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Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance

The Economist

Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance

Why never giving up is a worthwhile goal

Jun 4th 2016 | From the print edition

Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. By Angela Duckworth.Scribner; 352 pages; .

FRIEDRICH NIETZSCHE, a German philosopher, once stated that there was a universal tendency to see success as the result of innate talent, rather than effort. Today it is still common to think of the straight-A pupil as having a “gift” for learning, or of the sports star as miraculously skilful. Angela Duckworth, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, believes that talent is overrated. More important, she suggests, is a blend of persistence and passion—or “grit”. “Our potential is one thing,” she writes. “What we do with it is quite another.”

That character matters is not a new idea. But “Grit”, Ms Duckworth’s first book, is part of a broader trend which is influencing organisations from sports teams to schools. Over the past two decades more and more scholars have analysed traits like curiosity and self-control. Such faculties are at least as important as raw cognitive ability to grades and pay, they say. And since these attributes are seen as independent of and more malleable than intelligence, they are a voguish area for education reformers. This year, for example, nine school districts in California will begin testing pupils on their character.

“Talent counts, [but] effort counts twice,” insists Ms Duckworth in the first and best part of her book. Much of her work is based on her Grit Scale, a questionnaire which asks people how much they agree with such statements as “I am diligent. I never give up.” At West Point, an American military college, grit scores predict dropouts better than academic records. Grittier salespeople stay in their jobs, grittier swimmers win more medals and grittier pupils persevere with university.

Some critics have suggested that Ms Duckworth’s work is a rebranding of earlier research on conscientiousness. She argues, however, that grit is about more than that. It also involves finding and fostering a purpose. How to build grit is less well understood, she concedes. “Goof around” until you find something you love, she suggests, and then practise so that it becomes a habit. Parents, teachers and bosses can help by giving praise for effort and displaying grit themselves. Ms Duckworth’s own family obeys the “hard thing rule”: everyone must pick a difficult task, like learning the piano, which they can abandon but only at a natural stopping point, say the end of term. She adds homilies of successful people such as Jamie Dimon, chief executive of JPMorgan Chase, and Ta-Nehisi Coates, a writer, who she says are “paragons of grit”.

All this is mildly inspirational, if vague. The author’s relentless message simplifies a complex story. Traumatic childhoods, bad parenting, awful schools and a lack of extra-curricular opportunities can make it harder for children to develop grit; success for poor pupils is not simply a matter of them pulling themselves together. Ms Duckworth knows that. She has warned schools against grading pupils on grit in high-stakes tests. In 2013 she co-founded the Character Lab, a research centre which tries to ensure that policies to encourage grit are based on science. She has a tough task ahead, but is determined to see it through. That’s grit for you.

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