Grit: The Key to Greatness?

By Rebekah Page-Gourley posted 10-09-2017 07:47


A TED Talk by Angela Lee Duckworth, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, has recently been making the rounds on my social media channels. In the talk (and in her book of the same name), Duckworth argues that grit—defined as “passion and perseverance for very long-term goals”—is a better predictor of success in school and in life than IQ or other commonly cited factors.

At the end of her talk, Duckworth admits that she’s not sure what exactly makes one person grittier than another or whether and how we can build up our grittiness. She ventures a guess that having a “growth mindset” might have something to do with it. Coined by Carol Dweck of Stanford University, the term describes a frame of mind in which a person believes that, with effort, he or she can improve and grow over time—that their intelligence is not fixed. Dweck argues that praising a child’s effort toward an outcome (“I love how hard you worked on that puzzle to complete it!”) instead of only his or her ability (“You’re the smartest boy in the world!”), helps cultivate this kind of mindset. Perhaps, Duckworth suggests, the grittiest among us simply have a strong underlying belief that our hard work will make a difference.

The concepts of grit and growth mindset have taken off across disciplines and are often touted by business scholars as keys to organizational success. David Mayer of the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business spoke to ICLE about the concepts during our recent staff retreat. So I’ve been thinking about them lately as they relate to my own experiences. Throughout school, I was very motivated by external markers of success such as good grades and positive feedback from my parents and teachers. I’ve always been a people pleaser. I was pretty gritty (I don’t think anyone gets through law school without at least a pinch of grit) and achieved my goals mainly because I wanted to reach those external markers. But because of my relatively fixed mindset, I tended to avoid subjects that I decided I wasn’t good at because they were more difficult and posed a higher risk of failure. If I’d had more of a growth mindset from the beginning, maybe I would have had the extra grit required to tackle those less accessible subjects, fail sometimes, and keep trying anyway? Or maybe I really am just bad at math.

I’m not sure if grit is truly the single most predictive measure of a person’s success or a company’s success. (A lot of other people don’t seem sure either.) And I think the jury’s still out as to whether a growth mindset is the key to being the grittiest you can be. But I do want to challenge myself and not write things off as beyond my grasp or “not my thing.” I’m also the parent of a kindergartner, and I certainly don’t want him to only pursue the things that come easily to him, to the exclusion of more challenging opportunities. I hope we can both get grittier in the coming years, while also fostering the many other characteristics that make up a good human.