Blog Post No. 38
14th September 2016
Copyright © Renata Taylor-Byrne 2016
Renata’s Coaching & Counselling blog: A ‘Rave Review’ of Grit: the Power of Passion and Perseverance by Dr Angela Duckworth
In this blog I want to explain to you why I think this book – Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance – by Angela Duckworth is a great book, and show you how her research can help us in our daily lives, as we try to achieve our goals.
Dr Angela Duckworth is an Associate Professor of psychology, at the University of Pennsylvania. When she was in her second year of graduate school, she started researching the achievements of highly effective people in different areas of life: business, the arts, journalism, medicine, athletics, the law, etc.
She wanted to know if there were any common features that successful people, at the top of these various fields, shared. And so she interviewed the leaders in these different occupations and discovered something which she found of great interest. There was a distinctive way of behaving that they all shared. When they faced failure, in one form or another, they just kept going!
She found that highly successful people were remarkably persevering. They were really hard-working and could bounce back after set-backs. And they knew where they were headed. They were passionate about what they were doing and this drove them on.
In her book she states:
“No matter what the domain, the highly successful had a kind of ferocious determination that played out in 2 ways. Firstly, these exemplars were unusually hard-working and resilient. Secondly, they knew in a very deep way what it was they wanted. They not only had determination – they had direction.”
Gradually, as the interviews with these highly successful people progressed, she was able to create a series of questions. These questions tried to gauge the extent of someone’s ability to keep going in the face of obstacles, and how passionate they were about their chosen activities.
With these questions, she created a questionnaire called the ‘Grit scale’, and she decided grit – meaning passion and perseverance – was the outstanding feature of the successful people she interviewed. In the scale, she has several questions about perseverance and also questions about passion.
She describes passion as: “…a compass – the thing that takes you some time to build and tinker with and finally get right, and that then guides you on your long and winding road to where, ultimately, you want to be”.
Angela Duckworth starts her book with a description of the training of new recruits to the United States Military Academy at West point. She describes highly capable and dedicated cadets, who, in order to be selected, have had to produce excellent high school grades and demonstrate top marks in physical fitness tests.
They have to undergo seven weeks of initial training, which is very rigorous and demanding, and hence is called “Beast Barracks”.
These cadet trainees had applied in their junior year in high school to join the West Point cadets, and although 14,000 apply, this number is cut down to 4,000 who then have to get nominated (by a member of Congress, or a senator, or the Vice-President of the United States). These 4,000 are then reduced because fewer than half will meet the strict academic and physical standards of West Point.
From this group of approximately 2,500, there is a final group selected of 1,200 who are enrolled and admitted into the academy.
What fascinated Angela Duckworth was the number of trainees who didn’t make it to the end of the training course and she wanted to find out why. During this 7 week training, (which is very strenuous, with no weekends off and no contact with friends and family), there is a drop-out rate of 1 in 5 cadets.
Why was this drop-out rate so high with young recruits who had worked for years to achieve their dream of becoming a West Point cadet for the United States Military?
To find an explanation, she used her own ‘Grit scale’, which I mentioned at the start of this blog, to see if the results achieved by cadets (prior to their training) gave a clue as to who would drop out of the 7 week training, and who would complete the training course successfully.
She administered the test in July 2004 to 1,218 West Point cadets and discovered something remarkable. What she did was to compare the scores on the ‘Grit scale’, which the cadets had achieved, and their ‘Whole candidate scores’.
These ‘Whole Candidate scores’ were the test and exam results that had been collated during the cadets’ lengthy admission process, starting from junior high school onwards. These scores showed the levels of academic ability, physical fitness, plus military fitness predictions.
When she compared the scores for the ‘Grit scale’ and ‘Whole candidate scores’, it became apparent to her that no matter how gifted a cadet was, this was no indication of their Grit level.
Here is a sample of her Grit scale (all of which can be found on page 55 of her book):
She saw this same pattern (of lack of correlation between talent and grit) repeated in the later scores when she gave the test again the following year. This was her conclusion, based on the results:
The only thing that could successfully predict that a cadet would get through the “Beast barracks” initial training programme was their scores on the ‘Grit scale’, and not their high school rank, or their academic ability, leadership experience, athletic ability or their ‘Whole candidate score’.
She continued her research into the power of grit in the sales profession, which can be a very strenuous training ground. As they try to sell their goods, salespeople constantly get rejection from other people, and have to manage their reactions to this, and keep motivated.
