Grit: Is It Baloney?

Grit, the bestselling idea by Angela Duckworth, leaves me cold

Posted Jun 22, 2016

Pixabay, John Hain
Source: Pixabay, John Hain

Angela Duckworth’s Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance is on the bestseller list.  But when I read David Denby’s brilliant New Yorker overview (The Limits of Grit, June 21, 2016), I had, to quote Han Solo, “a bad feeling about this.”  It sounded like another riff on the virtues of Tiger Parenting and a narrow vision of “achievement” and “success”, but this time by a psychologist and MacArthur genius award winner.  Duckworth is a child of immigrants, like yesteryear’s Amy Chua, and similarly an extraordinarily high achiever.  Harvard undergrad, Oxford on a Marshall, McKinsey and Company, 7th grade school teacher (ok, this part got my attention; she must care about kids, after all, and spent time in the trenches), Ph.D. in psychology at U. Penn working with Martin Seligman, the famed positive psychologist.  Her résumé puts the 99 percent of us to shame.  Duckworth is clearly an exemplar of hard work, determination and thoughtfulness….but something’s missing in her cultural project.  Achievement and resumé building are all well and good…to a point.  What of attuning to your child – finding out who they are, rather than trying to mold them into your vision of gritty achievement?  What of the child with mental health issues?  What about dealing with poverty, inadequate schools, overburdened teachers, etc?  Are we all just supposed to grit our teeth and grind away?  Is competition through grit our solution?  Grit seems like an obsessional prescription for a condition that requires more broad-minded inquiry and remedy.

A prescription mostly for building an elite class of “gunners”, and with the fallout being a growing class of cutters.  To be blunt.

George Vaillant, the longtime director of the Grant Study, the longest running longitudinal study of human development, concluded that “happiness is love.  Full stop.”  Relationships are the key to well-being, even for high achieving Harvard alumni.  In fact, I would argue, relationships ARE the achievement of a well-lived life.  (See “What Makes us Happy, Revisited”, The Atlantic, May 2013, and the longer article “What Makes us Happy?”, The Atlantic, June, 2009)  

The primary cause of our suffering is thus not a lack of achievement, but a lack of belonging and connection.  The opposite of suffering is belonging.  Freud called love and work (lieben und arbeiten) the main components of life.  Grit only focuses on work.

No one would argue against working hard towards goals, or mustering the strength to delay gratification in pursuit of those goals.  The famous marshmallow study demonstrated clearly that children who were able to delay gratification did better in school and had fewer behavioral problems, better impulse control, etc.  Other studies correlate delayed gratification with not smoking and advancing in higher education.  But “grit” seems like a sophisticated “no s—t” conclusion that doesn’t actually address the deeper psychological and social questions at stake in this age of deep economic divisions.  But Duckworth is achieving immense popularity because grit is a simple, motivational answer that an insecure America, insecure about all the wrong things, grasps after.  What I like about grit is that it emphasizes effort over innate ability, and what's been described as the "growth mindset" (by others as well), emphasizing neural plasticity and cultivation of skill.  What I don't like is that it can be taken to favor a narrow form of achievement over the process of individuation and self-discovery, and favor work over love and play, necessary components of human life.

Some of the doozies I heard in Duckworth’s interview on CBS This Morning were “I love it when kids get a job,” and “we don’t take breaks in our house.”  Summer is the “perfect season to foster your passion”.  Only a reject would want to play and have fun in their summer.  No, it’s clocking away viola lesson hours or attending a scholastic summer camp that counts.  No remedies for the kids without access or support for these legitimately positive activities, and no support for the child whose greatest achievement might be in reading Harry Potter or Robert Heinlein over again for the nth time.  Poet? Dreamer?  Slackers.  You just don’t have grit, kid.  You could have founded a startup in your spare time, you know.  (Side note, on NPR the other day, I heard an 8 year old say she was googling business attire because she wanted to know how to dress for success in her startup class.  Another sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach.)

What is going on here?  We seem to be turning into a society even more obsessed with wealth, status and success in very narrow (and harrowing) terms.  Who speaks to the vulnerable within us, the frail, “wavering self” (as Denby put it) longing for a sense of wholeness, community and goodness?  Who speaks to the ‘eulogy virtues’, not the ‘résumé virtues’ as David Brooks puts it

Grit may in the end be a smart sales pitch for one of the Big 5 Personality Traits, conscientiousness.  The Big 5 go by the acronym OCEAN – openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.  Agreeableness and conscientiousness are the most highly correlated with happiness and success.  Love and work indeed. 

But love, in our success-oriented culture, always seems to get the short end of the stick.  We pay our lip service, but haven’t yet applied it fully and thoroughly to society, through really caring about our fellow citizens.

