:
- Grit measures more than just conscientiousness because it measures passion as well as perseverance.
- No one is claiming Duckworth invented the concept of grit—but her analysis of its importance is sound.
- Although studies are inconclusive as to exactly how much intelligence affects success, research does indicate that grit matters.
- Duckworth doesn’t ignore socioeconomic and other factors that challenge kids, but emphasizes that these factors don’t inevitably define a person, and they can be overcome. Further, she doesn’t claim to have all the answers on how to create grit, but instead her discussion points out its importance.
Commentary on the Book’s Approach
Duckworth’s primary interest as a researcher is children. She first started questioning how grit might affect a child’s success when she was a seventh-grade math teacher and noticed that the kids who got the best grades were not necessarily the ones with the highest intelligence, but rather, they were the ones who worked hardest. She started thinking about how personality traits might affect success more than natural talent, and she left teaching to become a researcher in the field of psychology.
Although her focus is on how to raise gritty kids, her insights apply to adults as well, and many of her discussions involve people who developed grit later in life.
Notably, although Duckworth never argues that intelligence and talent have no effect on success, her book is often interpreted as making that claim. It’s possible that because she focuses almost exclusively on the benefits of hard work, readers get the sense that she doesn’t recognize or acknowledge any benefits of natural talent. However, a closer reading of her theories reveals the balance in her beliefs, where intelligence and talent matter, but not for nearly as much as is commonly thought.
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- How your grit can predict your success
- The 4 components that make up grit
- Why focusing on talent means you overlook true potential