Grit by Angela Duckworth: A Review

As a sports fan, there is always something so romantic about seeing an undersized or under-skilled competitor go up against a much more talented opponent.  On the surface the attraction appears to be that we are rooting for the underdog.  The unranked tennis player going up against the world number one, the middle of the road football team going up against the defending champion, or the 5’5″ basketball player somehow making it in the NBA.  We like to root for the little guy, thinking that what we’re seeing is a David vs. Goliath battle where the little guy somehow has a shot.  But what we’re really seeing is the truest testament to effort.  we sometimes forget about the effort and perseverance it took for the undersized or under-skilled athlete to get to where they are, still competing against the best in the world.  Personally, I have always admired athletes who have risen to great heights in their sport almost exclusively due to their incredible work ethic and competitiveness.  Those two qualities are things that I strive for and they are things that I admire most in the people I look up to.

In her new book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, Angela Duckworth explains how grit is possibly the most important factor in determining how successful a person can be, regardless of their chosen field.  Throughout the book she explains how grit is an often overlooked factor that employers and coaches find difficult to predict when making personnel decisions.  She also explains how we can cultivate and grow our own grit factor through a number of internal and external motivators.  However Duckworth begins her exploration of grit in the most obvious of places, by defining it and  explaining it’s impact.

In the simplest definition (as you may have guessed from the book’s title), Duckworth defines grit as the combination of perseverance and passion.  In other words, the ability for someone to keep showing up even in the face of intense obstacles.  In the first chapter she uses the example of new West Point Cadets and their ability, or inability, to make it through the first few weeks of the hellish program.  After explaining the definition of grit, she explains in subsequent chapters how grit ultimately leads towards achievement.  Duckworth explains that people of power are often distracted by talent simply because inherently talented individuals (regardless of field) can make certain skills look very easy.  They tend to grasp concepts quicker and achieve greater heights earlier than less talented individuals.  However Duckworth explains that the presence of grit is a better predictor of long term success.  She uses the following two formulas to explain her theory.

talent x effort = skill

skill x effort = achievement

In her own words, “effort counts twice.”  Those who are grittier and willing to put maximum effort towards a specific goal will be better suited for long term success than their less gritty counterparts.  Make no mistake, Duckworth does not completely dismiss talent as a factor determining success, the combination of both effort and talent can lead to exponential gains towards skill and ultimately achievement.  But her findings are clear, the grittier a person is, the better off they will be.

In this first section of the book, Duckworth also introduces a test to determine just how gritty a person is.  This was one of my favorite parts of the book because it gave me a chance to apply the concept of grit to my own sensibilities.  This is something I’ve tried to do in the past but never had a concrete way of measuring it.  I was a little surprised by my results since I actually scored lower than I predicted for myself.  Not to worry though, because the next point Duckworth made is the most important takeaway from the book.  Grit can be learned.   That’s right, we can learn how to cultivate and grow grit within ourselves to help reach our goals.

In the final two sections of the book Duckworth spends time explaining just how we can grow our own grit based on a number of internal and external factors.  According to Duckworth, there are four internal factors that help increase grit: interest, practice, purpose, and hope.  The interest factor is crucial in building the passion needed to ultimately cultivate the rest of our grittiness.  It acts as the foundation simply because if we’re not truly interested in something, then it’s unlikely we’ll be gritty enough to be successful at it.  In my mind, purpose is the next logical element.  We need to have an interest and a goal or reason for doing something in order to become obsessed and dedicated.  Third, as they say practice makes perfect, so being willing and able to practice your craft is an important part of showing grit.  And finally we have hope.  The element that some might find surprising.  But as Duckworth explains in the book, having hope is how gritty people remain positive even in the face of immense setbacks and failure.  Hope is what allows gritty people to experience failure and ultimately learn from it to turn that failure into another step on the pathway to success.

In the chapters on external grit factors, Duckworth explains how society as a whole can improve grit through improved parenting, emphasizing sports and competition, and building a culture of grit in team, family, and work settings.  In these sections, Duckworth details how parents should be a combination of loving and authoritarian, and how society should stress that kids find extracurricular activities that build competitive spirit while also force them to deal with failure.

Even before reading this book I knew I would probably enjoy it.  Considering how I felt about the quality of grit beforehand, I knew I would likely buy whatever Duckworth was selling throughout the book.  I had high expectations for the book, and Duckworth delivered and possibly even exceeded them.  The pace of the book was fantastic and the examples were effective in proving the points the author was trying to make.  As someone who scored lower on the Grit Test than expected, the book also provided a good path towards improving my grit factor to be more successful.  Yes, the “follow your dreams” and “find something that interests you” theme from most personal development books can get exhausting, and it does make an appearance in this book as well.  But Grit also provides a more expansive framework for identifying your weaknesses and exploiting your strengths.  I would highly recommend this book to anyone who wonders about their own grittiness and who struggles sticking to or even creating a plan forward in their lives.

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