Don’t Believe the Hype About Grit, Pleads the Scientist Behind the Concept

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Photo: Caiaimage/Chris Ryan

Recently, Angela Duckworth — the scientist behind the buzzy term grit — was planning her tour to promote her new book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, which was published last week. Someone floated an idea: Wouldn’t it make sense for Duckworth to visit the schools that had applied her grit curriculum? This sounds like a great publicity tie-in, until, that is, you consider the fact that there is no grit curriculum — at least, not one Duckworth has ever written.

It’s a decent example of the problem with grit, an exciting idea for which the enthusiasm has rapidly outpaced the science. The concept as it’s often understood holds that talent isn’t the only key to success; it may not even be the most important key to success. Hard work, determination, and perseverance are what truly counts.

These are alluring ideas, similar to the ones that helped propel Malcolm Gladwell’s so-called “10,000 hour rule” to mainstream popularity. And so it’s little wonder that grit has taken off. A 2007 academic paper lead-authored by Duckworth has been cited 1,157 times, according to Google Scholar, and Duckworth’s six-minute TED Talk from 2013 on the subject has been watched more than 8.4 million times. (Duckworth has said she was not thrilled with the title assigned to that talk: “The key to success? Grit.”) But the concept has perhaps especially resonated with educators across the country: Earlier this year, school districts in the San Francisco area announced plans to begin testing students on grit and other forms of emotional intelligence; other schools have instituted things like Grit Week, in which students set goals for their scores on upcoming standardized tests.

This is a problem. The existing research on grit is exciting, but it’s too new to apply to educational policy in any meaningful way. As a result, too many of the current applications are shallow interpretations that only sort of capture the vague gist of grit, no matter how well-intentioned the educators backing them happen to be. In a review of Duckworth’s book published by the magazine Quillette (and shared widely on social media over the weekend by educators and psychologists alike), writer Parker Brown references research published earlier this year that seems to poke a few holes in the theory of grit:

More importantly, they found that what Duckworth and colleagues defined as grit is hardly distinguishable from conscientiousness, one of the classic Big Five traits in psychology. The study, which included a representative sample of U.K. students, measured grit against conscientiousness. Grit, researchers discovered, accounts for only an additional 0.5% of variation in test scores when compared with conscientiousness. IQ, on the other hand, accounts for nearly 40%, according to Plomin.

Here’s the thing: Duckworth completely, totally, absolutely agrees with this critique. She would also like to add: It’s missing half the picture.

Grit, as Duckworth has defined it in her research, is a combination of perseverance and passion — it’s just that the former tends to get all the attention, while the latter is overlooked. “I think the misunderstanding — or, at least, one of them — is that it’s only the perseverance part that matters,” Duckworth told Science of Us. “But I think that the passion piece is at least as important. I mean, if you are really, really tenacious and dogged about a goal that’s not meaningful to you, and not interesting to you — then that’s just drudgery. It’s not just determination — it’s having a direction that you care about.”

It’s a strange thing, Duckworth said, to have played a significant part in the creation of an idea, only to have that idea run away from you and create a life of its own. In the case of grit, the enthusiasm for the work-ethic piece of the puzzle has outpaced the evidence, and schools across the country are trying to apply a concept that still hasn’t had all the kinks quite worked out yet. Back to the test score example highlighted by Quillette: That research equated conscientiousness with grit, and so the finding that conscientiousness didn’t predict higher scores — but IQ did — led to the conclusion that grit doesn’t live up to the hype. But this interpretation, Duckworth argues, leaves out the equally important other half of grit: passion. “That report was about, ‘Well, maybe grit’s not that important,’” Duckworth said. “And my thought when I read that was — how many kids who are 16 years old are passionate about their standardized reading and math scores for school?”

Really, the sound of the word grit itself is not helping matters, Duckworth pointed out. The word sounds like sweatiness, or dirtiness; it brings to mind the unpleasantness of effort. You grit your teeth — or, for another example, think of the single-minded toughness embodied by the heroes in True Grit. Grit sounds serious; it does not, on the other hand, sound like much fun.

As such, perseverance would seem to be the more difficult half of grit: How, for instance, do you get students to work harder on their schoolwork? And yet Duckworth’s work has found just the opposite: It tends to be the passion part of grit that people need more help with. “I find that people’s passion scores are lower than their perseverance scores,” Duckworth said. She’s not yet sure exactly why this is, but she has a theory. “One possibility is that people can learn to work hard and be resilient, but to find something that would make you say, ‘This is so interesting to me — I’m so committed to it that I’m going to stick with it over years’ — that kind of passion may, in some ways, be harder to come by.”

Recently, Duckworth heard about the school that was instituting a Grit Week in order to boost its students standardized testing scores, a goal she 100 percent would not have picked, for one simple reason: Who ever heard of a teenager being passionate about standardized tests? “The focus on just thinking about standardized test scores as being synonymous with achievement for teenagers is ridiculous, right?” she said. “There are so many things that kids care about, where they excel, where they try hard, where they learn important life lessons, that are not picked up by test scores.

“I mean, most kids, at that age, honestly, are finding their passions in things outside of school — being on the football team, or dancing ballet, or playing piano, or being in the school play. For some kids, it’s getting a job, and finding that they really love selling things,” she continued. “For that school … I encouraged them to listen to me when I said, ‘You know, I don’t really think that’s a great focus for Grit Week. Why don’t we have a different focus, which is to talk about how to help them find goals that they do find meaningful?’”

The consequences of hasty applications of grit in an educational context are not yet clear, but Duckworth can imagine them. To be sure, it’s not that she faults these educators — in many ways, she says, these are the best in the field, the ones who are most excited about trying innovative new ways of helping their students succeed. But by placing too much emphasis on grit, the danger is “that grit becomes a scapegoat — another reason to blame kids for not doing well, or to say that we don’t have a responsibility as a society to help them.” She worries that some interpretations of her work might make a student’s failure seem like his problem, as if he just didn’t work hard enough. “I think to separate and pit against each other character strengths on the one hand — like grit — and situational opportunities on the other is a false dichotomy,” she said. “Kids need to develop character, and they need our support in doing so.”

Currently, Duckworth is engaging in the somewhat meta challenge of applying a little grit to uncover the best potential ways to apply the existing grit research. Her Character Lab, at the University of Pennsylvania, is in the process of recruiting two dozen teachers, who will work together with scientists to come up with ways of translating the evidence into worksheets or curricula that would make sense for use in a classroom. One worry she has is that the initial enthusiasm over the idea may have led to some misapplications of grit in the classroom — things that inevitably will not work, and may in turn lead to grit being dismissed someday very soon as yet another passing fad. “I don’t want to dampen the enthusiasm,” she said. “But at the same time, I don’t want us to get ahead of ourselves.”