Angela Duckworth’s Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance


Jason Collins


February 14, 2018

In Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, Angela Duckworth argues that outstanding achievement comes from a combination of passion - a focused approach to something you deeply care about - and perseverance - a resilience and desire to work hard. Duckworth calls this combination of passion and perseverance “grit”.

For Duckworth, grit is important as focused effort is required to both build skill and turn that skill into achievement. Talent plus effort leads to skill. Skill plus effort leads to achievement. Effort appears twice in the equation. If one expends that effort across too many domains (no focus through lack of passion), the necessary skills will not be developed and those skills won’t be translated into achievement.

While sounding almost obvious written this way, Duckworth’s claims go deeper. She argues that in many domains grit is more important than “talent” or intelligence. And she argues that we can increase people’s grit through the way we parent, educate, coach and manage.

Three articles from 2016 (in Slate, The New Yorker and npr) critiquing Grit and the associated research make a lot of the points that I would. But before turning to those articles and my thoughts, I will say that Duckworth appears to be one of the most open recipients of criticism in academia that I have come across. She readily concedes good arguments, and appears caught between her knowledge of the limitations of the research and the need to write or speak in a strong enough manner to sell a book or make a TED talk.

That said, I am sympathetic with the Slate and npr critiques. Grit is not the best predictor of success. To the extent there is a difference between “grit” and the big five trait of conscientiousness, it is minor (making grit largely an old idea rebranded with a funkier name). A meta-analysis (working paper) by Marcus Credé, Michael Tynan and Peter Harms makes this case (and forms the basis of the npr piece).

Also critiqued in the npr article is Duckworth’s example of grittier cadets being more likely to make it through the seven-week West Point training program Beast Barracks, which features in the book’s opening. As she states, “Grit turned out to be an astoundingly reliable predictor of who made it through and who did not.”

The West Point research comes from two papers by Duckworth and colleagues from 2007 (pdf) and 2009 (pdf). The difference in drop out rate is framed as a rather large in the 2009 article:

“Cadets who scored a standard deviation higher deviation higher than average on the Grit-S were 99% more likely to complete summer training”

But to report the results another way, 95% of all cadets made it through. 98% of the top quartile in grit stayed. As Marcus Credé states in the npr article, there is only a three percentage point difference between the average drop out rate and that of the grittiest cadets. Alternatively, you can consider that 88% of the bottom quartile made it through. That appears a decent success rate for these low grit cadets. (The number reported in the paper references the change in odds, which is not the way most people would interpret that sentence. But on Duckworth being a great recipient of criticism, she concedes in the npr article she should have put it another way.)

Having said this, I am sympathetic to the argument that there is something here that West Point could benefit from. If low grit were the underlying cause of cadet drop-outs, reducing the drop out rate of the least gritty half to that of the top half could cut the drop out rate by more than 50%. If they found a way of doing this (which I am more sceptical about), it could be a worthwhile investment.

One thing that I haven’t been able to determine from the two papers with the West Point analysis is the distribution of grit scores for the West Point cadets. Are they gritty relative to the rest of the population? In Duckworth’s other grit studies, the already high achievers (spelling bee contestants, Stanford students, etc.) look a lot like the rest of us. Why does it take no grit to enter into domains which many people would already consider to be success? Is this the same for West Point?

Possibly the biggest question I have about the West Point study is why people drop out. As Duckworth talks about later in the book (repeatedly), there is a need to engage in search to find the thing you are passionate about. Detours are to be expected. When setting top-level goals, don’t be afraid to erase an answer that isn’t working out. Finishing what you begin could be a way to miss opportunities. Be consistent over time, but first find a thing to be consistent with. If your mid-level goals are not aligned with your top level objective, abandon them. And so on. Many of the “grit paragons” that Duckworth interviewed for her book explored many different avenues before settling on the one that consumes them.

So, are the West Point drop-outs leaving because of low grit, or are they are shifting to the next phase of their search? If we find them later in their life (at a point of success), will they then score higher on grit as they have found something they are passionate about that they wish to persevere with? How much of the high grit score of the paragons is because they have succeeded in their search? To what extent is grit simply a reflection of current circumstances?

