Can Grit Be Taught?

Angela Lee Duckworth, a University of Pennsylvania psychology prof, studies “grit” which she defines as  “perseverance and passion for long-term goals“. In this 18 minute-long TED talk titled, “True Grit: Can perseverance be taught?” she summarizes her research without really answering the question.

Her premise, I assume, jives with most everyone’s life experience—achievement involves far more than natural intelligence. An impassioned, focused, single-minded person who perseveres in the face of obstacles almost always accomplishes more than the really smart person who switches from project to project and quits when things don’t go smoothly.

From wikipedia: Individuals high in grit are able to maintain their determination and motivation over long periods of time despite experiences with failure and adversity. Their passion and commitment towards the long-term objective is the overriding factor that provides the stamina required to “stay the course” amid challenges and set-backs. Essentially, the grittier person is focused on winning the marathon, not the sprint.

I think “resilience” is synonymous with “grit”. So can resilience or grit be taught? If not, why not? If so, how?

A lot of especially resilient or gritty people seem to have tough childhoods in common. Yet, there are a lot of people who had tough childhoods who aren’t particularly resilient or gritty. So does genetics or “nature” play a part? Probably, but that doesn’t mean one’s environment is irrelevant. I suspect one’s environment is more influential than one’s DNA.

So what kind of environments cultivate resilience or grit? This recent essay titled “Even Happiness Has a Downside” provides insight into family settings that are unlikely to cultivate resilience or grit—most contemporary ones where the parenting default is to remove obstacles from children’s lives. An excerpt: “. . . being happy, being satisfied, saps the will to strive, to create. It’s why we don’t usually expect trust-fund babies to be cracker-jack entrepreneurs. For all our happiness talk, we actually cultivate dissatisfaction. We don’t want to hog-wallow in the useless sort of contentment that H.L. Mencken derided as “the dull, idiotic happiness of the barnyard.” 

Of the cuff, in her TED talk, Duckworth uses a  related phrase that may be the ultimate target for those interested in cultivating resilience or grit—”intestinal fortitude”. Related question. If a young person is to learn “intestinal fortitude” are they more likely to learn it in school, through a curriculum designed to cultivate it or at home or in their community by observing adults who model it? I would enjoy the opportunity to design a resilience, grit, or intestinal fortitude curriculum, but when it comes to cultivating those things in young people, outside of school modeling probably holds far more promise.

Young people are unlikely to develop resilience, grit, or intestinal fortitude given the extreme child-centeredness that characterizes contemporary parenting. That doesn’t mean families should intentionally accentuate dysfunction, but they shouldn’t shield their children from the inevitable headwinds every family faces either.

I’ve enjoyed coaching girls high school swimming from time-to-time the last few years. The swimmers are wonderful young people, but few of them show much resilience or grittiness. When practice is most difficult they suddenly have to go to the bathroom or stretch their shoulders. They’re unaccustomed to being truly fatigued and they’re mentally unable to push through temporary physical pain. They have a lot of great personal attributes, but for most of them, intestinal fortitude is not among them.

At dinner tonight (Sunday the 15th), the Good Wife suggested we watch Mad Men tonight after it airs (to avoid commercials) instead of Monday or Tuesday night as has been our recent habit. Why? So that Sixteen can watch her show uninterrupted Monday night. Some context. Sixteen is a great kid, works exceptionally hard at school, and looks forward to chilling in front of the t.v. for an hour at the end of several hours of homework (with some Facebook mixed in for good measure). The Good Wife’s intentions are understandable, it’s a well deserved dessert, but I ask you Dear Reader, how gritty is our next generation likely to be if they’re not even expected to share a television from time to time?

[Postscript—Thanks Kris for the Duckworth link.]

10 thoughts on “Can Grit Be Taught?

  1. “The Good Wife’s intentions are understandable, it’s a well deserved dessert, but I ask you Dear Reader, how gritty is our next generation likely to be if they’re not even expected to share a television from time to time?”

    Wonderfully thoughtful post as usual Ron. I’m not sure your example above is the best though since most households today have more than one TV in them. What is to prevent them from watching something else by themselves on their own television while the parents watch what they want? I fear that if you are a one-TV family (good for you) you are the exception rather than the rule. That in itself may be a point that correlates to your initial point of ” the extreme child-centeredness that characterizes contemporary parenting.” :-)

    • Thanks Larry. I do think conspicuous consumption makes grittiness much less likely. Or even run of the mill materialism. Thanks to the Good Wife, we’re definitely below average on the television front. One nice one with cable and Tivo and one beater.

