How I Learned About the Perils of Grit
Rethinking simple explanations for complicated problems.
Posted April 13, 2017
Why do some people accomplish more than others of equal intelligence? Dr. Angela Duckworth asked the question and provided a singular answer: grit. Her TED talk on grit has been viewed over 10 million times. Grit, her New York Times best-selling book, has quickly become gospel in classrooms and boardrooms around the globe. In her seminal introduction to the Grit Scale, she offered this definition:
Grit entails working strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity, and plateaus in progress. The gritty individual approaches achievement as a marathon; his or her advantage is stamina. Whereas disappointment or boredom signals to others that it is time to change trajectory and cut losses, the gritty individual stays the course.
If you want to uncover something about your own personality, consider which of the following seven statements are true in describing you.
- I've always felt that I could make of my life pretty much what I wanted to make of it.
- Once I make up my mind to do something, I stay with it until the job is completely done.
- When things don't go the way I want them to, that just makes me work even harder.
- It is not always easy, but I manage to find a way to do the things I really need to get done.
- In the past, even when things got really tough, I never lost sight of my goals.
- I do not let my personal feelings get in the way of doing a job.
- Hard work has really helped me to get ahead in life.
Do more than three items describe you?
Are you a gritty person?
Do you possess the capacity that science says is more important than intelligence in predicting success?
The items above could form a pretty good measure of grit. The items just happen to be given a different term in psychology (because scientists love confusing the public). You just completed a measure of John Henryism.
Created by Dr. Sherman James, this scale was named after the black American folk hero, John Henry. In the tale, John Henry was the strongest, most powerful man, hitting thick steel railroad spikes into rocks with a 14-pound hammer. In a race against a steam-powered drill, he was victorious before dying from exhaustion. He is a legend for his superhuman single-mindedness to work harder and longer at his goals than anybody else. John Henry persevered at his long-term goal with unwavering commitment to hard work, unrelenting vitality, and a determination to circumvent emotional, physical, and social obstacles. He is the paragon of grit. His story is a parable on the potential costs of leaning heavily on grit as the answer to becoming successful and fulfilled.
How much striving is too much?
The scientific research on John Henyrism offers a stark contrast to the universal acclaim for grit. Researchers followed 3,126 young adults (starting when the subjects were in their 20s) over the course of 25 years. What they discovered was that young adults characterized by John Henyrism (or grittiness) suffered physically, just like the legend himself. Higher blood pressure. Higher risk for cardiovascular disease. And 25 years later, the toll continued. Slower mental speed. Poorer memory. Worse executive functioning—which means poorer attentional control, problem-solving, planning, and the mental flexibility to work through or around obstacles.
The physiological and psychological toll of grit is particularly pronounced in adults from disadvantaged backgrounds, who are minorities, who lack the financial and social capital to get through the trials of everyday life. People with the greatest hardships who are given the message that they just need to be a bit grittier, suffer greatly.
Their journey is similar to John Henry—a burst of profound strength, an exemplar of what hard work can accomplish, and then a steep psychological and physical decline. If you only pay attention to the ascending part of the curve, grit seems downright beautiful. But if you observe the entire trajectory, a different story emerges. Captured nicely by Dr. Gary Bennett and his colleagues:
...the high-effort coping approach may be extremely adaptive, particularly in the workplace or when rapid action is necessary to manage an acute stressor...prolonged use of the [John Henryism] style is deleterious for those in lower SES groups because they lack adequate social and psychosocial resources to buffer their coping efforts.
Ignore the fact that Black women experience different stressors than White women, and you might think grit will solve both of their woes.
Peek behind the curtains of acclaim and you find that grit has additional costs. Scientists found that gritty people remove quitting as an option. When things are going horribly wrong, grittier people simply pour in extra effort. Unsolvable problems become endless excursions.
