Book Review: Grit by Dr. Angela Duckworth

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The idea that grit is not something you are born with, but rather a useful, life-changing skill that everyone has the power to develop is a major foundational claim in Dr. Angela Duckworth’s new book Grit; the Power of Passion and Perseverance. In addition to her book, Duckworth has also appeared as a guest speaker on several great podcasts such as “psychology” and she even gave an outstanding TED talk. Again and again, Angela reinforces the idea that developing passion, perseverance, and stamina can help people to reach their most important high level goals.

Let’s begin with my absolute favorite take away from Grit, which is a formula Duckworth proposes for how to calculate a person’s likelihood for success; their potential achievement.

The formula is:

talent × effort = skill

skill × effort = achievement

I wrote this formula down and put it by my computer to remind myself that effort counts twice in the success equation. After citing several examples of some of the most famous artists, actors, scientists, and other achievers of our time, Duckworth clarifies that:

Skill is not the same thing as achievement, either. Without effort, your talent is nothing more than your unmet potential. Without effort, your skill is nothing more than what you could have done but didn’t. With effort, talent becomes skill and, at the very same time, effort makes skill productive.”

So putting in the effort and logging those ever important hours can lead you to success, but the concept of grit goes even further… grit requires dedication and zeroed-in mental focus on the goal you are trying to achieve.

“Grit is about holding the same top-level goal for a very long time. Furthermore, this “life philosophy,” as Pete Carroll might put it, is so interesting and important that it organizes a great deal of your waking activity. In very gritty people, most mid-level and low-level goals are, in some way or another, related to that ultimate goal. In contrast, a lack of grit can come from having less coherent goal structures.”

Finding this “life compass” or one top-level goal that you consistently work towards is one of the pillars of developing more grit. You need to be laser focused on what you are trying to achieve in order to remain on track and block out any distractions in the way of your success.

Many people whose grit has gotten them to where they are say that they remained focused on the same top level goal for many years. This level of intense focus might take a bit of time to develop (thankfully, for anyone who is in their 20’s). In fact, Duckworth’s research indicates that, in general, older people have much more grit than younger people. Her study of how our levels of grit change over time prove that grit is not entirely fixed, it is not merely a function of our genetics or something we are born with, rather each of us has the capacity to develop more grit.

“Grit grows as we figure out our life philosophy, learn to dust ourselves off after rejection and disappointment, and learn to tell the difference between low-level goals that should be abandoned quickly and higher-level goals that demand more tenacity.”

Because we can grow grit – the next question is how to do so? How can we become more gritty and use grit as a strength? How can encourage grit to grow in our children or our students?

Duckworth sets out to answer the question of how to improve your level of grit throughout the second part of the book. But just because it is possible to develop more grit does not mean it is also easy. Instead, doing so often involves focused determination and a willingness to do some hard work to chart your course to success.

So, after you’ve discovered and developed interest in a particular area, you must devote yourself to the sort of focused, full-hearted, challenge-exceeding-skill practice that leads to mastery. You must zero in on your weaknesses, and you must do so over and over again, for hours a day, week after month after year.”

You do not simply choose a goal at random to throw yourself at for a few months. Rather, you do some soul searching and really ask yourself what it is you want to accomplish with your life. Then, you must ask yourself how what you are doing can also serve others in a positive way.

“It is therefore imperative that you identify your work as both personally interesting and, at the same time, integrally connected to the well-being of others. For a few, a sense of purpose dawns early, but for many, the motivation to serve others heightens after the development of interest and years of disciplined practice. Regardless, fully mature exemplars of grit invariably tell me, “My work is important—both to me and to others.””

Many people think that they are born with certain interests, or that they will uncover their interests by spending hours in quiet introspection. Not so, argues Duckworth. Instead, she claims that interests are developed through life experiences; “triggered by interactions with the outside world.”  Then, once you realize you are interested in something, you will need to continue the process of interest development, wherein you spend day after day learning more about your selected interest, often for years at a time. Duckworths advice to young graduates in the book is to experiment and try new things as much as possible, because by doing so you will certainly learn more than if you don’t.

On this, I completely agree with her recommendation. In the past 3 years since I graduated from university I have experimented and tried hundreds of different things and in some, I have failed miserably. In others, I have found enjoyment and success. For example, I have discovered that while I enjoy meeting new people, I am terrible at selling anything I do not 100 percent believe in. I have learned that although I love being an educator, I am best at teaching older students. I have learned not to spend my time and efforts helping entrepreneurs in the early stage of their businesses, these people often lack clarify, vision, and leadership skills – they are likely to develop these after a few years in business, and that’s a better time to join their team. I have learned how to specify clear business contract terms and to ask one hundred questions before putting my name on anything. Throughout all of this experimentation with new things, I am certainly learning things that can not be taught in a classroom.

