The Link Between Grit and Resilience
How grit may enhance subjective well-being.
Posted December 13, 2020
I recently conducted grand rounds at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. At their request, the topic was grit and resilience. Medical school is stressful enough in ordinary times, but in the era of the pandemic both the study and the practice of medicine is all-the-more challenging. The diverse audience included medical students, physicians, nurses, administrators, and other medical professionals.
Preparing the talk was challenging because the original concept of grit is linked to the achievement of difficult and long-term goals, and not explicitly linked to resilience. For over 15 years I have collaborated with Angela Duckworth and others in researching the role of grit in achievement among West Point cadets. Thus, I was well-equipped to address the role of grit in attaining important and highly valued goals. To address the role of grit and resilience, I had to familiarize myself with that emerging literature. It quickly became apparent that there is a nexus between grit and resilience. But why would a construct found to be predictive of high grades, National Spelling Bee performance, or success at West Point (to name a few) also be important to resilience?  Or maybe a better question is how does such a link function?
The idea that grit may be linked to resilience was foreshadowed by an observation that Duckworth and I made during our initial grit data collection among new West Point cadets in the summer of 2004. During cadet basic training, a stressful introduction to military life, careful attention is given to the mental health of new cadets. Any new cadet who experiences depression or anxiety is encouraged to contact a mental health counselor. The goal of this initial counseling is to screen for serious mental health issues and, barring clinically significant pathology, to help these cadets overcome the adverse reactions they are experiencing and successfully complete both cadet basic training and the subsequent four years of education and leader development. While our primary research focused on the completion of cadet basic training and first-semester academic performance, we did look at grit scores of new cadets who requested sessions with counselors. Although based on a small number of observations, the grit scores of these cadets were substantially lower than those of cadets who did not seek counseling.
Flashing forward over 15 years, a Google Scholar search using the key terms of “grit” and “resilience” reveals many empirical studies looking at possible relationships between these two constructs. Many of these studies focus on medical students. Medical school has some important similarities to West Point. Both are highly selective. Everyone admitted has the talent to succeed. But both settings are extremely stressful and challenging, and not everyone completes the training. Some drop out early, quickly discouraged when the idea of military or medical training does not match its reality. Others try to stay the course but eventually quit, despite possessing the talent needed to succeed. Grit is the strongest predictor among West Point cadets of who eventually graduates.
A summary of the relationship between grit, achievement, and resilience among medical personnel reveals several recurring findings. Higher grit scores are associated with less burnout, a higher sense of well-being, greater clinical knowledge, less attrition, and overall academic success. Grit adds to MCAT scores in predicting academic performance. This pattern of findings is consistent with West Point findings that show grit is a strong predictor of attrition both in cadet basic training and over the four years of the West Point program and adds to standardized test scores in predicting academic performance.
How might grit increase resilience? Psychologist Martin Seligman’s PERMA model may offer a clue. Based on years of research, Seligman proposes that happiness and well-being—important components of resilience—are based on five factors: positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishment. A deep sense of meaning and purpose in life is associated with good adjustment and resilience. As Duckworth points out, grit requires intense interest in a goal and a passion to work relentlessly to accomplish it through months and sometimes years of deliberate practice. This results in task mastery and an increase in self-efficacy and self-esteem. Achieving the goal then builds one’s sense of meaning and purpose. And success may then feed back into expanded interests and new passions, starting a fresh cycle of success. In this sense, grit, accomplishment, and meaning and purpose become a self-sustaining system.
A good case study comes from a cadet I recently had the pleasure of teaching in my cognitive psychology course. Toward the end of the semester, I introduced the idea of non-cognitive factors in human accomplishment and began discussing grit. The cadet broke into a wide smile and exclaimed that what he was hearing was his life story. Born into an economically distressed family and homeless until age 10, at an early age he discovered an intense interest and passion for football. Relatively small in size he had to work harder than his peers at every level of competition. By his senior year in high school, he was chosen by his teammates to be the captain of the football team. The meaning and purpose he achieved in football fed back into other domains. He was also voted team captain of the track and field team. Even more impressive, perhaps, he was the Valedictorian of his high school class. West Point recruited him to play football, thus allowing him to realize his lifelong dream to play at the Division I level. A series of setbacks and injuries prevented him from making the squad until his senior year. Most players would have given up by then and dropped out of the team, but he stayed the course and in an October game he finally scored a touchdown. Nearing graduation, this gritty cadet has been nominated to receive one of West Point’s highest recognitions, the Henry Ossian Flipper award, given to the one graduating cadet who most represents the qualities of leadership, self-discipline, and perseverance in the face of unusual adversity as a cadet.
Grit is an important factor in resilience. But it should not be thought of as the only or even the primary contributor to resilience in the face of adversity. Other strengths of character, personality traits, lifestyle habits, social and family environment, and even genetics contribute to how well one fares in the face of life’s obstacles. Hard work and determination alone are neither sufficient nor necessary to achieving the good life, although they may help in many cases. According to a Buddhist saying, “there are many paths to the top of the mountain.” By analogy, this holds equally true in our struggle to live the good life. Grit is one of many paths to a resilient and productive life.
Note: The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not reflect the position of the United States Military Academy, the Department of the Army, or the Department of Defense.
 Duckworth, A.L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M. D., & Kelly, D. R. (2007). Grit: Perseverance and passion for long term goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92, 1087–1101. https://psycnet.apa.org/doi/10.1037/0022-3518.104.22.1687
 Duckworth, A. L., Quirk, A., Gallop, R., Hoyle, R. H., Kelly, D. R., & Matthews, M. D. (2019). Cognitive and noncognitive predictors of success. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 116(47), 23499-23504. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1910510116
 For example, see Dam, A., Perera, T., Jones, M., Haughy, M., & Gaeta, T. (2019). The relationship between grit, burnout, and well‐being in emergency medicine residents. AEM Education and Training, 3(1), 14–19. https://doi.org/10.1002/aet2.10311.
 For instance, see Seligman, M. (2018). PERMA and the building blocks of well-being. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 13(4), 333–335. https://doi.org/10.1080/17439760.2018.1437466