Here’s a Story About Why GRIT Is Good


This is an article about the importance of ‘grit,’ a concept you may have never heard of. And on this one I’m pretty much right with you, because up until last September it was not in my headspace either. Let’s begin our story.

In my last article I talked about my recent success in losing about 20 pounds. But I also mentioned I have previously been unable to maintain a consistently healthy weight over long periods of time, meaning years.

On one hand I shouldn’t be so hard on myself. According to the National Institute of Health, 74 percent of adult men in the US are overweight or obese. Let’s not kid ourselves. I love being hard on myself. It’s not just that I want to live among the 26 percent. I want more than that. I want to be the healthiest and most vibrant ‘me’ possible during the hopefully many decades I have to live for this go-around.

So I ask myself: For this and so many other goals I want to attain, do I simply need to be grittier? And what exactly is grit, anyway?

What Is Grit

Angela Lee Duckworth is an Associate Professor of Psychology at The University of Pennsylvania. For well over a decade she has conducted extensive research on the topic of grit, which she defines as the following: “Grit is passion and perseverance for very long term goals. Grit is having stamina. Grit is sticking with your future, day in day out, not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years…and working really hard to make that future a reality. Grit is living life like it’s a marathon, not a sprint.” But Ms. Duckworth also says grit is about the ability to bounce back from failure and adversity, or what most people call ‘resilience.’ In this interview she says that people often think of grit as encompassing only the latter, i.e., the ability to recover from a setback.

To me this is fascinating — these two halves constitute the whole of Duckworth’s definition. In a TED Talk you’d be well advised to watch, Ms. Duckworth says she and her colleagues have conducted research among groups of human beings at West Point, at the National Spelling Bee, at underserved public schools like in Chicago, and in private companies. Her conclusion is that grit emerged as a significant predictor of success, even more so than IQ. And she goes on to say that talent is often inversely related to grit. While this may be hard to fathom, think back on a few of your high school or college buddies who in retrospect were brilliant. They could phone it in, otherwise defined as drinking and smoking weed every night, and still sail through the courses with As that you pulled numerous all-nighters for. But what if they had behaved in a grittier fashion? What if they studied the same four or more hours per night that you and I did? Would these folks now be winning Nobel and Pulitzer prizes?

How Can We Learn and Teach About Grit

At the time Ms. Duckworth gave her TED Talk in April of 2013, she said she didn’t know much about how to teach grit to children and adults. She added we’re really at the beginning of learning more about this concept. However, she did point to Stanford’s Carol Dweck, who I’ve written about many times before and who researches and writes about the topic of mindset. Ms. Duckworth believes that having a growth mindset is a necessary precursor to building more grit. In other words, believing that the ability to learn is not fixed and can change with more effort, combined with recognizing that so-called failure is not a permanent condition and is in fact our greatest opportunity to learn.

Perhaps there are additional techniques we can practice, keeping in mind that an ACADEMIC RESEARCHER like Ms. Duckworth has a higher bar than many of us mere mortals do. To that end, teacher and blogger Vicki Davis wrote an article in which she shares 11 tips on how to teach students to become grittier. Suggestions include reading books like Malcolm Gladwell’s “David and Goliath” that focus on the topic of resilience and perseverance, finding or creating frameworks that teach and reinforce grit, and simply talking about grit.

I would add one other. Our opportunity is to live by example — to be gritty ourselves and serve as role models to others in our lives, including our children.

Two Examples of Grit Bad Asses

Diana-Nyad-PinterestDiana Nyad. Can you think of anybody grittier? On her fifth attempt over the course of THIRTY-FIVE YEARS she swam 110 miles from Cuba to Key West. It took her nearly 53 hours, during which she hallucinated, vomited, and successfully avoided getting eaten by sharks or poisoned to death by jellyfish. She was 64 at the time. Her mantra? “Find a way.”

For the second example, let’s go back to Angela Lee Duckworth as well as her husband and two children. In their household they’ve instituted a practice they call “The Hard Thing Rule.” Each person in the family has to pick a hard thing – for example, learning a new language, how to play a musical instrument, or a new athletic skill – and they have to stick with it for at least an academic semester if not a school year. This hard thing must require daily practice, and there is absolutely no quitting allowed. Yeah baby!

Can Grit Reduce Income Inequality?

Why am I so interested in the topic of grit? Since last September a group of several professionals and I have been volunteering as mentors to a classroom of ninth graders at Sequoia High School in Redwood City, California through a non-profit organization called BUILD. BUILD’s mission is to foster an entrepreneurial spirit among high schoolers through experiential learning – DOING as a means of learning, But its real purpose is to dramatically increase high school graduation and college acceptance rates among underserved students who come from disadvantaged economic backgrounds. Nearly 50 percent of Sequoia High School students are economically disadvantaged.

Why is BUILD’s mission so critical? It’s because nearly one-third of all high school students in the US don’t graduate. These high school dropouts earn $1 million less than college graduates over their working career. And they’re twice as likely as high school graduates to slip into poverty from one year to the next [source]. It would seem to me that if we want to make a significant dent at reducing income inequality in this country, we need to invest more financial and sweat equity in organizations like BUILD, which are striving to help many thousands of high school students benefit from becoming more productive members of society.

BUILD currently operates in five regions across the US, from the San Francisco Bay Area to Boston, and is on a rapid expansion path. Let’s take a look at BUILD’s success in the Bay Area – including several high schools in Oakland and the Peninsula – for the class of 2014. 97 percent of students who completed the BUILD program graduated from high school and 94 percent were accepted at least one college or university. This compares to an 87 percent graduation rate among all students – not just those who are economically disadvantaged – at the four high schools comprising the Sequoia Union High School District.

As its cornerstone, BUILD teaches six “SPARK Skills” to its student participants: Collaboration, Communication, Innovation, Problem Solving, and Self-Management. Oops, I forgot one. You guessed it. GRIT. Yup, grit is THAT important.

Now, the more cynical among us may opine, “Come on! What’s new with this? We’ve known about what we now call ‘grit’ for more than a hundred years!” To reiterate, it’s the growing base of bona fide ACADEMIC RESEARCH that is just beginning to validate the importance of this life skill. With apologies to Michael Douglas’ Gordon Gekko character in “Wall Street,” it is grit and most certainly not greed that “captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit.”

Learning and teaching more about grit is therefore arguably a key way to get more people out of poverty and onto the prosperity train. And it is yet another way to become the best version of ourselves.

But just what is that best version of ourselves? And what is so-called “success,” which Ms. Duckworth is on a quest for many more of us to achieve? I always refer to the late UCLA Basketball Coach John Wooden, who stayed away from a monetary association. To Coach Wooden, success is “peace of mind attained only through self satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to do the best of which you’re capable.”

So far I don’t feel very successful at all as a BUILD mentor. I don’t maintain what I regard as a consistent level of self control. And I don’t always operate from my highest self. But as long as BUILD sticks with me I’m going to stick with it. For awhile. I know it’s the right thing to do. And it’s what I want to do over the long term, because I think I can help.


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