Grit – by Angela Duckworth


People have been chasing the key to success ever since the idea was conceived. It’s ever elusive, a mystery to all but the lucky few who manage to achieve great things within their lifetimes. While the American Dream promises success to anyone who works hard enough, it’s largely a myth, at least for those who suffer discrimination and lack of opportunity.

Or is it?

Angela Duckworth’s Grit argues that success is neither a mystery nor unattainable. It just requires grit – “the aggregate of countless individual elements, each of which is, in a sense, ordinary.” Grit is the combination of passion and perseverance. It requires sustained effort over time toward a greater purpose, one that both interests the person and helps others in some way.

Grit is a personality trait. While that may suggest that it remains stable throughout your life, and perhaps is even hereditary, Duckworth maintains that it can and does change. Grit is a skill that you learn, practice, and develop throughout your life, which explains why it increases with age.

To practice grit, though, you first need a passion – a direction for your efforts. Duckworth explains that your relationship with your passion has three stages: discovery, development, and deepening. She also emphasizes that grit both requires and encourages deliberate practice: continuously noticing areas of weakness, setting goals to improve them, and practicing toward those goals. Moreover, while grit is personal, it is also the product of parenting and culture.

Grit is a hopeful book, but I didn’t see that at first. Perhaps tellingly, I felt shamed by the first few chapters. I didn’t like examining my habits and flaws, and I found myself feeling defensive. Was Duckworth suggesting that it was my fault that I didn’t feel the same level of excitement about projects months or years down the line? Surely my feelings are out of my control?

As I kept reading, though, the message – or rather the way I interpreted it – changed. Rather than my fault, it could be my power. Since effort is more important than talent, success is within my reach, as long as I strive for it.

I appreciated, though, that Duckworth also acknowledges the issue of privilege. Not everyone has access to opportunities for discovering, developing, and deepening passion. And not everyone has a parent or mentor who provides support and demands high standards.

There are some areas of the book, however, that lack clarity. Duckworth stresses that “before hard work comes play,” asserting the value of experimentation and trial in “the early years” to help cultivate interests. But college and job applications encourage early specialization and commitment, and generally look unfavorably on people who jump between different interests. Even her own family’s “Hard Thing Rule” insists that her daughters must commit to at least one activity for at least two years. What if they haven’t found their passion yet? Doesn’t this punish people who are still in “the early years,” trying out different activities to see what interests them?

Similarly, Duckworth acknowledges that it’s okay to quit things, at least once you come to a natural stopping point rather than just one bad or challenging experience. In fact, it’s an important part of the “discovery” process. Yet she doesn’t explain how to know if you should cut your losses or push through. Of course, there is probably not a one-size-fits-all answer, and perhaps it’s merely a matter of perspective or attitude, but it would have been helpful to hear an in-depth anecdote – especially from Duckworth herself – of a time when quitting was the right decision. Moreover, although she insists that grittier people are also happier, there might be times when it’s better for your health to stop your pursuit of a goal.

I was also unsure of Duckworth’s stance on whether a gritty person applies their grit to all aspects of their life or just their overarching life purpose. She describes psychiatrist George Vaillant’s complicated grittiness: he shows little grit when doing crossword puzzles or fixing things, but has shown tremendous grit in his career. Yet the very test that Vaillant studied, the Treadmill Test, seemed to advocate that grittiness is universally applied, since it tested people’s stamina on the treadmill and then went on to see if they showed the same stamina or grit in the rest of their lives. Can a person be gritty in some areas but not others? On the one hand, she argues that grit necessitates interest and direction, implying that we can only be gritty in the things that interest us. However, the grit scale asks quite general questions, suggesting that grit is a universal approach to life.

Likewise, Duckworth mentions diets as proof of most people’s failure to follow through on their goals. But diet is rarely a passion for people. In diet’s case, and perhaps many other situations, might it be more useful to find ways to ‘nudge’ (using Richard Thaler’s term) people to make better choices rather than require them to consciously persevere? Since grit needs passion as well as perseverance, why should someone’s approach to dieting be an indicator of their grittiness?

Despite its inconsistencies, I would definitely recommend this book. Grit is eye-opening; it’s changed how I view my actions and my potential. The book is also well-written, an effortless read full of interesting and often inspiring anecdotes. I even enjoyed the life stories of the athletes, despite having little interest in sports. Most importantly, though, Grit fosters hope for the future, which in current times is both rare and deeply necessary.

