Do People Who Have Grit Have It All the Time?

Higher levels of grit are linked to lower amounts of maladaptive perfectionism.

Posted May 08, 2019

Christopher Bergland
Source: Christopher Bergland

If a picture is worth a thousand words, this image of my 11-year-old daughter trying her hardest to win a tennis match—while simultaneously exuding a laid-back and playful attitude lined with understated perseverance—personifies the findings of new research on the grit-related importance of letting go of perfectionism and embracing failure. 

The results of this study, "Examining the Domain Specificity of Grit," were recently published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences. The researchers found that a blend of letting failure roll off your back, growth mindset beliefs, and lower amounts of maladaptive perfectionism were a winning triad for boosting grit scores in life, school, and sports.

For this study, researchers at the University of Alberta in Canada set out to identify if grit—which is generally described as perseverance and passion for achieving long-term goals despite setbacks—is a domain-specific quality seen "on the court" or more of a "global" personality trait that overflows into all areas of someone's life.  

The Canadian researchers focused on intercollegiate varsity athletes—who displayed an abundance of sports-specific grit on the playing field—to see if they also had grit in the classroom and out-of-school pursuits.

"We wanted to know whether people bring grit to every aspect of their life, or if they are gritty athletes or gritty students, or even a gritty parent or a gritty hobbyist," first author Danielle Cormier said in a statement. Cormier is a former U of A master's student who conducted this research under the supervision of John Dunn, a sport psychology researcher.

For this study, 251 U of A varsity athletes were recruited to self-report their responses to three versions of the Grit Scale (Duckworth, Peterson, Matthews, & Kelly, 2007). This rating scale was the brainchild of Angela Duckworth, author of the bestselling book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. Cormier refers to Duckworth as the "mother of grit."

Duckworth's widely-acknowledged Grit Scales were used by Cormier et al. to measure overall grit in "general life" (without domain specificity), as well as in domain-specific contexts of academic grit and sports-related grit.

As might be expected, Cormier and colleagues found that intercollegiate student-athletes reported higher levels of grit in sport than in school; they also reported higher levels of grit in sport than in "life in general." Based on these findings, Cormier said, "It seems grit is best conceptualized as a domain-specific trait, and not in general, which is how the field has been measuring grit since it was conceptualized."

Interestingly, Cormier's research also identified a correlation between higher grit scores and lower levels of maladaptive perfectionism along with fewer perfectionistic concerns. "This negative form of perfectionism is where people set unattainable goals, which often leads to a lot of anxiety and even sport dropout," she said. (See, "Self-Compassion Counterbalances Maladaptive Perfectionism")  

Although previous research on grit suggests that people generally display more grittiness in pursuits that evoke passion, Cormier speculates that it's possible to become grittier in other domains that might not automatically evoke passion by tweaking your mindset.

More specifically, Cormier recommends adopting a growth mindset. This advice echoes the conclusions of a recent five-pronged study (O'Keefe, Dweck, & Walton, 2018) which encouraged students to let go of the idea of "finding one's passion" by adopting a so-called "growth mindset." As the authors explain, "Urging people to find their passion may lead them to put all their eggs in one basket but then to drop that basket when it becomes difficult to carry." (See "Growth Mindset Advice: Take Your Passion and Make It Happen!")

"Instead of thinking talents are fixed, like believing your intelligence is just the way it is, a growth mindset allows you to believe that intelligence, or other character traits and talents, can be grown," Cormier said. "In order to do that you must embrace failures and setbacks because, without any of those learning opportunities, you're not going to get better." 

As a retired professional athlete, science writer, and blogger, I'm continually filtering the latest empirical evidence through my own life experience in ways that might be useful to my daughter. While driving my tween to school this morning, I casually brought up the findings of this new study and explained how the findings by Cormier et al. (2019) dovetail with other recent studies on growth mindset and perfectionism that we've discussed before. I also shared some personal stories about how I learned to become grittier in all aspects of my life by embracing my inherent "wabi-sabi" flaws, letting go of perfectionist aspirations, and being willing to fail badly in an effort to get better at things in life that don't come naturally to me. (See "Can't Do It Perfectly? Just Do It Badly!")

Thankfully, my daughter seems to have figured out how to walk the tightrope between perseverance and true grit in pursuit of a goal while simultaneously staying relaxed and "laughing it off" anytime she fails trying. This paradox can be tricky to navigate. If you're a parent or coach, I highly recommend telling your kids and students about the often-overlooked importance of reducing perfectionism and learning to let failure roll off your back as core tenets of grit.

References

Danielle L. Cormier, John G. H. Dunn, and Janice Causgrove Dunn. "Examining the Domain Specificity of Grit" Personality and Individual Differences (First published online: December 11, 2018) DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2018.11.026

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