Angela Duckworth

BOOK REVIEW: GRIT

GritGrit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance
by Angela Duckworth
Recommended for: improvement agents, systems thinkers (as a counter to their beliefs), parents, the education community, people wanting to reach their life goals.

I’ve seen this books floating around the educational circles. Its part of the growth mindset movement in our schools. The book’s premise is that our ability to be gritty (i.e. being able to relentlessly pursue an objective) is what will determine our ability to succeed in life and lays out strategies on how to get more grit.

The book and Duckworth’s ideas have been criticized by systems-thinkers who believe that most of our problems are systems/culture/environment related and praised by those who believe that we need to become better individuals in order to become successful.

Here’s my top 25 takeaways:

  1. Americans endorse hardworking over intelligence by five times when asked about hiring a new employee. However, in practice, we have a tendency to favor “naturals.” (I have personally seen this. We want people who ‘just get it.’)
  1. There’s a grit test in the book. I scored in the 60% which, according to the survey, means I’m grittier than 60% of the population. Should I put this on my resume? Heh.
  1. Grit is about working on something you care about so much your willing to stay loyal to it. Its not about just falling in love, but staying in love.
  1. “Enthusiasm is common. Endurance is rare.” Good quote.
  1. She suggests envisioning your goals in a hierarchy. The top level goal (your life philosophy) is supported by mid-level goals which are supported by low level goals. The lower level goals change in order to meet the higher level goals. Top level goals are written in ink. Lower level goals are written in pencil.
  1. You might have to do things in your lower level goals that you don’t want to do in order to reach your higher level goals.
  1. Grit is about holding the same top level goal for a very long time. This is your life philosophy and is so powerful that it organizes a great deal of your waking activity.
  1. Positive fantasizing is when you have a high level goal, but no lower level goals to reach it. You live with the short term great feelings about your goal, but in the long term, you live with disappointment of not having achieved the goal. This is common.
  1. Grit, just like other character attributes like honesty and generosity are genetically influenced, but also experience influenced.
  1. She had a chart that showed the older you are, the grittier you are. It was quite pronounced. Two ways to interpret this—the older generation grew up in a time when grit was more important (i.e. they just worked harder as they’ve always claimed) or we become more grittier as we get older.
  1. For some, purpose dawns early, for others, it takes many years of refinement. (I fall into this camp. I’m definitely a late bloomer).
  1. For the beginner, novelty is anything they haven’t encountered before. For the expert, novelty is nuance.
  1. “Some people get twenty years of experience, others get one year of experience twenty times in a row.” Another great quote.
  1. Grit paragons exude kaizen. There aren’t any exceptions. (Glad to hear this).
  1. This is how experts practice (called deliberate practice)—they create a stretch goal. They are very specific on what they want to do. Instead of practicing what they do well, they strive to improve weakness. They then give the goal great effort and undivided attention. Experts typically practice when no one is watching. Experts hungrily ask for feedback on how they are doing. They are more interested in what they are doing wrong rather than what they are doing right.
  1. Experts say they do the practice that they don’t like so they can better enjoy what they love.
  1. Doing crazy hours of practice is not the same as deliberate practice. There’s a story of the Japanese Rowing team inviting Mads Rassmusen (Danish rower and double World Champion and Olympic Gold winner) to visit them. He was shocked at how many hours they were putting in. Its not hours of brute force exhaustion you are going after he told them. Its high quality training goals pursued for just a few hours of the day.
  1. Infants and toddlers don’t seem to be bothered when they can’t get something right. They practice it over and over again until they do. What happens? It seems to be that once they get older, they realize their mistakes cause a reaction in some grownups. We frown. Our cheeks puff out. We point out that they are doing something wrong. What does this teach them? Embarrassment. Shame. Fear. Between coaches and parents, they’ve learned that failing is bad. After awhile, they aren’t willing to stick their necks out and give their best effort.
  1. Paragons of grit all believe their hard work and struggles are worth it because somehow they see it helping other people.
  1. Don’t say setbacks aren’t discouraging. That’s not realistic. Of course they are discouraging. Instead believe that setbacks don’t discourage you for long. Always get back on your feet.
  1. You don’t need to be a parent to make a difference in someone’s life. If you care about them and get to know what’s going on, you can make an impact. Try to understand whats going on in their life and help them through that.
  1. Learned industriousness—the idea that hard work and reward can be learned. Without experiencing the connection between reward and effort, animals, including people default to laziness. Calorie burning efforts is, after all, something that evolution has shaped us to avoid whenever possible. Psychologist Robert Eisenberger at the University of Houston has done research on this (this sounds like evidence for X style management).
  1. 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. (aha! So there is systems-thinking in this book!)
  1. It seems the hard way to get grit is to learn it yourself. The easy way is to use conformity—the basic human drive to fit in—because if you are around people who are gritty. You’re going to act grittier.
  1. Culture has the power to shape our identity. Over time and under the right circumstances the norms and values of the group to which we belong become our own.

Duckworth admits there needs to be inquiry into exploring the possible downsides of grit. For example, she admits there is a danger in sticking with something for too long. What is the cost of the pursuit? Our family? Relationships? Health? Money? Time? Duckworth says that people with grit are often described as obsessive. When does this go too far?

Overall, I found this book inspiring and I often find myself thinking on what Duckworth has to say, particularly on how we go about setting and accomplishing our goals.

As noted, her ideas and research seem to run, at first glance, counter to systems-thinking. Her thesis is that we need to strengthen the individual in order to get ahead. However, she also argues that gritty culture creates gritty individuals, which is a systems idea.

After reading this book, I’m thinking we need both. For us systems-thinkers, we need grit when our influence is low, because we are unable to improve the system, but when our influence becomes greater, we have the responsibility to improve the system (Deming often remarked that our system is destroying the rugged individual—we need to fix this).

My concern, though, is that within our dualistic culture, we will concentrate on one or the other and because we are an individualistic society, we will focus more on the individual. This book may be giving those with this mindset too much ammunition. Perhaps this is why, Alfie Kohn, who I admire a lot, has been highly critical of Duckworth’s work. His argument against it can be found here.

The book can be bought here.

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