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Writing: AAAAAAAA (8)

Buy at Waterstones (UK)

Buy at Barnes & Noble (US)


Part One

My Blogging Journey

This is my blogging journey: the many ups and many, many more downs. At first I though I’d just write about difficulties with posting enough and balancing reading and blogging with school, but I soon realised that my ‘journey’ – which I’ve been chronicling ever since I started blogging – deserved to be shared. The jury’s still out on whether it’ll be worth it in the end, but even if my blog never becomes super-successful, I hope it’ll be a testament to my effort and my grit.

One summer, I didn’t have much to do, after desperately yet unsuccessfully hunting for a job in one of the three supermarkets near where we live. I had read a record number of books that summer, partly because of my boredom, but also because I’d joined the local library. I decided to start my own book blog – I’d read a few online and really enjoyed them, and I thought it would be something fun to do to fill my time. For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved books, but until I started Alia’s A-List, I was always a ‘passive’ reader – I never did anything with my passion for books. This felt like an opportunity to give back to books.

I wrote a few reviews in quick succession – of books that I had read recently as well as books I’d read a while ago. Writing about books seemed like the easiest, most natural thing in the world. I was simply writing down my thoughts on books, which I often discussed anyway, so it wasn’t so different. I created my ‘structure’, which I’ve used ever since – including the rating by ‘As’ system.

I was so excited about starting this new project. That feeling when you know you’re at the start of something special and important, something that could become really successful, must be the best feeling in the world. I looked towards my future and all I could see were opportunities. I didn’t get bogged down with the details – like how I would be able to read enough to keep the reviews coming at such a rate, or how I would find the time to blog during school-time. It all seemed so exciting, so fresh, so full of possibility, that I couldn’t imagine how it could possibly not work out. I didn’t know what it would be like trying to review during term time, but I vowed I would find a way to blog as much as possible when I got back.

Soon, the novelty wore off and the summer vacation came to an end. I was faced with reality: how was I going to fit reading and blogging around my busy school schedule? I underestimated how busy I would be: that fall, I moved up to the senior part of my school (like high school) – getting more homework plus joining various clubs – and started a Saturday job. I struggled to post even one review a month – not just because I was busy, so I had less time, but also because I found it hard to find the time to read enough.

Slowly but surely, my involvement with my blog, and even my reading, dwindled. When the new year came, though, I made it my mission to blog and read more. I got back into reading, making it my priority even over hanging out with my friends sometimes. But despite reading more, I still struggled to blog much more than I had been before. I was often unable to review the book that I had read straight after finishing it because I was at school, and so had homework that night. This meant that I had to wait for the weekend, by which time I had forgotten some of my thoughts about the book, especially as I had probably started a new book in the meantime. So when I wrote reviews, my opinions were often vague and inaccurate to how I had really felt.

Throughout the year, time-consuming things always seemed to pop up, like tests and schoolwork. I couldn’t prioritise my blog, and this reflected on the quality and frequency of my posts.

When summer came, it wasn’t much better – it certainly wasn’t as easy as I’d thought it would be. I started my job at the local supermarket (this time round I called in the winter/spring to secure my place). Aside from being pressed for time and tired from my job, I wasn’t feeling inspired or motivated to read. I read a pretty hefty book for quite a while, repeatedly coming close to putting it down but never quite able to bring myself to abandon it. After I finally finished it, the last thing I wanted to do was explore my thoughts in depth on it. But I forced myself to review it. I constantly procrastinated – the prospect of being on the beach relaxing, especially after a hard day’s work at the market, seemed far more appealing than staying cooped up inside, desperately trying to ‘explore’ and develop my limited opinions on the book. I eventually managed to write a review which I had to force out, reading other reviews online for inspiration. I was left disinterested and uninspired with reading and reviewing.

One of my parent’s friends was talking to me about my blog, and I described how I was feeling towards reading and blogging. She told me to blog or at least write notes as often as possible, so that I keep track of my views and feelings whilst reading the book. This was great advice, and I try to follow as much as I can will myself to. But the most important thing she told me was to make sure I enjoy reading and blogging; that when I write a review, I should be doing it for MY enjoyment, rather than to gain followers or likes. Every time I feel the pressure to read and write, I try to remember what she said: to enjoy it. Sometimes it’s a lot of hard work with no payback, but I’d like to believe that no matter how many views I get, my blog will remain special, relevant and valid.

After I started following her advice, writing notes and keywords whilst reading books, I found writing reviews much easier and more natural. They seemed to flow out of me, like they used to when I first started my blog. I began to enjoy reading and writing again – although this might have had a lot to do with the books themselves.

When I went back to school, blogging was harder, but I remained mostly on track, posting on average two reviews a month. I was pretty happy with how it was going. But that didn’t last long…