Review: Grit by Angela Duckworth

February 5, 2021

Who is Angela Duckworth?

Angela Duckworth, PhD, is one of the leading figures in the study of grit or what she calls “our passion and perseverance for long-term goals.” In Grit, Duckworth proves that the secret to long term achievement is not talent, but instead, a unique blend of passion and perseverance she calls “grit.”

Besides being a best-selling author and a renowned professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, she is the founder and CEO of Character Lab, a nonprofit whose mission it is to “advance the science and practice of character development.”

As a 2013 MacArthur Fellow, Duckworth is highly regarded within psychology and by others who study achievement and success. She has advised the CEOs of major companies, professional sports teams, the White House, and many others.

In Grit, Duckworth provides illuminating research, studies, and stories of those who she calls “grit paragons”. These are people across many different life domains, who for one reason or another, were able to cultivate grit. These people are the high achievers among us and Duckworth’s research intends to show us how to cultivate this important trait in ourselves.

What will you learn in Grit?

Grit – What is it and why does it matter?

When Duckworth was interviewing high achievers across different domains, she was looking for common themes/traits. As she listened to their stories and habits, she noticed two things, extraordinary amounts of perseverance and passion.

“Each was chasing something of unparalleled interest and importance, and it was the chase – as much as the capture – that was gratifying. Even if some of the things they had to do were boring, or frustrating, or even painful, they wouldn’t dream of giving up. Their passion was enduring. 

In sum, no matter the domain, the highly successful had a kind of ferocious determination that played out in two ways. First, these exemplars were unusually resilient and hardworking. Second, they knew in a very, very deep way what it was they wanted. They not only had determination, they had direction. It was this combination of passion and perseverance that made high achievers special. In a word, they had grit.”

Duckworth, pg. 8

Once Duckworth discovered these common traits, as any scientist would, she set out to create a way to measure these intangibles. What emerged from her work was a test that measures the extent to which you approach life with grit – the Grit Scale.

Upon using these test results to successfully predict success (she used it on West Point graduates, her own high school students, etc.), she began researching all that she could about how to cultivate this extraordinary trait in ourselves and those we care for. Grit is the culmination of her findings.

Our obsession with talent

An observation Duckworth makes and uses to fuel her studies is society’s obsession with talent and finding who has this “natural ability” and who doesn’t. When you make a distinction between those who are naturally talented and those who aren’t, what’s implied is that the latter group can never be quite as good as the former.

In Grit, Duckworth aims to prove that while talent is one part of the equation/formula for achievement, it is not the only part. In fact, she published an article in which she provided two equations that explain the road from talent to achievement. They are:

talent x effort = skill ——-> skill x effort = achievement

“Talent is how quickly your skills improve when you invest effort. Achievement is what happens when you take your acquired skills and use them…What this theory says is that when you consider individuals in identical circumstances, what each achieves depends on just two things, talent and effort. Talent – how fast we improve in skill – absolutely matters. But effort factors into the calculations twice, not once. Effort builds skill. At the very same time, effort makes skill productive.”

Duckworth, pg. 42

Using her equations and this relationship between talent and achievement, one notices the importance of effort. This is important because it means that if you’re lacking in natural talent (the ability to quickly develop skills), you can simply increase your effort and still reach the same amount of skill. Then, you can use effort to make that skill productive and impactful, and ultimately, make up for that initial lack of talent. 

This diminished importance of “natural talent” provides the reader with something crucial in the cultivation of grit, hope. Hope that you can grow your grit and become grittier.

How to grow your grit from the inside out

Interest

While she is a fan of the phrase follow your passion, Duckworth thinks it’s equally as important to find it first. In doing so, we must be willing to spend time asking ourselves questions about what we want and where we want to go. Some of the questions that Duckworth includes are:

  1. What do I like to think about?
  2. Where do I really care about?
  3. How do I enjoy spending my time?
  4. What do I find absolutely unbearable?(knowing what you don’t want to do can be just as helpful)

Once you answer some of these, it’s time to explore. This includes trying different things, networking and learning from the experiences of others, trial and error, etc. Action is important to narrowing it down! Once you do, practice is key.

