Angela Duckworth has written a book that teaches us all how to maximize our talent and, perhaps, make the world a little happier place to live in the process.
Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth, Scribner, 352 pages, $28.00, Hardcover, May 2015, ISBN 9781501111105
“The saddest thing in life is wasted talent.” Those lines from A Bronx Tale have stuck with me since I first saw the movie as a teenager in the mid-nineties—perhaps because my father was sitting behind me emphatically echoing the words of Robert De Niro’s character to his four boys, myself the youngest of them.
Angela Duckworth grew up with a father who constantly told her that she was “no genius.” But that obviously didn’t stop Ms. Duckworth. She had something more important: grit. And two years ago, she was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, more popularly known as “the genius grant.” She received the Fellowship for her work in the psychology of achievement, work that has been proving that grit is more important than innate talent—backing the thesis up with both research and her own example. What she has found in her research is that innate talent and intelligence (what some may call genius) were not the key determinants of one’s success. Rather:
The highly accomplished [are] paragons of perseverance.
Yet it is not just a nose-to-the-grindstone work ethic that matters. It also requires commitment to a larger cause, a purpose or goal, a larger, head-raised, hands-up vision of what we want out of life, one that drives us to keep our head down and energies focused. What she found in her research on achievement was:
First, these exemplars were unusually resilient and hardworking. Second, they knew in a very, very deep way what it is they wanted. They not only had determination, they had direction.
It was a combination of passion and perseverance that made high achievers special. In a word, they had grit.
The book opens with one of Ms. Duckworth’s early successes in psychological research. The story begins in 1955, a decade and a half before she was even born. That was the year Jerry Kagan arrived at West Point to study and test new cadets in an attempt to determine who would make it through and who would drop out during Beast Barracks, the intense seven-week training a cadet goes through when they arrive. Almost five decades later, Kagan would be the first psychologist Angela met when she got to college, where she would end up working part-time in his lab for two years. Kagan's efforts at West Point, as he himself described them, had been “dramatically unsuccessful.” They had failed to make accurate predictions on who the drop outs would be, and the situation had not improved since then. West Point had come to rely on a calculation called the Whole Candidate Score, which included inputs such as test scores, physical fitness, and leadership aptitude to provide it with a guess on how cadets might fare. It was a calculation that had, time and again, proved to be no better than a guess. The Whole Candidate Scores of those who stayed and left were indistinguishable. It was for that reason that, when Duckworth called in 2004 when she was a second year graduate student, the doors were open to her research. She had come up with a questionnaire to measure, in equal measures, cadets’ perseverance and passion.
What emerged was the Grit Scale—a test that, when taken honestly, measures the extent to which you approach your life with grit.
Fifty years after military psychologists began looking for a way to see who would make it through the “Beast” as West Point, Duckworth had cracked the code. Separating grit from talent, and simply determining one’s perseverance and passion, turned out to be “an astoundingly reliable predictor of who made it through and who did not.” It was grit that made all the difference.
She then took her ideas, and a version of the Grit Scale, to the sales force at a vacation time-share company. She returned six months later, and found that 55 percent of the salespeople had left in that time. Grit was once again the highest indicator of who was left. She repeated her tests with Chicago Public Schools, the Green Berets Special Forces Selection Course, and even the Scripps National Spelling Bee, and found similar results across them all. While there were a variety of traits and attributes that helped determine success in each field, grit was the one constant.
In sales, I found that prior experience helps … In the Chicago public school system, a supportive teacher made it more likely that students would graduate. And for aspiring Green Berets, baseline physical fitness at the start of training is essential.
But in each of these domains, when you compare people matched on these characteristics, grit still predicts success. Regardless of specific attributes and advantages that help someone succeed in each of these diverse domains of challenge, grit matters in all of them.
Thankfully, Angela Duckworth has found that grit is something we can all grow, and she knows how to teach it. (She is, after all, a former math teacher.)
Before she does that, however, she takes our obsession with innate talent and intelligence to task—even indicting a prominent consulting firm she once worked for, McKinsey, for it’s talent obsessed culture—one she clearly believes is a disservice to their clients in the same way “gifted and talented” classes are a disservice to the overall education of children.
By shining our spotlight on talent, we risk leaving everything else in the shadows. We inadvertently send the message that other factors—including grit—don’t matter as much as they really do.
To show us how much grit matters, she tells the stories of people like dyslexic author John Irving (who had to work many times harder than most to even see words properly, let alone write them), and her colleague Scott Barry Kaufman, who attended special education classes until he was fourteen and now occupies an office two doors down from her own in the University of Pennsyvlania psychology department, has degrees from Carnegie Mellon, Cambridge, and Yale, and plays the cello “for fun.”
She also tells us of history’s big thinkers on the topic of talent versus effort, including Charles Darwin and his cousin Francis Galton (who wrote a book on the topic), William James, and Friedrich Nietzsche. One of the gems out of those discussions comes from the section on Nietzsche:
“Our vanity, our self-love, promotes the cult of the genius,” Nietzsche said. “For if we think of genius as something magical, we are not obliged to compare ourselves and find ourselves lacking. … To call someone ‘divine’ means: ‘here there is no need to compete.’”
In other words, mythologizing natural talent lets us all off the hook.
Duckworth, of course, does not let us off the hook so easily. Talent may matter, she tells us, but effort counts for twice as much. Why? For that we turn to her theory of achievement, which includes two equations. First:
talent x effort = skill
But that is not where the need for effort ends, because the second part of the equation is:
skill x effort = achievement
And this is where she dives deep into the instructional aspects of the book. She will teach you the difference between passion and perseverance, and “how to understand them as two parts of a whole.” You will take the Grit Scale questionnaire and see how you score, then begin to learn how you can grow your grit, in both yourself and others. These ideas and lessons, directly applicable and immediately actionable, make up the last two thirds of the book. Part II details how to grow grit in yourself, from the inside out, with four psychological assets: interest, practice, purpose, and hope. Part III helps us learn how to grow grit from the outside in, how instill it in our children, in those we teach, coach, mentor, or lead at work. She teaches us how to instill it in the culture of our organizations, schools, teams, families, and companies—even, perhaps, countries.
Grit has been a popular buzzword in recent years, especially in education and business circles, and one person is more responsible for that than anyone else—Angela Duckworth. She has now written the book on the topic. It is a book that reminds us that:
Without effort, your talent is nothing more than your unmet potential. Without effort, skill is nothing more than what you could have done but didn’t.
Or, put another way…
Our potential is one thing. What we do with it is quite another.
With Grit, Angela Duckworth has given us a book that helps every one of us get every last ounce out of the potential we were born with, and increase it in the process. If, indeed, “The saddest thing in life is wasted talent,” then perhaps with the release of this book, life just got a little bit happier for those who read it.