Duckworth definitely has street cred.  But what street does she want us to walk along?  Like Amy Chua, she embodies the child-of-immigrant tenacity and success that so many desire for themselves.  But I’m an immigrant too.  And I’ve come to different conclusions. 

Love, meaning empathy, compassion, kindness, and even eros, are the cultural projects we really need.  Head and heart are actually not so far apart.  Let’s connect them.

Grit - in the end, rhymes with something to which my editors would likely object.

Update 6/26/16:  I think what initially got under my skin was the sense of placing all responsibility and pressure on the individual/child.  Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote convincingly of this in his essay Self Reliance:

"Nature suffers nothing to remain in her kingdoms which cannot help itself. The genesis and maturation of a planet, its poise and orbit, the bended tree recovering itself from the strong wind, the vital resources of every animal and vegetable, are demonstrations of the self-sufficing, and therefore self-relying soul."

And my favorite lines:

"Nothing can bring you peace but yourself. Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles."

But the extreme view of these philosophies/psychologies is "I don't need anyone else," and "I don't need to help anyone else."  The problem is, though, that we do need each other, from birth to death, despite Emerson's noble wish for the individual to be free of what he deems the dictates of the mob.  Any psychology that ignores or demotes social needs, including the need for structural change, is ultimately very limited.

For further study:

  1. Duckworth interviewed in the New York Times: "Angela Duckworth on Passion, Grit and Success" 
  2. Duckworth’s 6 minute TED talk on Grit
  3. Duckworth's Op Ed in the NYT (March 26, 2016) "Don't Grade Schools on Grit".  Here Dr. Duckworth calls out the flawed ways grit and character measures are being used to grade or rank schools, rather than being used for reflection and character development.  Of course we should work on cultivating character.  I believe that comes from relationship, time and attention.  Perhaps an engaged education steeped in classics or modern literature which leads to questions of social and moral development would be better than the proposed character assessments.  Or an education on understanding personal and communal psychology and history.  Do we even need character measures at all, even for personal reflection?  Character is remarkably malleable and dependent on circumstance.  What we need to cultivate are the environment, pedagogy and relationships that promote good character.  Not character measures, IMHO.
  4. A radio interview with Angela Duckworth - in which she does talk more about opportunity, and not just grit.  
  5. Guardian article on Angela Duckworth
  6. Scientific American:  Should Grit be Taught and Tested in Schools?
  7. My article on Amy Chua’s Triple Package and Tiger Mothering:  Underscoring Amy Chua
  8. My article on Amy Chua's Tiger Mom book:  Battle Hymn of the Teddy Bear Psychiatrist
  9. A balanced but critical review of Duckworth's book in The New York Times
  10. New York Magazine's critique ("Don't believe the hype about grit, pleads the scientist behind the concept"), which I read after writing my article - confirming that most of grit is in the character trait 'conscientiousness'; and that even Duckworth is aware that grit (without passion or values) may not give us very much.  Values such as cooperation, kindness, altruism, etc. may actually bring us to a society focused on solving our varied predicaments, reducing suffering, and enhancing the general welfare.
  11. Salon:  "The Perils of 'Growth Mindset': Why We're Trying to Fix Our Kids When We Should Be Trying to Fix Our System" by Alfie Kohn 
  12. Education expert Alfie Kohn on Grit.  Excellent article laying bare the individualistic and conservative ideology behind Grit, which minimizes systemic structural issues such as racism, sexism and poverty, and also its focus on creating obsessive, single-minded rule-followers, rather than free-thinkers able to think in complex and potentially more empathic ways.
  13. "NPR Whitewashes 'Grit' Narrative" in the Becoming Radical Blog, which includes critiques regarding structural racism and mental health.
  14. "we need to point out that what they are pursuing is social reproduction and the preservation of wealth and power for elites. We have to point out that a religious paradigm of behaviors is not to be confused with a science of educational opportunity."  Ira David Socol on grit, pointing out that some are incredibly advantaged to begin with. "Is slack what kids really need?"
  15. "Historically, the grit discourse is driven primarily not by concerns about disadvantaged students but by the anxiety of middle and upper-class parents about the character of their own children." Stanford Education doctoral student Ethan Ris, in The Chronicle of Evidence Based Monitoring.  "Grit is not a panacea for the problems facing disadvantaged youth."
  16. My grit score was in the 95th percentile - at this moment in time :).  You can take the grit scale here.  My point is not to brag, but to point out that working hard at tasks, and improving at them, is only part of a happy and successful life, and in the end, perhaps not the most important thing.  It's actually not possible for some people, due to other countervailing circumstances.  Grit and task-focus, to me, are limited aspects of a balanced, healthy and happy life and society.
  17. Self compassion has been more important in my personal life and practice than grit.  For resources on self compassion, see my website.

c) 2016, Ravi Chandra, M.D. F.A.P.A.

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