What is grit? What makes people grittier? And what is the point of grit? I thoroughly enjoyed Angela’s Duckworth book on it. That is when I decided I was gritty. I ranked 4.6 on the grit scale, which is on the 90-95% percentile. I was a slight bit proud, a slight bit worried. But I like how grit has taken a much better space in my life than perfectionism. Or too much grit.
Angela argues the focus on talent has gotten us distracted from something that makes as much (or more) of a difference – effort. Her own dad reminded her often how she was no genius. Does that mean you don’t go far? That you’re stuck in a life of average achievement?
I certainly recognise the thought. I (believed) I was gifted with writing skills, ease in learning languages, appetite for numbers, a good ear for music. I was not born for arts. And I never had a thing for science. Does that mean my life is determined by it? Angela claims it’s not. She goes further by saying
“Talent is the most pervasive explanation for success that we have”.
Ronaldo may have been gifted with talent, but more than anything, he has been gifted with the drive to make a constant effort to purposefully be the best.
Is it all talent?
I have a good ear for music. Did I grow up to be a professional or even any good? Not at all. Mostly, because I did not put in the hours. I keep the piano at home, I keep talking about the day that I buy myself a baby grand. But the truth is, neither now nor then did I ever put significant hours into it, with a dedicated practice that would make it all look (and feel) ‘natural’, like I had a talent. No, playing the piano, or most instruments, is tough, and unfortunately I was not taught how to grow this ‘good ear and feel for music’ into something great that would give me great satisfaction. By the time I had someone telling me this, my fixed mindset said it was too late. These days, I think of going back to it, get a teacher, practice daily. But I also know it is only worth it if I still have the passion to keep it up.
At the same time, I have always had the belief I was terrible at arts. Drawing was not my thing. And through school this was my pain point. I could do well in science by studying, but arts I just did not think it was possible to resolve by studying. Only talented people could draw. So I scraped by, in the belief that I was below average. Motherhood has taught me differently. Sometimes, I have no choice but to do arts and crafts. And sometimes, I am not that bad. I even enjoy some painting with the children (though still not much drawing). More importantly, I have been very marginally getting better! Even if from a very low base!
“If we were to use talent as a predictor for success, most likely our predictions would fail”
So what does matter?
Grit is what matters. A magical mix of purpose and perseverance. I added the magical, not the author. If you have taken the grit scale, you will see these 2 clearly at play. Mostly, because they ensure purposeful relentless practice towards excellence.
I believe it is magical because it is not always easy to find what it is that inherently drives you so that you can follow that north. In fact, more often than not people have the wrong incentives and their goals are not aligned with their values. So the purpose is flawed, and over time it shows in a lack of drive, a lack of energy to keep going. I love how I feel when I properly play the piano. But having not played it for years, there is a long steep curve to recover to my base. And that does not make me feel good at all. In fact it is great to get me on a downward spiral with my friend should. Maybe my purpose is flawed. In fact, I can feel good and relax in other ways. I need to dig deeper on that one.
At the same time, I love writing these articles. I ultimately believe they can benefit those around me. There are times I wonder at midnight (like as I write this) if it is worth it. But the next day at 6am the feeling of accomplishment is extraordinary. Moreover, the feeling of seeing words come out the moment I decide what I will talk about is also pretty extraordinary. Since the day I started make space for growth, grit has joined the train. That is why I created the Viewpoint Community. So whenever someone tells me how they have been reading my stuff and tell me how it has contributed to their lives, I just get grittier.
Perseverance and Stubbornness
That is the second part of the magic. How much perseverance is too much? Isn’t that just being narrow minded and have a fixed mentality? Not if you persevere to grow. You persevere in your purpose because you know there are no shortcuts to excellence. And excellence is what you strive towards when something really matters.
Now, I admit this is a close relative of perfectionism some times and sheer stubbornness at other times. Where do you stop, when is excellent excellent enough? Gritty people may tell you never. In reality, this growth mindset will keep you going, as the journey matches the outcome.
