Thursday, March 8, 2018

Grit by Angela Duckworth: A Review

Angela Duckworth is a psychology professor at U. Penn. A former Marshall Scholar and MacArthur Genius grant recipient, she is best known in the popular media for her book "Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance." The book describes what characteristics transform one's potential into action, and how it often is not what we presume initially. She describes her theory of grit, and why this characteristic may matter more than other more specific talents.

The book notes that "Our potential is one thing. What we do with it is quite another." As a society, while we appreciate effort, we seem to value the effortless talent, the prodigy, the one for whom everything comes easy. Duckworth terms this the 'naturalness bias.'

Her theory boils down to acknowledging some amount of natural talent must be honed through effort to develop skill. That skill must subsequently have more effort applied to it in order to reach achievement. Symbolically:

Talent x Effort = Skill; Skill x Effort = Achievement. 

Duckworth goes to on to define grit as the ability to stick with an endeavor even when it gets unpleasant. Grit has two main components: passion and perseverance. Most people are slightly more perseverant than passionate, but both are important. Grit helps you to hold the same top level goal over time, which lets you determine lower level goals. Say your goal is to run a marathon. This certainly requires passion, either for running itself or for the idea of fitness, as well as perseverance to do all the training required. However, once you set that top level goal, it helps organize lower goals such as buying the right shoes, eating healthy, and scheduling time for runs.

As we grow older, our experiences help us develop grit as we realize what is important to us and how to push through challenges. Duckworth defines the following four psychological assets that help "gritty" people:
  • Interest: intrinsically enjoying what you do.
  • Practice: daily discipline
  • Purpose: the conviction that your work matters
  • Hope: it occurs at each of the prior 3 stages, as it keeps one going even when things are tough
What should one do if you do not have a defined passion? Instead of latching on to one particular topic, just follow your curiosity. Find things that excite you, then double down on where your interest lies. A future post will cover Flow, a book by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, that describes the state of being fully engaged at the task at hand. While these may not represent personal passions, finding yourself in a flow state for a topic that engages you is a good key to recognizing a passion.  Duckworth argues that to discover a passion you should:
  • Begin with answers you are most sure of and build from there
  • Don't be afraid to guess
  • Don't be afraid to erase an answer that is not working out

Over time, your passion deepens your interest. As you mature to an expert, you notice details that escaped you when you were a novice. However, sometimes you hit a plateau. What will separate those with grit from the rest is the ability to still find ways to improve. The Japanese word kaizen, meaning continuous improvement, epitomizes this concept. To progress, you  must continue with deliberate practice, a notion popularized by psychologist Anders Ericsson in his book Peak (you may have heard of him in association with the 10,000 hour rule). Instead of avoiding negative feedback, gritty individuals seek it out as a means towards improvement. How to improve at deliberate practice? Duckworth suggests knowing the science/existing knowledge base behind an activity, making the work a habit, and looking at the work from different perspectives. You want to be aware of what you are doing without judging yourself too harshly for any shortcomings. We tend to be our own harshest critiques as we get older.

Going beyond grit though, Duckworth does acknowledge that what we apply our efforts to matters. One could stuff envelopes with 'grit,' but most would not see that as much of an accomplishment. Grit must attached to work that has purpose. Purposeful work is consistent with one's core values and makes a positive contribution to society. Growth mindset (as popularized by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck) goes hand in hand with grit.

Duckworth concludes by referencing the renowned playwright George Bernard Shaw:
The true joy in life is to be a force of fortune instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy

Later research has pushed back against the idea of grit having much causal/explanatory power in successful outcomes. Clearly, grit is hard to measure but the general idea still make intuitive sense: people who succeed tend to do so by persevering where others would give in, usually due to an underlying passion built from a mix of innate interest and earnest efforts toward improving themselves. To understand Duckworth's ideas in greater detail, check out Grit:


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