Everywhere I turn, it seems, someone is writing or talking about grit.
In our obsession with: raising more successful children; being more successful ourselves; and moving away from the oh-so-undemocratic notion that superior intelligence gives a person an edge, we have apparently collectively rediscovered "grit," the presumed benefits of sustained effort and focus
The Tiger Mom herself, Amy Chua, has promoted grit. Writing with her husband Jed Rubenfeld in The New York Times on their new book about the special package of qualities that make for success, she advised, “The way to develop this package of qualities—not that it’s easy, or that everyone would want to—is through grit. It requires the turning the ability to work hard, to persevere and to overcome adversity into a source of personal superiority. This kind of superiority complex isn’t ethnically or religiously exclusive. It’s the pride a person takes in his own strength of will.”
This is hardly a new notion. America was founded on grit, after all, and most of our favorite cultural adages—“When the going gets tough, the tough get going,” “Winners never quit and quitters never win”—are paeans to this singular characteristic. It's also a key element of many successful undertakings, as Angela Duckworth and her colleagues showed in their seminal article, “Grit: Perseverance and Passion for Long-Term Goals.” Their findings showed that talent alone doesn’t guarantee success, but that talent combined with grit—sustained effort and focus— did. One often-cited example from their article cuts to the chase: They ask the reader to consider two children learning to play the piano, and write (emphasis added), “Assume that both children are equally talented in music and, therefore, improve in skill at the same rate per unit effort. Assume further that these children are matched in the intensity of effort they expend toward musical training.” They then point out that one child focuses on the piano alone—demonstrating grit—while the other moves from piano to the saxophone to voice. In this scenario, the authors predict, the first, grittier child will surpass the other.
I don’t question these findings. We all know that grit matters. But notice the need they mention for the combination of talent and grit. What happens when we’ve chosen to pursue a goal for which we don’t have the talent, but don’t know that we lack it? It’s not exactly an uncommon phenomenon. A reliance on grit will keep us trying even though there’s no hope of success. What if our timing is wrong? What if our habits have us misreading the cues about our progress?
At these points that grit is no longer your friend.
Since I’ve written a book about quitting, I clearly have a dog in this fight. But the truth is that while grit is a necessary ingredient to success, it only works when talent and opportunity combine in a wonderful synergy. And “talent” encompasses psychological factors that make one individual more adept at choosing appropriate goals than another; able to push full-stream ahead without losing the ability to read cues about his or her progress realistically; and capable of knowing when it’s time to fold the hand and start over.
Perseverance or grit isn’t a stand-alone antidote to everything that ails us, no matter how much we’d like it to be. Just as I hear that Radiant Orchid is the new “black,” I think grit is the new “self esteem,” the thing we’re all going to talk and worry about.
Copyright © Peg Streep 2014
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