What Is Grit?

In a previous article on this blog the question of when should we start developing grit was addressed. I guess before we tackle that question it is necessary that we fully understand first what grit is. The definition provided by Duckworth and coworkers, "perseverance and passion for long term goals", may help us grasp what grit entails. However, this may not be specific enough. There is a "grit scale" developed by these scientists to help measure grit in children. Perhaps by seeing this scale, what grit really is may become clearer. In this scale, a child who exhibits all of the following is deemed extremely gritty:
  • Difficult to distract
  • Not easily discouraged
  • Do not have short term obsessions
  • Hard-working
  • Stays on course for a goal
  • Able to focus on projects that take more than a few months to complete
  • Finishes whatever has been started
  • Diligent 
Actually, the list above really makes grit no different from perseverance except for the second one (not easily discouraged). Grit is usually a response to an adversity.

In the highly publicized paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Duckworth and coworkers also provide the following example to illustrate how grit manifests in children:
As an example, consider two children learning to play the piano. Assume that both children are equally talented in music and, therefore, improve in skill at the same rate per unit effort. Assume further that these children are matched in the intensity of effort they expend toward musical training. Intensity in this case is described by the extent to which attention is fully engaged during practice time. Duration and direction of effort, on the other hand, are described by the number of accumulated hours devoted to musical study and, crucially, the decision to deepen expertise in piano rather than to explore alternative instruments. Our findings suggest that children matched on talent and capacity for hard work may nevertheless differ in grit. Thus, a prodigy who practices intensively yet moves from piano to the saxophone to voice will likely be surpassed by an equally gifted but grittier child.
Seeing this example makes me think about my own son. For over a year now, he has been spending time on the piano. Playing the piano admittedly does not rank high in my son's list of preferred activities. It is nowhere near playing Minecraft, Angry Birds, or Injustice. It is way below playing soccer. His interest in practicing on the piano is about the same as the motivation he has for his teacher's recommended daily activity, reading for thirty minutes every evening. With enough push from both his parents, he is forced to spend fifteen to twenty minutes every night on the piano, in addition to his weekly thirty-minute sessions at the music school. And this past weekend, my son played the piano in front of a live audience:

Grit is indeed a trait that is worth developing. But we need to acknowledge that grit by itself is not necessarily the answer to all a child needs. Perseverance and passion are important. No one succeeds without trying. We can grow and develop. This may be the most important thing about grit.

This past Sunday's gospel, Matthew 25:14-30, the parable of the talents, talks about the importance of producing something from whatever is given. The priest giving the homily in our church was quick to point out that talents are our blessings and we must share and spread these to others. Grit without a worthy cause or goal is likewise meaningless. In addition, a tunnel vision may be equated to a sign of determination but it prevents us from seeing what is on the periphery. Being distracted can sometimes be a good thing.

Alfie Kohn has also raised a list of concerns regarding being so preoccupied with grit:
  • The idea is hardly new. “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”
  • It’s a deeply conservative notion, part of a larger focus on self-control. 
  • Whether persistence is desirable depends on your goal. Not everything is worth doing, let alone doing for extended periods. It’s the choice of goal that ought to come first and count more.
  • Grit can actually be counterproductive. Often it just doesn’t make sense to continue with a problem that resists solution or persist at a task that no longer provides satisfaction. 
  • Grit can be unhealthy. 
  • What matters isn’t just how long one persists, but why one does so. 
  • Some of the research cited to support grit is remarkably unenlightening when you think about it. 
  • Other grit research raises questions about the outcome variables that have been chosen. 
  • Ultimately, the case for grit doesn’t rely on research at all but on a (very debatable) set of priorities and values. It’s justified almost exclusively as a way to boost academic achievement. 
  • Grit isn’t just philosophically conservative in its premises but also politically conservative in its consequences. The more we focus on whether people have or lack persistence (or self-discipline more generally), the less likely we’ll be to question larger policies and institutions. 
Grit is just one of the many ingredients for success. It helps us see that growth and development are possible for any individual. Only in this manner is grit truly worth cultivating in a child. Going further than this, grit may actually be bad....