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)