There’s Grit, and Then There’s True Grit


Review of Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, by Angela Duckworth

New York: Scribner, 2016

In her recent book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, University of Pennsylvania psychology professor Angela Duckworth argues that the secret to success — whether for parents, students, educators, athletes, or business people — is not talent, but a combination of passion and perseverance she calls “grit.”

But is this really the case?

The dictionary defines “grit” as “mental toughness or courage.” The term calls to mind gritting or clenching the teeth when facing up to an unpleasant task, or it makes us think of small particles of sand or stone that irritate skin, get in the eyes, clog machinery — the idea being that an individual with grit perseveres in the face of these frictions. In a 2007 article, Duckworth explains:

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.

Duckworth’s book is filled with engaging anecdotes about how grit contributed to the achievements of celebrities and other successful individuals. For example, she interviews Mike Matthews, a faculty psychologist at the United States Military Academy, for clues on how brand-new cadets survive a grueling seven-week summer training program known as “The Beast.” The key differentiator, according to Matthews: “a never give up” attitude. Duckworth quotes musician and actor Will Smith who once observed that he never viewed himself as particularly talented, but “Where I excel is a ridiculous, sickening work ethic.” He elaborated, “I’m not afraid to die on a treadmill. I will not be outworked, period.” Duckworth also quotes Martha Graham, the pioneering modern dancer and choreographer, who wrote, “Dancing appears glamorous, easy, delightful. But the path to the paradise of that achievement is not easier than any other. There is fatigue so great that the body cries even in its sleep. There are times of complete frustration. There are daily small deaths.”

These comments remind one of Winston Churchill’s famous speech, in which he admonished a class of young students: “Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never–in nothing, great or small, large or petty—never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense.”

But there’s more to grit, in Duckworth’s formulation, then just persistence: you also need a long-term direction. “Grit is about holding the same top-level goal for a very long time,” she states, and then goes on to explain how our most important goals should be supported by hierarchies of specific mid-level and sub-goals. She ends the book arguing for more grit in the family and more grit at school, which can be achieved by providing children with a supportive yet demanding environment, as well as requiring participation in extracurricular activities -- and more grit in culture.

But could a person be too gritty?

If you’ve read the 1968 novel, True Grit by Charles Portis (or seen the 1969 or 2010 film adaptions), you’ll remember the heroine, 14-year old Mattie Ross, who sets out to avenge her father’s murder. Arriving in Fort Smith, she identifies Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn as a man of “true grit” — largely because of the twenty-three outlaws he has reportedly shot dead during his four-year employment as a U.S. Marshall — and hires him to track down the killer.

But as the reader soon discovers, Mattie is herself an extraordinarily gritty character. She refuses to be bullied and when challenged threatens lawsuits left and right. It’s not long before she’s both impressed and irritated the adults in the novel with her “saucy” and demanding behavior. Accompanying Cogburn into outlaw territory against his will, she keeps up during rough travels, survives firefights unfazed, and in the novel’s climatic scene, shoots her father’s killer in the head.

They don’t come much grittier than Mattie Ross. But that doesn’t mean she’s a nice person. The reader notices she’s quick to call people “trash,” and she acknowledges having a “mean streak.” Her motive is nothing more noble than vengeance. And she’s rash. But for luck, she would have been killed, leaving her ailing mother in the lurch. As it is, she suffers a snake bite, loses an arm, and nearly dies. The novel ends twenty-five years later, where we find Mattie a successful banker but hard-hearted. Uninterested in marriage, she admits she loves the Church and money and little else.

The novel makes the point that a “gritty” personality may have both positive and negative attributes, whereas Duckworth’s book focuses on the benefits.

To better appreciate “grit,” it might help to think of it as a mental strategy (or set of decision-making rules) that includes a high threshold for pain or a long time limit before accepting failure and selecting a new goal.

Consider some alternative decision-making strategies. “Sensitive” might describe someone who has a low threshold for pain or is quick to give up. Yet sometimes quitting is the right answer, as Duckworth acknowledges in the concluding chapter of her book:

It isn’t hard to think of situations in which giving up is the best course of action. You may recall times you stuck with an idea, sport, job, or romantic partner longer than you should have.

Unfortunately, you can’t really implement a decision-making rule to “never give up -- except when it’s the best course of action.” We could consider the question, what is the optimal time limit to wait before quitting? But the answer would depend on the situation.

A “sensitive” person would likely have a lower threshold for boredom and might therefore be inclined to indulge in a “taste for novelty,” which Duckworth and other grit purists tend to view as suspect. But consider that ancient Spartans showed a lot of grit but produced little culture – rather, it is the other regions of ancient Greece, like free-wheeling Athens, whose art, literature, and philosophy we treasure today. Gritty people might be less innovative.

Humans appear to have evolved with a distribution of personality types: some people stay focused on long-term goals and never deviate – while others quit easily, seek novelty, are always trying something new. Which strategy succeeds will depend on the environment. And this is why, I suspect, that statistical research has not supported grit as a predictive variable of success. In the 2007 study noted above, grit explained only 4% of the variance in successful outcomes. In a 2014 study, the authors concluded that grit added no meaningful explanatory power to the prediction of academic achievement beyond traditional personality factors such as conscientiousness. We can’t reject the null hypothesis that everyone has grit, and it’s really talent that leads to success.

Duckworth has produced an engaging book, and she’s helping the field of psychology focus on new and interesting variables. To take her work to the next level, she might think about gritty personality attributes in a broader context of alternative decision-making strategies. Also, it would help us more deeply understand the subject to read stories of successful people who aren’t that gritty and witness gritty people fail, too.

Posted on 25 July 2016

KENNETH POSNER is a financial executive, ultra-runner, and writer who blogs at