The notion that persistence is essential for success and happiness is deeply embedded in popular and scientific writings. However, when people are faced with situations in which they cannot realize a key life goal, the most adaptive response for mental and physical health may be to disengage from that goal (Miller and Wrosch, 2007, p. 773).
It seems obvious that the more tools in your psychological Swiss army knife, the better your adaptation to a volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous environment. Ignore the interactive influence of available resources and stressors on the power of grit at your own peril.
What are the implications for organizations?
This is an important question, because grit is being viewed as the trait to recruit for and push for in schools, military settings, athletic teams, and business. Those at the top of the organizational hierarchy are often the grittiest. The relentless pursuit of excellence is what got them to where there are. What’s missing from the conversation is the collateral damage.
Remember the definition of grit? …maintaining effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity, and plateaus in progress.
What happens to the performance of leaders who adopt grit as the strength of all strengths?
When the going gets tough, those at the top often take a single-minded, myopic approach. The belief that I can do this myself can lead to missed opportunities for successful collaboration and frustrated followers. A reflexive reaction to double down prevents plans from being scrapped or substantially revised—and sometimes this is exactly what is needed.
No matter how mighty and powerful the leader may be, fatigue eventually sets in—think of John Henry. Low self-awareness is directly related to fatigue. As followers begin to mirror the poor attitude and actions of tired leaders, relationships falter and dysfunction sets in. Eleanor Brown reminds us, “Self-care is not selfish—you cannot lead from an empty vessel.” Emotions are contagious, both the good and the bad. The number one driver of worker engagement is confidence in leadership, and workers absorb the lion's share of their emotional cues from their boss.
Talent development suffers when leaders rely too much on their own grit. One of the reasons the younger generation is unprepared to lead is their lack of exposure to the crucible moments—the decisions required when tasked and trusted to help solve the big issues. Learning comes from doing. Modern-day business leaders talk about wars for talent, a lack of bench strength, and the leadership gap—lack of readiness for the next generation. What is ignored is how gritty leaders often impede the flow of ideas and squander developmental opportunities.
Agile Thinking Trumps Grit
Grit is for convergent thinking—staying the course and working stronger, harder, and faster. In the modern world, we also need divergent thinking. We need deliberate pauses to consider alternative ways.
For movement to occur, persons must believe that they are able to generate workable routes to their goals. Pathways thinking reflects an individual’s perceived ability to formulate plausible goal routes. ... Although the person typically focuses on one route, if it is blocked, alternative routes must be envisioned to sustain hopeful thinking ... when goal pursuits are disrupted, successful agentic thinking allows an individual to channel positive motivation to alternative, open pathways.
This idea is from Dr. Rick Snyder, who offered a nuanced understanding of grit with his theory of hope, involving pathways and agency, to understand successful and fulfilling goal pursuit. What is helpful about grit is not new: Snyder's work on hope goes back more than two decades, and researchers have been studying conscientiousness since 1991.
Don’t put all of your eggs in one cognitive basket.
Instead of relying on a single characteristic such as grit, diversify.
No single characteristic is sufficient for success and fulfillment. Soften the edges of grit with intervals of curiosity, reflection, and social connection. People agile enough to navigate through an increasingly dynamic environment will be the innovators of the future.
Enjoy a sneak preview of the latest articles from my research lab. Contact me for a preprint:
- Pleasure as an Overlooked Target of Substance Use Disorder Research and Treatment
- The cascade of positive events: Does exercise on a given day increase the frequency of additional positive events?
This blog post was co-authored with my colleague, Mark Fernandes, CEO of Capitalism 2.0 and Chairman of the Board at the Center for the Advancement of Well-Being at George Mason University.
Dr. Todd B. Kashdan is a public speaker, psychologist, professor of psychology and senior scientist at the Center for the Advancement of Well-Being at George Mason University. His latest book is The upside of your dark side: Why being your whole self—not just your “good” self—drives success and fulfillment. For more, visit toddkashdan.com