Also, I have had the opportunity over the past nine years of work experience (starting at a frozen yogurt shop at age 16) to identify what interests I wish to continue to develop and those which aren’t as important to me. This takes me to the next stage of grit development.

After you find an interest and begin to develop that interest further, you must then engage in deliberate practice. Deliberate practice requires a lot of effort, is always challenging, and is generally less enjoyable than more passive forms of practice. I had never heard of the term of deliberate practice before, but I have been using this concept in my own life for many years. Most athletes intuitively realize that deliberate practice is required if you wish to improve faster than your competition.

Deliberate practice is strenuous; it requires working in the zone where the challenge exceeds your current level of skill. It is often so demanding and exhausting that:

As evidence that working at the far edge of our skills with complete concentration is exhausting, he points out that even world-class performers at the peak of their careers can only handle a maximum of one hour of deliberate practice before needing a break, and in total, can only do about three to five hours of deliberate practice per day.”

I will provide an example of how deliberate practice has influenced my own life, but if you want to know more about the science and the process behind it, you’ll have to pick up a copy of Duckworth’s book, as there is a lot of great content dedicated to the process.

When I contemplated a recent example of grit and deliberate practice in my own life… I thought about the hours I spent training outside of my comfort zone to prepare for the Milano Marathon. Running this race was a stretch goal I set for myself in December of 2015. I had to fully concentrate on my form during each training run, as I struggled with plantar fasciitis throughout the training. I also had to set time and distance goals and push myself to the maximum amount of effort I could during each run. I needed the support of my friends to help keep me accountable to my goal. There was not one practice that helped me to be successful, but rather the accumulation of hours and hours of purposeful practice over five months of training. When I woke up on Saturday morning and it was snowing, I did not postpone my 20 mile training run, because I had committed to running that distance at that time.

I specifically ate and drank appropriate fuel to help me with my training. Most of my “free time” outside of work was dedicated to my preparation for succeeding in the race. I would wake up, eat breakfast with my later run in mind, do 10 minutes of stretching to prepare my muscles, go to school and teach for 6 hours, run for an hour with a specific time and distance goal then tutor for another two hours before eating dinner which was designed to be fuel for my next day of training. My example of deliberately practicing running is a small one, certainly not as large scale as composing a symphony or writing a novel, but it still serves to illustrate the idea that when you deliberately practice you must: 1) set goals so that the challenge exceeds your current level of skill and 2) although you might only practice for an hour per day, many other aspects of your day will revolve around helping you to be successful at the skill you are committed to deliberately practicing.

Next in your development of grit after the dedication to deliberate practice comes a sense of purpose, or the intent to contribute to another’s well being. Duckworth cited an example of a high school teacher who asked his students to envision how the world might become a better place… And how what they were learning in school might connect or tie into that vision. This identification of purpose for their studies resulted in the students working harder and engaging more during class compared to a placebo controlled experiment. I definitely plan to use this exercise with my high school students in Slovakia next year.

Duckworth’s detailed analysis of the KIPP public school systems is also extremely useful for teachers at any grade level. I took notes about how to best set my students up to learn gritty thinking, which can help them throughout the rest of their life to stay focused and determined to achieve their goals.

Not sure how gritty you are? Duckworth has developed a method of measuring grit called the Grit Scale. She has used the scale to study grit levels as related to the success of athletes, Westpoint cadets, and even national spelling bee champions. The Scale asks simple questions targeted to identify your levels of passion and perseverance. Duckworth says that it is common for people to score higher on measures of perseverance than those related to passion. You can quickly access the 10 question Grit Scale on Duckworth’s website.
And I could go on, citing more examples of studies Duckworth analyzed, and many more pieces of wisdom from her book – but instead I would encourage anyone interested in developing these aspects of grit for themselves to begin by listening to Duckworths TED talk, and if you find it interesting, go out and pick up a copy of her fascinating book.

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One thought on “Book Review: Grit by Dr. Angela Duckworth

  1. Dear Taylor, Thank you for the book review! From your notes, I learned success is a journey that can be measured by the effort you personally give to your goal.

    People often ask me how much money they can make being a Realtor. My answer is always along the lines of: depends on how hard you try! I think I’ll change the words to say: depends on how much you deliberately practice!

    Like you, one of my talents is talking to people. To be successful, I have to make the effort to talk to more and more people daily. Once I have the skill to bring in new, loyal people into my portfolio, it is another effort to maintain this portfolio and have it grow on its own merit.

    As you see, even Realtors need grit to be successful! I am so glad to know you, even if only by all the worldly pictures you post, and blogs you create! I think it’s fantastic that you are exploring the world and sharing so freely! And, I’ll look forward to hearing and seeing more of your adventures! Happy and safe travels! Love you, Aunt E

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