Sisyphus - Maybe too much grit?

Sisyphus – Maybe too much grit?

There have been several recent books about, and an increase in the use of the word “grit.” The biggest of those books is probably Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, a bestseller by psychologist Angela Duckworth. She doesn’t see the secret to achievement as talent, but as a blend of passion and persistence towards long-term goals that she calls “grit.”

Grit is a term in psychology that describes a positive, but non-cognitive trait. It is an individual’s passion for a goal and the motivation that allows you to achieve the objective.

Perseverance in overcoming of obstacles and challenges is certainly a good thing when one is faced with a gritty path ahead.

Let’s look at the grit thesaurus entry: perseverance, hardiness, resilience, ambition and conscientiousness.

Some searching turned up that the usage may be on the upswing lately, but the idea of  some individual differences rather than God-given ability goes back to 1907 and William James. (Although I also found that virtues were admired by Aristotle.)

Duckworth looks at leaders in history, researchers and scientists who also propose the idea of grit leading towards high achievement.

I guess what is new is the idea of  passion or zeal and that persistence.

I often hear educators bemoan the lack of what I suppose is “grit” among students. Those with grit don’t require immediate positive feedback. Today’s students are often described as demanding immediate feedback.

Delayed gratification, or deferred gratification, is that ability to resist the temptation for an immediate reward and wait for a later reward. Of course, that means resisting a smaller but more immediate reward in order to receive a larger or more enduring reward later.

People with true grit keep going despite failure and adversity and maintain their passion and commitment. Very admirable, this “staying the course.”

I’m sorry that another association that immediately comes to mind when I hear “grit” is gritting or clenching teeth. That action is something I think of happening when faced with an unpleasant or painful duty.

I found Duckworth’s book a tough read. I admit to skimming, but her four key psychological assets of grit are interest, practice, purpose, and hope.

I sought out the book after hearing an episode of NPR’s Hidden Brain. That reminded me of that idea about the “10,000 hour rule.” That’s supposedly the average number of hours it takes an expert to become an expert. Research by K. Anders Ericsson found that experts do an intensive kind of practice called “deliberate practice.”

I’m glad that gritty people also have hope. Besides that passion and perseverance, they are optimistic. They believe in their ability to improve and affect change.

I am glad that Duckworth and others believe that intelligence isn’t fixed but can change over time. There’s hope for those not-gritty students.

It sounds great. But all is not perfect in the land of grit. Grit can also cause someone to stick to goals, ideas, or relationships that should be abandoned. People also need to know when to quit.

I can identify with Angela Duckworth who might be a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania now, but was a middle school math teacher. As a former middle school English teacher who also went “up” to higher education, I also was surprised in those first years that my “smartest” students didn’t always get the “A” while others that clearly were struggling did get A’s.

“The thing that was revelatory to me was not that effort matters—everybody knows that effort matters,” Angela told the show host, “What was revelatory to me was how much it matters.”

In a piece by Jeff Selingo in the Washington Post, he asked “Is ‘grit’ overrated in explaining student success?” It talks about a project at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education to figure out what individual attributes lead to success. rather than just grit, they are finding that pathways to success are much more individualized.

How can we teach kids grit? Can we teach it? Paul Tough’s book Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why is an example of trying to apply the theories. (Read an excerpt)

Maybe Tough is right that rather than trying to teach skills like grit, we should focus on creating the kinds of environments, both at home and at school, in which those qualities are most likely to flourish.