The ‘Grit scale’ predicted the people who stayed the course, in the sales industry. She states:
“No other commonly-measured personality trait – including extraversion, emotional stability and conscientiousness – was as effective as grit in predicting job retention”.
She also used the test at the request of the Chicago Public Schools Services, and she discovered, through administering the Grit Scale to the students, that the level of grit of the students was a more revealing measure of whether they would graduate or not.
Their level of completion of academic work, or how much they liked school or felt secure in the school environment, was not as good an indicator as the Grit score.
She also completed 2 extensive samples of American adult students, and found that adults who were ‘gritty’ (meaning having high scores on the grit test) were more successful in their academic studies.
Angela Duckworth then initiated a collaboration with the US Army Special Operations Forces, known as the Green Berets. After a very difficult training period, (which included a boot camp, 4 weeks of infantry training, 3 weeks of airborne school, and 4 weeks of day and night land navigation) the recruits then do a Selection Course which she describes as, “Making Beast Barracks look like a summer vacation”.
On the selection course there are daytime and night time challenges, runs and marches, obstacle courses etc. And simply to be chosen for the selection course was an achievement in itself.
However 42% of the candidates that she observed, pulled out of the training of their own free will before the selection course had finished.
She found that a high score on the ‘Grit scale’ predicted who would make it through the Selection Course. So grit in candidates was the best predictor of future success – not talent.
She states: “Our potential is one thing. What we do with it is quite another”.
After a number of years teaching, Angela Duckworth could see very clearly that “talent was not destiny”, and she decided to leave teaching for psychology, as she wanted to get really clear about the role that effort made in achievement.
In her book she mentions that Darwin considered that the factors which make up achievement are hard work and enthusiasm, and that they were fundamentally of greater value than intellectual ability.
But she discovered from surveys conducted in America over many years, that, although many people state, and seem to believe, that hard work was more significant a characteristic than intelligence, in fact they actually believed the opposite.
People who were ‘naturally gifted’ were rated more highly than people who were very hard workers. She therefore considered that: “We have an ambivalence towards talent and effort”.
When people rate talent so highly, this means that other factors are considered much less valuable. And this further means that other abilities, including grit, are not valued (or are downgraded).
Angela Duckworth gives examples of the value of grit in two case studies, and I will summarise the example she gives of the progress of Scott Kaufman. Kaufman is a psychologist who now has three degrees and plays the cello for fun.
When he was young he was considered to be a slow learner. He suffered a lot from ear infections and this affected his ability to process information. He was put into special education classes (because of assumed low ability to learn) at school, and had to repeat third grade.
After a nerve-wracking interview with a school psychologist, who gave him lots of tests, he performed badly and was sent to a special education school for children with learning disabilities.
When he was fourteen one of the specialist teachers decided to ask Scott why he wasn’t in a more demanding class.
Scott told Angela Duckworth that up until that time, he’d always assumed that because he wasn’t talented, there wouldn’t be much that he could do with his life.
The fact that he met a teacher who believed in his potential was a huge revelation for Scott. At that time he found himself wondering, ”Who am I? Am I a learning disabled kid with no real future? Or maybe something else?”
So what he did then was to try to find the answer to those questions! He enrolled on as many demanding school activities as he could. He joined the choir, and the school musical, and the Latin class. He wasn’t the top in everything, but he learned in the classes.
“What Scott learned”, said Angela Duckworth, “was that he wasn’t hopeless.”
As Scott’s grandfather had been a cellist in the Philadelphia orchestra for 50 years, he asked his grandfather if he would give him cello lessons. Scott started practising for 8 or 9 hours a day, not just because he really liked playing, but because:
“I was so driven to just show someone, anyone, that I was intellectually capable of anything. At this point I didn’t care what it was”. (Page 32)
He was so good on the cello that he managed to get a place in the High School orchestra. He then increased his practice even more, and by the end of his second year, he was the second-best cellist in the orchestra; and awards from the Music Department were given to him regularly.
Scott’s classwork marks improved and his enthusiasm and curiosity about new subjects expanded. But he was dogged by his low IQ scores from childhood.
This restriction continued until the day came when he decided to apply to the Carnegie Mellon University. He was fascinated by the concept of IQ and he wanted to study intelligence, so he applied for a cognitive science course.
In spite of the fact that he had very high grades for his work, and lots of achievements from his extracurricular activities, he was rejected. It was apparent to Scott that it had been the results from his SAT scores that had kept him from being offered a place.
