Harvard Educational Review
  1. Grit

    The Power of Passion and Perseverance

    Angela Duckworth

    New York: Scribner’s, 2016. 333 pp. $28.

    In Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, Angela Duckworth, professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, looks at grit—passion coupled with perseverance—as being essential to success and achievement. The book pushes back on society’s overreliance on talent to explain excellence and instead highlights what relentless effort and an unwavering focus on a goal can achieve. Duckworth tells the story of grit’s role in human flourishing by weaving together biographies and interviews with highly successful individuals, “grit paragons” (p. 60), with largely jargon-free summaries of psychological research on topics such as passion, optimism, interest, and excellence.

    The book is organized into three sections: Part 1 introduces the concept of grit and why it matters; Part 2 presents ways in which individuals can grow their grit reserves from the “inside out” (p. 92); and Part 3 presents contexts such as parenting and the workplace that serve as “playing fields” (p. 223) for developing grit.

    In the opening chapter of Part 1, “Showing Up,” Duckworth introduces readers to grit and to her Grit Scale, which assesses the extent to which an individual “approaches life with grit” (p. 9), with passion and perseverance. Through examples of diverse contexts, ranging from the US Army’s training program at West Point to winners of the National Spelling Bee competition, she seeks to demonstrate that grit is better than many other psychological factors at predicting individual success. For example, drawing from her research in the Chicago Public Schools, Duckworth proposes that grit is a “more powerful predictor of graduation than how much students cared about school, how conscientious they were about their studies, and even how safe they felt at school” (p. 11). Toward the end of the chapter she raises a question that the next chapter tackles: What is the role of talent versus grit in individual success? Chapter 2, “Distracted by Talent,” considers this question and examines the notion that having “potential is one thing [, but] what we do with it is quite another” (p. 14). Through personal anecdotes and examples of towering historical figures such as Charles Darwin, Duckworth highlights humans’ tendency to attribute individual success to a natural gift and innate talent rather than exceptionally hard work or passion. For her, the fundamental folly of our hidden psychological bias favoring talent is that it overshadows the crucial role of effort in driving individual achievement. “Without effort,” she argues, “talent is nothing more than your unmet potential . . . what you could have done but didn’t” (p. 51).

    In chapter 3, “Effort Counts Twice,” Duckworth elaborates on her theory for getting from talent to achievement via effort. She argues that effort not only leads to developing one’s skills but importantly makes those skills usable and productive, thus having double the impact. While she does not explicitly untangle the relation between effort and grit, she maintains that effort underlies both passion and perseverance. To illustrate this centrality of sustained effort in achievement, she offers familiar, if timeless, advice on being successful from gritty individuals, including Harvard psychologist George Valliant, filmmaker Woody Allen, and novelist John Irving. Duckworth reminds readers that “getting back on the treadmill the next day, eager to try again” is a crucial component of grit, because “when you permanently turn your back on a commitment,” she says, “your effort plummets to zero . . . your skills stop improving, and at the same time, you stop producing anything with whatever skills you have” (p. 50).

    A core idea of chapter 4, “How Gritty Are You?” is that “grit is all about holding the same top-level goal for a very long time” (p. 66). Using this lens, Duckworth argues that passion signifies “consistency over time” rather than a short-lived burst of “infatuation” (p. 57). Drawing on her interviews with Jeff Gettleman, the East Africa bureau chief of the New York Times, and New Yorker cartoon editor Bob Mankoff, she not only argues for the importance of holding goals but also presents ways to prioritize and organize goals into a hierarchy. The chapter also offers readers the chance to assess their own “grittiness” through an abridged version of Duckworth’s Grit Scale, subject to the caveat that one’s grit score is “a reflection of how you see yourself right now” (p. 56). But chapter 5, “Grit Grows,” proposes that grit can be intentionally honed. Here Duckworth takes on the nature-nurture question—How much of my grit score at this moment is a product of my genes? The answer is not entirely surprising. Similar to almost every other psychological trait, including IQ, Duckworth argues, grit is shaped by genetic factors as well as by experience and environment. More topically, for example, her research found that older individuals score higher on the grit scale. The implications and explanations of this finding are far from conclusive given the absence of longitudinal studies on grit, a limitation Duckworth acknowledges. Nonetheless, with the assumption of grit’s malleability, the rest of the chapter is dedicated to introducing the four “psychological assets” that paragons of grit (p. 92) have in common: interest, practice, purpose, and hope.