One of the more interesting sections of the book addresses whether there are limits to what we can achieve due to talent. Duckworth’s major point is that we are so far from whatever limits we have that they are irrelevant.

On the one hand, that is clearly right - in almost every domain people could improve through persistent effort (and deliberate practice). But another consideration is where their personal limits lie relative to the degree of skill required to successfully achieve a person’s goals. I am a long way from my limits as a tennis player, but my limits are well short of that required to ever make a living from it.

Following from this, Duckworth is of the view that people should follow their passion and argues against the common advice that following your passion is the path to poverty. I’m with Cal Newport on this one, and think that “follow your passion” is horrible advice. If you don’t have anything of value to offer related to your passion, you likely won’t succeed.

Duckworth’s evidence behind her argument is mixed. She notes that people are more satisfied with jobs when they follow a personal interest, but this is not evidence that people who want to find a job that matches their interest are more satisfied. Where are those who failed? Duckworth also notes that these people perform better, but again, what is the aggregate outcome of all the people who started out with this goal?

One chapter concerns parenting. Duckworth concedes the evidence here is thin, incomplete and that there are no randomised controlled trials. But she then suggests that she doesn’t have time to wait for the data come in (which I suppose you don’t if you are already raising children).

She cites research on supportive versus demanding parenting, derived from measures such as surveys of students. These demonstrate that students with more demanding parents have higher grades. Similarly, research on world-class performers shows that their parents are models of work ethic. The next chapter reports on the positive relationship between extracurricular activities while at school and job outcomes, particularly where they stick with the same activity for two or more years (i.e. consistent parents).

But Duckworth does not address the typical problem of studies in this domain - they all ignore biology. Do the students receive higher grades because their parents are more demanding, or because they are the genetic descendants of two demanding people? Are they world-class performers because their parents model a work ethic, or because they have inherited a work ethic? Are they consistent with their extracurricular activities because their parents consistently keep them at it, or because they are the type of people likely to be consistent?

These questions might appear speculation in themselves, but the large catalogue of twin, adoption and now genetic studies points to the answers. To the degree children resemble their parents, this is largely genetic. The effect of the shared environment - i.e. parenting - is low (and in many studies zero). That is not say interventions cannot be developed. But they are not reflected in the variation in parenting the subject of these studies.

Duckworth does briefly turn to genetics when making her case for the ability to change someone’s grit. Like a lot of other behavioural traits, the heritability of grit is moderate: 37% for perseverance, 20% for passion (the study referenced is here). Grit is not set in stone, so Duckworth takes this as a case for the effect of environment.

However, a heritability less than one provides little evidence that deliberate changes in environment can change a trait. The same study finding moderate heritability also found no effect of shared environment (e.g. parenting). The evidence of influence is thin.

Finally, Duckworth cites the Flynn effect as evidence of the malleability of IQ - and how similar effects could play out with grit - but she does not reference the extended trail of failed interventions designed to increase IQ (although a recent meta-analyses show some effect of education). I can understand Duckworth’s aims, but feel that the literature in support of them is somewhat thin.

Other random points or thoughts:

To understand how talent and achievement are perceived, three experiments compared the assessments of “naturals” and “strivers.” Professional musicians learned about two pianists, equal in achievement but who varied in the source of achievement: the “natural” with early evidence of high innate ability, versus the “striver” with early evidence of high motivation and perseverance (Experiment 1). Although musicians reported the strong belief that strivers will achieve over naturals, their preferences and beliefs showed the reverse pattern: they judged the natural performer to be more talented, more likely to succeed, and more hirable than the striver. In Experiment 2, this “naturalness bias” was observed again in experts but not in nonexperts, and replicated in a between-subjects design in Experiment 3. Together, these experiments show a bias favoring naturals over strivers even when the achievement is equal, and a dissociation between stated beliefs about achievement and actual choices in expert decision-makers.”