What is the meaning of “grit”? Is the idea of grit something new and revolutionary, or is it an old concept with a new name?
In her New York Times bestselling book Grit, Angela Duckworth defines grit as a personality trait that combines perseverance and passion. She asserts that having grit is more important than any natural intelligence or talent. However, not everyone agrees with Duckworth’s conclusions.
Continue reading to learn more about the meaning of grit from opposing viewpoints.
What Is Grit?
Duckworth formulated the idea of grit after noticing that talent and luck were incomplete explanations for success in a variety of fields, including the military, sales, business, and sports. In each of these, people who showed early potential sometimes dropped out and some successful people didn’t start off showing the most promise.
So, what is the meaning of grit? Well, Duckworth noticed that the one characteristic that successful people had in common that distinguished them from the non-successful was grit, which she defines as a personality trait combining perseverance and passion.
- Perseverance means having resilience: It’s the ability to overcome setbacks, work hard, and finish things rather than give up.
- Passion means having direction: It’s the ability to adhere to a goal over the long term and maintain your interest level, as opposed to changing your goal mercurially.
|Is Grit Different From Conscientiousness?|
Critics of Duckworth’s book contend that grit is not a new concept, but instead is merely a deep exploration of conscientiousness, a long-known and well-acknowledged personality trait. Conscientiousness is one of the Big Five personality traits used by psychologists to predict how a person will react to life and to adversity. (The other four traits are openness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.) Conscientiousness describes the tendency to be responsible, organized, persistent, goal-oriented, and self-controlled. Duckworth has argued that grit differs from conscientiousness in that it also incorporates passion—the adherence to high-level, long-term goals—rather than just short-term commitment to goals. Thus she describes grit as not just resilience—the ability to bounce back from setbacks—but also loyalty to goals over many years.
However, some researchers have had difficulty finding distinctions between grit and conscientiousness even with this explanation, and have concluded that they’re essentially the same thing and have the same influence on a person’s success. These psychologists contend that both grit and conscientiousness describe a tendency to work hard toward goals, and any distinction that accounts for long-term goals is moot, because people who work hard naturally accomplish long-term goals.
Duckworth contends that gritty people constantly see themselves as never good enough. They’re never complacent with where they are. Yet they’re not miserable—gritty people are content being discontented. They work on things of great interest to them, and the idea of giving up rarely crosses their mind. This is what brings them success.
|Getting Comfortable With Discomfort Leads to Success|
Other experts agree that discomfort is not an inherently bad thing, because it can inspire you to improve your situation. For example, Frank Yoo, who served as director of design at, among others, Google, Lyft, and Coinbase, has discussed his relationship with discomfort as a positive one. He observes that when you feel frustrated or anxious, it’s your mind and body telling you that you need to grow. He relates periods in his career when he had a choice to either keep using a skill set that he’d already mastered or to start learning a new, more difficult one, and he chose to take on the difficult one. He attributes his success to always choosing to take on a challenge.
Yoo recommends that you actively seek out challenges that make you uncomfortable so that you constantly push your limits. In doing so, he notes that you might initially feel some imposter syndrome—where you doubt your abilities and feel like a fraud—but that this reaction fades with experience.
Research on Grit
In forming her theories, Duckworth conducted many studies measuring the predictive power of grit on success. In one of her earliest, she examined newly admitted West Point cadets, looking for personality characteristics that might predict which candidates would complete the school’s rigorous programs and which would not.
She focused on the admissions program, an intense, seven-week boot camp after which one in 20 cadets typically dropped out of the academy. For her study, Duckworth had the cadets fill out a questionnaire before they started the program, from which she calculated a grit score. After the program, Duckworth looked back to the questionnaire to see whether it predicted which cadets had stuck with the program and which had dropped out.
She also examined the cadets’ admissions scores that the school used to admit them to the academy in the first place. Admissions criteria considered SAT scores, high school rank, physical ability, and leadership potential (participation in academic clubs and sports).
Duckworth notes that the admissions criteria heavily weighted natural attributes of intelligence and physical fitness. In contrast, her questionnaire measured persistence and passion—grit. She found that the school’s admission criteria couldn’t accurately predict who would drop out, but her grit questionnaire predicted completion better than any other predictor.
Additionally, she found that grit had little relationship to IQ score, suggesting the two factors are independent. Further, grit was able to predict success even after accounting for IQ, meaning it contributes to success above and beyond IQ.
Her research found similar results in many other studies:
- Grit predicts the retention of salespeople better than other personality traits like conscientiousness or extroversion.
- Adults who complete graduate degrees have higher grit.
- Children who perform better in spelling bees showed higher grit scores.
|Counterpoint: IQ Can Sometimes Better Predict Test Scores|
Critics of Duckworth point to studies that indicate the opposite conclusion: that IQ has a greater influence on success. A large study in England found that grit only accounted for 0.5% of the success of students taking the GCSE exams—comprehensive exams evaluating a student’s mastery of a particular subject at the end of secondary school. Intelligence mattered far more, accounting for 40% of the outcome.
Researchers concluded that grit doesn’t in fact matter to academic success, and that the current preoccupation with grit inspired by Duckworth’s book is misguided. They then advised that schools drop their grit-focused curriculums.
However, Duckworth does acknowledge that intelligence counts highly on tests like SATs. Her argument, though, is that for success beyond tests—success in an overall professional or academic career—grit is a better predictor of achievement than intelligence.
The studies referenced above support this argument. The West Point program favors not just people who can intellectually and physically meet its challenges, but also those who can endure through the hardships of the program. The fact that salespeople with longevity have grit shows that grit matters over the course of a career—while intelligence or talent may get you a job, it’s grit that will keep you in it. The same goes for people working toward graduate degrees.
The case of the children in spelling bees brings up a nuance of the theory, though. Duckworth’s studies show that successful spelling bee contestants study longer and more effectively than contestants who aren’t as successful. This clearly points to grit, but other studies, as noted above, have shown that test taking is influenced by intelligence more than grit. Spelling bees are a test. So why does grit matter here more than intelligence?
It may have to do with the type of test that these are—spelling bees are less about reasoning and more about straightforward memorization. They might, therefore, be more influenced by how many hours a person spends reviewing spellings than by intelligence alone.
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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