    The four chapters in Part 2 lay out the psychological capacities that drive the development of grit. In chapter 6, “Interest,” Duckworth proclaims that fostering passion takes time, effort, and interaction with the world. The process of interest discovery tends to be “messy, serendipitous, and inefficient” (p. 104). Unsurprisingly, parents, teachers, coaches, mentors, and peers can play a crucial role by facilitating opportunities for tinkering and by providing encouragement to children in their early years. And, as chapter 7, “Practice,” lays out, perseverance hones passion. Duckworth argues that grit grows through hours of “deliberate practice” (p. 120) during which individuals intentionally operate at the far boundaries of their current skill levels. Through anecdotes of Benjamin Franklin improving his writing and of Atul Gawande becoming a surgeon, the chapter seeks to convey that “even the most complex and creative of human abilities can be broken down into its component skills, each of which can be practiced, practiced, and practiced” (p. 123).

    The final chapters of Part 2 signal the latter two phases in the development of grit. Chapter 8, “Purpose,” argues that purpose lends a larger meaning to any work, whether building pots or writing, and can thus sustain passion over a lifetime. Moreover, this “beyond-the-self orientation” (p. 164) can be intentionally nurtured by observing purposeful role models, discovering a problem that needs solving, and cultivating a belief that one can make a difference. In chapter 9, “Hope,” Duckworth ruminates on the central role of hope in strengthening the capacity to persevere during challenging times. She spends a substantial portion of the chapter laying out the connections between Carol Dweck’s research on fixed versus growth mind-set and grit. She contends that individuals with a growth mind-set are better set up to keep going during tough times than are those with a fixed mind-set.

    In the concluding section, Duckworth offers her “hunches” (p. 211) from emerging research about the most common practice arenas for growing grit. Chapter 10, “Parenting for Grit,” and Chapter 11, “The Playing Field of Grit,” offer readers guidance on practices and experiences that can foster grit in children. For example, grit is fostered when parents model it and balance stretch and support in their interactions with children. Duckworth also argues that structured extracurricular activities have all the essential ingredients of what it takes to build grit, with the underlying message that developing the capacity for grit in younger years can allow one to transfer it from, say, athletics to other domains. Chapter 12, “Culture of Grit,” looks at the institutions we inhabit. But while Duckworth argues that leveraging “the basic human drive to fit in” (p. 247) is the quicker route to developing grit in a large number of people, the chapter offers few relevant lessons for adults in the workplace or insights into how to go about developing such a “gritty culture” (p. 245).

    In the final chapter, Duckworth acknowledges that grit is only one of many character traits that matter and, importantly, that the potential social costs and undesirable repercussions of grit remain to be studied. Yet ultimately, for Duckworth, grit provides a much-needed nuance into how we define genius—not as “being able to accomplish great things in life without effort . . . [but as] working toward excellence, ceaselessly, with every element of your being” (p. 277).

    Since its release in May 2016, Grit has been met both enthusiastically and skeptically. On one hand, for education administrators confronted with the harshly uneven nature of student achievement in US public schools, its study of this popular buzzword holds the tantalizing promise of a means for predicting and supporting academic success. At the same time, the book’s explanation of individual success as fueled by grit is stripped of any context. The sole acknowledgment that “context matters” comes in chapter 3 when the author notes that access to opportunities matters and that her theory about psychology of achievement is “incomplete” (p. 43). However, this is not accompanied by a serious consideration of the many ecological factors—such as race, class, or family income—that viscerally shape and actively deny massive numbers of individuals in the United States (and globally) access to the kinds of resources and opportunities (e.g., a supportive teacher, a spot on the swim team, hours and hours of deliberate practice) that Duckworth sees as crucial to “growing grit” so that individuals can realize their potential. So while the book is a helpful reminder that there is more to excellence than talent, it raises, and largely sidesteps, questions about why schools at the systemic level are struggling to provide enough students opportunities for excellence and mastery that the author advocates as worth pursuing in life.

    But is grit different from the wisdom passed on across generations—“sustained effort matters,” “show up day after day despite failures and adversities”? In fact, some researchers hold the view that it is not significantly different from its close cousin, conscientiousness (Credé, Tynan, & Harms, 2017). Can grit emerge in the context of poverty, and can it outweigh its impact? Does the promise that effort can predict academic achievement hold up for individuals across chasms of race and class? Questions such as these remain. But, in the words of the “especially gritty” (p. 277) Ta-Nehisi Coates (2015), who has written extensively about structural racism, “every time I ask it, the question is refined” (p. 34). Perhaps a sustained interrogation, rather than an uncritical embrace of the book’s ideas, is essential to realize the role that grit can have in human thriving.

    stuti shukla


    Coates, T. N. (2015). Between the world and me. New York: Spiegel & Grau.

    Credé, M., Tynan, M. C., & Harms, P. D. (2017). Much ado about grit: A meta-analytic synthesis of the grit literature. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 113(3), 492–511. doi:10.1037/pspp0000102

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    Book Notes

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    Lower Ed
    Tressie McMillan Cottom

    Angela Duckworth