Grit, Talent, and Success

Academically Adrift has raised the question of whether colleges and universities are doing enough to promote critical thinking. The development of critical thinking has been the aim of liberal education for some time. A good “recent” example of this is in the Yale Report of 1828:

The two great points to be gained in intellectual culture, are the discipline and the furniture of the mind; expanding its powers, and storing it with knowledge. The former of these is, perhaps, the more important of the two. A commanding object, therefore, in a collegiate course, should be, to call into daily and vigorous exercise the faculties of the student. Those branches of study should be prescribed, and those modes of instruction adopted, which are best calculated to teach the art of fixing the attention, directing the train of thought, analyzing a subject proposed for investigation; following, with accurate discrimination, the course of argument; balancing nicely the evidence presented to the judgment; awakening, elevating, and controlling the imagination; arranging, with skill, the treasures which memory gathers; rousing and guiding the powers of genius.

Yet I wonder if we focus too much on helping students develop their talent for thinking and too little on developing their will to think, especially for their work outside of the soft confines of our classrooms.

In 2007, Duckworth and her colleagues published a paper on grit. They defined grit as

perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Grit entails working strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity, and plateaus in progress. The gritty individual approaches achievement as a marathon; his or her advantage is stamina. Whereas disappointment or boredom signals to others that it is time to change trajectory and cut losses, the gritty individual stays the course. (pp. 1087–1088)

Over a series of six studies, Duckworth and her co-researchers found that grit mattered in predicting an individual’s achievement, even after taking IQ into account: “Across six studies, individual differences in grit accounted for significant incremental variance in success outcomes over and beyond that explained by IQ, to which it was not positively related” (p. 1098). The authors conclude by stating,

Evidence gathered by the current investigation and its forerunners, suggest[s] that, in every field, grit may be as essential as talent to high accomplishment. If substantiated, this conclusion has several practical implications: First, children who demonstrate exceptional commitment to a particular goal should be supported with as many resources as those identified as “gifted and talented.” Second, as educators and parents, we should encourage children to work not only with intensity but also with stamina. In particular, we should prepare youth to anticipate failures and misfortunes and point out that excellence in any discipline requires years and years of time on task. (p. 1100)

It is important to remember that grit is likely to be just as important for our own work as it is for our students’ education.

Duckworth, A. L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M. D., & Kelly, D. R. (2007). Grit: Perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92, 1087–1101.


Grit Scale

Consistency of Interests

  1. I often set a goal but later choose to pursue a different one.*
  2. New ideas and new projects sometimes distract me from previous ones.*
  3. I become interested in new pursuits every few months.*
  4. My interests change from year to year.*
  5. I have been obsessed with a certain idea or project for a short time but later lost interest.*
  6. I have difficulty maintaining my focus on projects that take more than a few months to complete.*

Perseverance of Effort

  1. I have achieved a goal that took years of work.
  2. I have overcome setbacks to conquer an important challenge.
  3. I finish whatever I begin.
  4. Setbacks don’t discourage me.
  5. I am a hard worker.
  6. I am diligent.

Items are rated on a 5-point scale from 1 = not at all like me to 5 = very much like me.

* questions that are reverse scored