However, he was very determined. “I had grit”, he said. “….I’m going to find a way to study what I want to study”. He applied for the Carnegie Mellon Opera programme of study. This was because they didn’t look very hard at SAT scores and focussed on musical aptitude and expression.
So in Scott’s first year he took a psychology course as an elective, and then added psychology as a minor. Then he transferred his major from Opera to Psychology. And then he graduated at the end of the degree course with a high scholastic distinction, in psychology!
Scott Kaufman then went on to earn several more degrees, and to work in an American university as a psychologist. Angela Duckworth shows empathy towards Scott for the following reason:
“Like Scott, I took an IQ test early in my schooling and was deemed insufficiently bright to benefit from gifted and talented classes. For whatever reason – maybe a teacher asked that I be retested – I was evaluated again the following year, and I made the cut. I guess you could say I was borderline gifted.”
She considers that focussing on the amount of talent an individual has, is a distraction from something of equal value and she considers that “As much as talent counts, effort counts twice.”
She quotes Nietzsche’s views on why societies place talent over the hard work ethic.
“Our vanity, our self-love, promotes the cult of the genius. For if we think of genius as something magical, we are not obliged to compare ourselves and find ourselves lacking.”
He wanted people to think of very high achievers as crafts(people). He wrote this:
“Do not talk about giftedness, (or) inborn talents! One can name great (people) of all kinds who were very little gifted. They acquired greatness, became geniuses…they all acquired the seriousness of the efficient crafts(person) who first learns to construct the parts properly before they venture to fashion a great whole; they allowed themselves time for it because they took more pleasure in making the little, secondary things well than in the effect of a dazzling whole”.
So what can we take away from Angela Duckworth’s investigation into the concept of ‘grit’? She concludes the book by explaining that you can grow your own grit – and she considers that there are two ways of doing it:
She suggests that you yourself can decide which interest you are going to put your precious time and energy into, link up your work with a wider purpose that benefits others, and learn the value of hope, when situations look bleak.
You can also give yourself daily challenges to develop your skill levels. She describes this as “Growing your grit from the inside out”.
But you can also grow your grit level “From the outside in”. This is done by having support from parents, coaches, teachers, bosses, mentors and friends. They can make a great difference. Where would Mozart have been without his musical father? And where would Bill Gates be without a wealthy lawyer father, and – from 1968 onwards, as an 8th grader – unlimited access to a computer terminal at his private school? (So grit is very important, but so also is external support, and ‘door openers’ [or people who ‘allow you in’]).
How does knowing about the Grit Scale help us? It means that there is solid research that shows that talent can only take us so far. And there are things that are more important than talent as determinants of success.
With a great start in life, having supportive and encouraging parents, for example, we can develop our natural talents to a high level. But at some point, unless we develop gritty behaviours, we will not develop our talents fully.
The really good news is that if we practice these ‘Gritty behaviours’ shown on Angela’s scale, then we’ll reap the rewards in terms of completing the courses of study we undertake; and achieving the necessary qualifications; so that we can create solid careers for ourselves.
Or, we can create a richer and more satisfying life for ourselves if we follow our interests with passion and perseverance, whether we earn a wage for it, or not.
Finally, in Angela Duckworth’s book, she describes the findings from journalist Hester Lacey’s interviews with very creative people. Each of them was asked, “What was your greatest disappointment?”
The responses she received to this question were almost always identical:
“Well – I don’t really think in terms of disappointment. I tend to think that everything that happens is something I can learn from. I tend to think, ‘Well, okay. That didn’t go so well, but I guess I will just carry on’.”
A pretty gritty response!
I strongly recommend Angela Duckworth’s TED talk,
and her book, which has lots more interesting things in it (including a generously-shared account by Angela of her own use of grit when a tutor for her degree course advised her to drop the cognitive psychology course she was studying because they didn’t think she was capable of passing it)!
But this is the longest blog I’ve written, and I didn’t want to include any more, as it would be straining your grit muscles too far.
In fact, if you’ve got this far – well done for sticking with my review! And if you do the grit test, it will give you valuable self-knowledge. If you share what you’ve learned about grit and the grit test with someone in your family or a good friend of yours, who may be struggling with a challenge they are facing at the moment, it can really be very helpful for them. The scale shows clearly how you can develop your grit muscles.
Best of luck! Hang in there!
That’s all for now.
The Coaching/Counselling Division
01422 843 629
Grit – The Power of Passion and Perseverance. By Angela Duckworth (2016), London, Vermillion.
Outliers – The Story of Success. By Malcolm Gladwell (2008), London, Allen Lane.