Practice

Another trait that stood out amongst successful people was consistent practice and the desire to always improve. This is extraordinary considering that all of these people were already high achievers in their specific space. However, they were simply not satisfied with complacency and instead, wanted to consistently develop their skills.

This leads us to one of my favorite ideas in the book, the notion of deliberate practice (coined by another expert on high achievers, Anders Ericsson). Through interviews, Duckworth learned that not only do experts practice more, but they also practice differently. They tend to focus on what they’re doing wrong and spend a lot more time receiving feedback, adjusting, and mastering small parts of a larger skillset. Deliberate practice has proved to be much more effective for developing skills and long-term improvement. Duckworth described the science of deliberate practice this way:

  • A clearly defined stretch goal (a performance goal slightly outside of your prior accomplishments/comfort zone)
  • Full concentration and effort
  • Immediate and informative feedback (negative feedback is good!)
  • Repetition with reflection and refinement

Purpose

After her interviews and other studies, Duckworth found that for many grit paragons, purpose was a major source of motivation in their endeavors. In this context, purpose refers to helping others and your contributions to the greater good.

In Grit, Duckworth provides three recommendations (each from a different researcher on purpose featured in the chapter) on how we can cultivate a greater sense of purpose:

1. Reflect on how the work you’re already doing can make a positive contribution to society.

2. Think about how, in small but meaningful ways, you can change your current work to enhance its connection to your core values.

3. Find inspiration in a purposeful role model.

“Interest is one source of passion. Purpose – the intention to contribute to the well-being of others – is another. The mature passions of gritty people depend on both.”

Duckworth, pg. 143

Hope

Finally, hope is the last trait needed to grow your grit from within. Duckworth refers to our belief that we can improve in any domain or skill at any time. Many of us take on identities with our weaknesses. I am sure you’ve heard someone say “Oh, I’m bad at math”, or “I’m not good at speaking on the phone”, etc.

In order to cultivate grit from within, you need to maintain hope that you can grow and improve in any area, with enough effort and determination. Duckworth includes many other stories, research, and anecdotes on how hope plays a role in our future achievement.

“Grit depends on a different kind of hope. It rests on the expectation that our own efforts can improve our future. I have a feeling tomorrow will be better is different from I resolve to make tomorrow better. The hope that gritty people have has nothing to do with luck and everything to do with getting up again.”

Duckworth, pg. 169

To summarize this section on cultivating grit from within, Duckworth says:


“The four psychological assets of interest, practice, purpose, and hope are not You have it or you don’t commodities. You can learn to discover, develop, and deepen your interests. You can acquire the habit of discipline. You can cultivate a sense of purpose and meaning. And you can teach yourself to hope.”

Duckworth, pg. 92

How to grow your grit from the outside in

Find a Gritty Environment

As humans, whenever we spend time in a specific setting or culture, we tend to conform to its rules and standards. After all, we fear being marginalized or being seen as an outsider. Therefore, Duckworth argues that we can use this societal pressure to improve our own lives. For example, you may think that a professional athlete is crazy for waking up consistently at 4:30 am to work out. Well, that is until you realize that the rest of his/her team is waiting for them at the gym to do the same. 

Therefore, if you want to do extraordinary things and become a high achiever within your industry, meet and spend time with those who are doing/aiming for the same. The remarkable work ethic required to consistently improve won’t seem that daunting when everyone around you is joining the fun.

“The bottom line on culture and grit is: If you want to be grittier, find a gritty culture and join it. If you’re a leader, and you want the people in your organization to be grittier, create a gritty culture.

Duckworth, pg. 245

Final Verdict: 9.4/10

Using the principles in Grit, Duckworth has inspired millions around the world to live grittier lives. Whether you are already gritty or want to develop it, Grit serves as a guide to cultivating it and sustaining it long-term. 

Angela Duckworth makes the study of achievement incredibly interesting and easy to understand. I will continue to use the information in this book to approach life with more grit and I hope you can do the same! You can learn more about Angela Duckworth, this book, and her content here.

Want to find out how gritty you are? Take the Grit Scale yourself. Finally, if you enjoyed this review, you’ll love my review on High Performance Habits by Brendon Burchard!

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