I'm on a mission to read more about human behaviour, and what better way to hold myself accountable than to take public notes about a book?

This week I'm reading Grit, by Angela Duckworth. It only came out last year (2016), but the concept seemed to saturate the tech news enough that it felt very familiar even before I began reading. Let's dive in.

Grit as a personality trait

Duckworth defines grit as a blend of long term passion and perseverance, and argues that it a character trait that is new and independent of existing traits. The idea is that focused, long-term interest in an area both directs and motivates you to overcome obstacles and challenges, and ultimately to achieve far more in pursuit of your goal.

Grit predicts success in several endeavours (college GPA; West Point retention; spelling bees), but is independent from measures of intelligence. This is exciting because intelligence is normally the best predictor of achievement; grit then provides a fascinating explanation why, amongst people of the same intelligence, some achieve more than others.

A high grit score indicates that you put in a high amount of effort towards your core goal, on tasks that might not give you immediate positive feedback, for example deliberate practice. This effort brings skill growth, and sustained effort from there lets you exploit those skills for their impact. Intelligence or innate talent still counts, but Duckworth argues that effort counts doubly, hence the link between grit and achievement.

Measuring grit

Grit is measured by self-reporting on a number of multiple choice questions. The questions ask you to reflect on your ability to overcome setbacks and complete projects, and also how focused or diverse you are in your interests. Online you can try out the 10-question Grit Scale. I score 2.8 out of 5, which is "grittier than about 20% of American adults", which is to say not very gritty at all.

If you had skin in the game, for example if a potential job was on the line, you might not answer a quiz like this honestly. It's not yet clear how someone might measure your grit in that situation.

Developing grit

In Duckworth's view, grit is developed by first exploring various potential interests and then finding and developing a passion that is worthy of long-term commitment. Since people tend to become more other-focused as they age and mature, more stable passions tend to have an element of other-focus too.

This is most effective when you have a simple set of life priorities ("goal structures") that align your whole life around one goal or purpose, putting your core passion above all else. Then you are well-placed to put sustained effort into it for a long period of time. If you have several life priorities, like most people do, your efforts will be scattered between them, and this is less effective.

A critical look

So is grit real and is it new?

A skim of Wikipedia and Google Scholar brings up a recent meta-analysis by Credé et al. (2016), along with its the associated press release and rebuttal. They argue that measurements of grit are basically the same as measures of conscientiousness, one of the big five personality traits. This is important because these traits are meant to be stable, not trainable as Duckworth argues that grit is.

The same study broke grit into perseverance-of-effort and consistency-of-interest facets, and found that only the perseverance-of-effort facet predicted academic performance. This weakens the story that a long-term passion is the driver for perseverance. Perhaps achievement is just as well served by dropping approaches that aren’t working and tackling new interests instead.

Is life a meritocracy?

The subtext of the book is that we all have huge potential (i.e. we are comparable to each other), but also that achievement is how we should measure ourselves and others. Duckworth attempts to separate out grit from moral character, and leave open the question of its place in a good life, but her position is pretty clear.

To me this leaves out the role of luck and opportunity in everyone's life, even supposing was one shared achievement yardstick to measure by. Ignoring these factors can lead to false evaluation of others and status anxiety for ourselves.

Selecting individuals as "paragons of grit" also felt disingenuous and rife with survivor bias; maybe Jeff Bezos was gritty and founded Amazon, but there were no doubt tons of other gritty folk who didn't achieve business success.

Overall thoughts

The grit concept is pretty compelling, but it wouldn’t be the first good story to come out of psychology literature and later have trouble being backed up and replicated.

Despite its problems, Duckworth’s ideas still gave me some interesting reflection on the projects I choose to start, which ones I manage to finish, and how my interests have changed and developed over time. For this reason, I still recommend it as a read.

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