To most people, grit is that thing the local council never seems to have enough of in the depths of winter. But it’s a different sort of grit that is the buzzword du jour, the sort of grit that successful people have in spades. And no, we’re still not talking about clearing snow. Do keep focused, or you’ll never have the sort of grit that Angela Duckworth wants you to have.
Angela is professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and has just published her first book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. Ever since, the American media has been speckled with “grit” this and “grit” that. But the essence of it is that you don’t necessarily need talent to succeed; you just need dogged determination. And that works whether you’re in business, in education, a parent, want to improve your body or, presumably, just want to clear the snow from your drive.
Think John Wayne’s turn as Rooster Cogburn in the 1969 movie called, erm, True Grit. Did he give up on his mission to track down murderous Tom Chainey? No he did not. And that’s the sort of grit you too can have.
America, of course, has taken the concept of grit to its heart – Duckworth’s book has topped the New York Times bestseller list – and it does, of course, feed the American Dream in the most basic way: all you have to do is chase it hard enough. But are any preconditions necessary?
In her book, Duckworth writes how she was driven to succeed. “Growing up, I heard the word ‘genius’ a lot,” she says. “It was always my dad who brought it up. He liked to say, apropos of nothing at all, ‘You know, you’re no genius!’ This pronouncement might come in the middle of dinner, during a commercial break for The Love Boat, or after he flopped down on the couch with the Wall Street Journal.
“I don’t remember how I responded. Maybe I pretended not to hear. My dad’s thoughts turned frequently to genius, talent and who had more than whom. He was deeply concerned with how smart he was. He was deeply concerned with how smart his family was.”
But you don’t have to be smart to succeed, that’s Duckworth’s whole point. True, she’s a certified genius now – two years ago, to help with the research that led to this book, she was awarded a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship, often known as the “genius grant” – but it was her dad’s stinging comments that taught her how.
So grit can be learned? Not only that, says Duckworth, but it can be nurtured. It can grow. The more you persevere, the more grit you can summon up. She has scientific evidence for this, she says in her book, after working with teachers at America’s toughest schools, Spelling Bee finalists, military cadets at West Point, and business high-flyers such as the boss of the JP Morgan Chase bank. On Duckworth’s website you can even test your own grittiness with a short quiz. (I got a 3.4 – and have no idea what that means, save that I have more grit than 40 per cent of Americans)
However, not everything is rosy in the grit garden (though that would probably be more of a gravel drive). The grit backlash has begun already, led by Marcus Crede, an assistant professor of psychology at Iowa State University and author of a study shortly to be published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology which analyses Duckworth’s research.
Crede suggests Duckworth has over-emphasised the results of perseverance in achieving goals, and also says it’s not that new a thing anyway. “Grit is nearly identical to conscientiousness, which has been known to psychologists for decades as a major dimension of personality,” he writes. “It is not something that's necessarily open to change, especially in adults, whereas Duckworth in her writings suggests that grit is.”
Despite that, we do love a good self-help programme – especially one that tells us we can fulfill our dreams so long as we work hard enough – so it looks like grit’s going to be all over everywhere for some time yet.
We can probably just be thankful they didn’t, in that American way they have, call it “spunk”.
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