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True Grit: Can Perseverance be Taught?

An interesting TED talk by Dr. Angela Lee Duckworth, an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. Duckworth studies non-IQ competencies that predict success both academically and professionally.

Duckworth defines grit as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals.”

“Grit,” she continues, “entails working strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity, and plateaus in progress.”

What differentiates kids who are gritty from kids who are not gritty is not just the hours of work they are putting in, (but) they’re putting the hardest kind of work in.

That sounds an awful lot like deliberate practice. Practising is not enough — it’s the way we practice that matters. Professional musicians, for example, tend to work through tedious exercises and focus on the difficult, whereas amateurs tend to just play a lot of music.

How is grit Different than self-control? Duckworth says:

Grit is also distinct from […] self-control, in its specification of consistent goals and interests. An individual high in self-control but moderate in grit may, for example, effectively control his or her temper, stick to his or her diet, and resist the urge to surf the Internet at work—yet switch careers [frequently]. As Galton (1892) suggested, abiding commitment to a particular vocation [..] does not derive from overriding “hourly temptations.”

Adam Smith highlights something interesting that comes up in Duckworth’s research. “Why,” Smith writes, “might most people think that IQ and self-control are more important than consistent, long term effort? There are many possible answers, but Duckworth’s research suggests an explanation I hadn’t thought of before: that it’s harder to observe long term focused efforts by others.”

We speculate that individual differences in the intensity dimension of effort are salient and, therefore, described by many adjectives in the English language (e.g., energetic, conscientious, dutiful, responsible, lazy). Whereas the amount of energy one invests in a particular task at a given moment in time is readily apparent both to oneself and to others, the consistency of one’s long-term goals and the stamina with which one pursues those goals over years may be less obvious. Similarly, whereas the importance of working harder is easily apprehended, the importance of working longer without switching objectives may be less perceptible.

So how can we get grittier? Duckworth isn’t sure. A good place to start is with Carol Dweck’s book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.

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