  2. My experience seems to show that kids show more “grit” when they have a clearly defined goal. In swimming this means explaining excactly why one is doing a set and how this will actually change them (as opposed to mindless yardage). In academics, there is much mindless drill instead of deliberate, focused learning. I had a very bright student who dropped out of math because she saw no sense in doing sixty problems when she understood the concept after doing four of them.

    • I think Duckworth would say grit requires some semblance of self initiative. If someone else sets a goal for me, I’m less likely to persevere in the medium and long-term. As you know, some high school swimmers turn out because a parent or friend thinks it’s a good idea. Of course, a self initiated fire sometimes follows from a coach’s, parent’s, or friend’s spark. Your math student highlights how difficult it is to appropriately challenge each individual student. So many capable students don’t develop much academic or intellectual grit because they prioritize the highest possible grade point average. Consequently, absent setbacks, they don’t get enough opportunities to develop it. And I really think you’re on to something with your follow up email about leading students on long distance bicycling trips. I have a post from early in the blog (2007 I think) about a Norwegian class cross-country ski trip in very cold conditions. The kids that got dropped were left behind. I couldn’t believe it. They fended for themselves and finally made it to the turn-around cabin. Most surprising, no tears, no angry calls to the principal’s office, and no lawsuits.

      • In this country it’s the lawsuits that’s the problem. I can’t even get the school to cosign with me on a tame, highly chaperoned trip to Germany. I’d love to do bike trips again, but I’d need a cover organization to sign on with. Not like in the private schools.
        I do think that kids need to be invited to participate and then most of them get
        pretty self motivated. We just need to make sure we set up meaningful,
        understandable and rewarding challenges for them.

  3. I’m thinking humans’ grit started every so slowly sliding away about the time the wheel was invented. The grit-slip grew with footwear, the knife, the shovel, the zipper, Novocain, the TV remote, then the mother-of-all grit-extractors: padded bike shorts.
    No doubt, compared to our ancestors we are truly cream puffs.
    So can we turn things around and help the next generation toughen up? I think the answer is yes but we need to be intentional about how we go about doing so. Research needs to take place that helps guide us toward strategies that really work. Willpower by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney is a book that offers a look at what social scientists have learned about how people endure discomfort, both physical and emotional. Meanwhile it seems there are resources around us that can teach us all about tenacity and resiliency. We can sit down with senior citizens and hear their stories of day to day life during the depression. “Grandpa, what was the hardest thing you ever had to do?” The answer might be a perspective shifter for all of us. We can put a bug in the ear of our school and community librarians, asking for books in the new genre called “grit-lit”. (Just coined the term 10 minutes ago. You can be the first to use it.) We can model perseverance and emotional self-regulation and then talk about how hard it is to stay focused when things get tough, sharing the tricks we use.
    With the work of Duckworth, Baumeister and Carol Dweck,(fixed mindset vs. growth mindset) I think there is an exciting movement toward heading off the grit-slip. Let’s keep the conversation going!

    • Great comment, thank you! Love the term “grit-lit”. Add to the reading list, Chapter 7 of the Happiness Hypothesis by Haidt, “The Uses of Adversity”. But you’ll have to rip my padded bike shorts off my cold, dead body. Wait, on second thought, I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.

  4. A good start might be to just get kids to read long substantial books. Many high school English classes just read excerpts instead of the whole thing. That might help in fostering mindfulness and concentration. (What was I talking about?)

  5. Another thought provoker, awesomeness I say! I still can’t get over my daughter verbally lambasting 6 generaltions of advice on child rearing because her pediatrician says Blah balh blah.
    Humans survived all these billions of years, grew changed and advanced and now all of a subben (for the last 15-20) we don’t make a move without a professionals 2 cents for how we as parents went wrong and how to do it better! Laughable. Cliffnotes, TV remotes, medicating a baby for every little ouchy as well as bicycle helmets(personal hilarious story), and no playpens = generations of fearful flighty unfocused emotionally inmature people with soft skulls and no boundries wanting something to make it all worthwhile with extesy and bliss 24/7. I totally agree, we have taken away the things that make life life and the growing mentally,emotionally, physically and spiritually(4 areas or 4 fold development) that has kept “the grit” in so very many of us. Yep the military is even doing research on resilence and it is a MAJOR focus and they are looking at this 4 fold development. I truely beleive it is this 4 fold problem and a 4 fold answer is what it will take to get those kids headed in the direction of havig any grit what-so-ever

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