Sometimes, life is indeed a numbers game. When you are constantly looking for way to make a situation better, you actually do stand a chance of doing it. Like when I talk about the Euro Millions but never really buy a ticket. At least when I do buy a ticket (which I do sometimes), I actually stand a chance, as miserably low as that chance may be.
Part of this perseverance is optimism. It is about how we respond to situations and setbacks. Because you will certainly have set backs ALL THE TIME. Probably more than others given you are trying more than many others. How many goals and penalties has Ronaldo failed? Quite a few. More than anyone. That is what you get by going back to practicing free kicks after everyone finishes their practice. Yes, I do go back to Ronaldo on this one quite a bit. But when I think of “Paragons” of grit, he has to be way up there on my list.
Going back to optimism. With a fixed mindset we interpret setbacks as evidence that we can’t make it. Like me in my piano audition when I failed to perform the Turkish March in the way I knew how to play it even in my sleep. Or when my hands shake when I make a speech and I tell myself how I am not a natural speaker. Or when my kids can’t figure out what animal I just drew and call my giraffe some sort of gruffalo. Any of it resonates?
With a growth mindset you believe you can learn and you can do better. It does not mean you ignore setbacks, it just means you can’t overreact to them. You need to step back and learn. CBT has done this for me. Setbacks are part of the process and slowly I have learnt to observe when negative self-talk makes its way into my mind. I become more objective. Almost an optimist.
So you can you learn grit?
Clearly, with a growth mindset, you believe you can learn anything, so why not grit? Moreover, therapies like CBT are almost the basic recipe to help you think differently. Not stubborn, just gritty. Not a perfectionist, just gritty. And what about children?
The book has a full chapter on passing along grit to our kids. Angela gets tons of questions every week, but the most often asked one is how do teach this to our children, knowing its impact on the outcomes.
“Parenting means bring forth”
Most impressions she shares are based on her impressions and have insufficient research. But if you believe some of the underlying concepts in grit – like practice and purpose, then there is quite a lot of research around those. I have to admit, most of it rings a bell.
We give a lot of thought on how to make Little Girl C grittier. I guess we just did not know that word before in that true sense. From an early age we sought to praise effort, not talent. We (try) to give feedback on how she is trying rather than how she is doing in her homework. Now, any parents out there know that all this is easier said than done. And if I get home at 7 pm for dinner time and homework is pending, I just want to get it done, grit probably will have to wait. But each time it has to wait is a wasted opportunity to bring her the wisdom of being grittier rather than relying on talents, of making an effort in the face of adversity rather than being defeated by it.
Little Girl C and Grit
I was ever so pleased when the author described activities like ballet, piano or tennis as conducive to grittier children. Mostly, because they are hard to do and require practice. Little Girl C does them all. Too much? Maybe. But I have observed the evolution in the piano from a frustrated little person angrily shouting at the piano book and calling herself stupid in the face of a new piece. This evening, we found a fun way to intermediate practice with theory and as I wrote a note to the teacher I realized that it was not until song number 3 that she started getting frustrated with the level of difficulty. For songs 1 and 2 she stood up from the piano beaming with pride and asking for applause. I praised her effort and reminded her it was all thanks to her and her practice. Point!
Angela has a rule in her family that everyone needs to do a hard thing. That means something that is hard and requires daily practice. I started wondering about how early we could implement that. And what my hard thing would be. Any thoughts? Research shows that kids thrive when they spend part of their week in hard things that interest them.
Where does grit lead?
Are grits perfectionists? Are gritty people just absolutely obsessed about being the best in class in everything they do?
It is not about the end point, it is about ‘being satisfied with being unsatisfied’, about trying to get there in constant improvement. You feel like you are “chasing something of unparalleled importance, and it is the chase as much as the capture, that is gratifying”.
If you are convinced of the benefits, pick up Angela’s book (no, I get no commission). The full book makes it very clear through examples and research how you too can become grittier. With even a step by step guide at the end. Then you can find out where it leads you.
“It is often more sensible to give up and move on. It can be years before grit’s dividends payoff”
Never give up.Michael Heuser