Angela Duckworth: Your Grit Level Changes Over Time

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Grit" by Angela Duckworth. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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How is it possible for your grit level to change? What factors lead to changes in your grit level?

In her book Grit, Angela Duckworth describes grit as a trait that combines passion and perseverance. She says that your level of grit matters more than natural talent or intelligence when it comes to success. However, Duckworth also explains that your grit level is not set and can change over the span of your life.

Here’s how your grit level can change over time, according to Angela Duckworth.

Grit Level Changes Over Time

Duckworth writes that behavioral traits can change not only in general populations throughout history, but also in individual lives, over the course of years. She notes that studies show higher grit levels in older populations than in younger populations, as shown by this graph:

She notes there might be several possible explanations for this:

  • Older people might have endured more hardship throughout their lives (e.g. by surviving through World War II and the Cold War) and have developed more grit in response.
  • Maturation could be genetically programmed—evolutionarily, grit may not be as beneficial in early years when seeking mates, and it may be more helpful later when caring for a family.
  • Maturation might happen naturally over time as people learn that grit is a successful strategy for accomplishing goals, and that the opposite—quitting plans, shifting goals, starting over—leads to failure and is unsatisfying. 
  • Life experiences—like getting a job, having children, or caring for parents—require us to mature and adopt more grit.

Because we don’t have longitudinal studies of grit, we can’t distinguish between these explanations, but the third is Duckworth’s favorite. Anecdotally, people change when new expectations are thrust upon them—imagine the teen who sleeps in daily, but then enlists in the military and is punished for waking up past 6 a.m. In this way, Duckworth firmly believes that grit can be grown. 

Social Expectations Can Affect Personality

Duckworth’s argument that people develop grit as they age because they grow into roles that require it aligns with the social investment theory of personality. This theory holds that personalities can change when people are thrust into new social roles that lead to new expectations and responsibilities. 

A famous example demonstrating this theory was the Stanford Prison Experiment in 1971 that placed 24 male college students in the role of either prison guard or prisoner and then observed their behavior. Although the participants came from similar backgrounds and had similar personality profiles (based on maturity and lack of antisocial tendencies), by the end of the six-day experiment, they were behaving very differently depending on which role they’d been assigned. Those in the role of prison guard acted cruelly and those in the role of prisoner acted subserviently. 

While many observers have critiqued the study for its ethical breaches and questionable applicability to real-world situations, the study does strongly suggest that personality is determined by more than mere genetics, aligning with Duckworth’s argument that grit can be influenced by a person’s role and stage in life. 

In a less extreme example of how grit responds to social roles, Meg Jay discusses the importance of having purpose, vision, and consistency in your twenties in her book The Defining Decade. Like Duckworth, Jay notes that in your twenties, flitting between careers is common, and she proposes that this is because it’s culturally accepted and even encouraged, as young adults are bombarded by messages from the media, friends, and even family that they should enjoy their twenties as a “second childhood.” 

Jay advises you to ignore these messages, and instead to place yourself in the role of a more mature, forward-thinking person, because if you don’t build the foundation for a career in your twenties, you’ll be playing catch-up in your thirties against people who started working toward their long-term goals earlier. 

Jay never mentions grit or Duckworth’s theories, but her book is an exploration of the real-world application of grit and how consistency (or, in Duckworth’s words, passion) can affect the trajectory of your life depending on how early you adopt it. Her advice aligns with Duckworth’s that grit is changeable and is something you can consciously choose to adopt. 
Angela Duckworth: Your Grit Level Changes Over Time

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Angela Duckworth's "Grit" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Grit summary:

  • How your grit can predict your success
  • The 4 components that make up grit
  • Why focusing on talent means you overlook true potential

Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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