Grit | Hidden Brain Grit is a quality that parents strive to teach to their children, and teachers strive to teach their students. This week on Hidden Brain, we explore grit, and ask, does it also have a downside?
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The Power And Problem Of Grit

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The Power And Problem Of Grit

The Power And Problem Of Grit

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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: This podcast is supported by Squarespace. Squarespace, providing tools that help people turn their passions into a business with a customizable e-commerce website. Learn more at squarespace.com/npr.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: U-R-S-P-R-A-C-H-E, ursprache.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: That is correct.

(APPLAUSE)

ANGELA DUCKWORTH: Everybody knows that effort matters. What was revelatory to me was how much it mattered.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, HOST:

This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. What is it that makes extraordinary people successful? Is it talent, genius, luck? Or as Angela Duckworth suggests, is it grit?

DUCKWORTH: There is a fluency and an ease with which true mastery and expertise always expresses itself, whether it be in writing, whether it be in a mathematical proof. But I think the question is, you know, where does that fluency and mastery come from?

VEDANTAM: Today on HIDDEN BRAIN, we explore this quality that Angela says is responsible for so much excellence and achievement. And then we ask, does grit also have a downside?

GALE LUCAS: Sometimes people with high grit might not do the logical, rational thing because their grit compels them to keep going.

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VEDANTAM: Angela Duckworth is a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania. She first became interested in grit while working as a math teacher for middle school and high school students. Angela told me that when she started teaching, she noticed right away which kids were the quickest learners, the most naturally talented you might say. These were the kids who, when she explained a concept once, were immediately raising their hands to answer questions.

DUCKWORTH: You know, I immediately thought to myself as a young and, you know, wrong teacher that, OK, those are the kids, by the end of the year, are going to have progressed the farthest. Because I had other kids for whom it's like I put up the first problem. I show it to them. I put up the second problem. I show them a different way. I sit down with them and, OK, the fourth time, the fifth time, and it's not as easy for them. I thought, well, those kids are destined to be at the very bottom of the class. And I'm not saying that that wasn't at all true. There were some quick learners who did well, and there were some kids for whom math was more difficult who did poorly. But there were more exceptions than I could have ever imagined. By the end of the year, when I looked at the final grades and I thought, wow, you know, this girl, this boy, wow, they did a lot better than I thought they were going to do. And gosh, you know, these other kids who I thought were going to do fantastically well, they didn't do well. So I think that the thing that was revelatory to me was not that effort matters. Everybody knows that effort matters. What was revelatory to me was how much it mattered.

VEDANTAM: Since her days as a schoolteacher, Angela has made an academic career of studying this one character trait.

DUCKWORTH: And that is grit, the combination of passion and perseverance for very long-term goals.

VEDANTAM: I found it interesting that Angela focused on the subject because in our society, it seems that there is this image of the genius who doesn't really have to work very hard.

DUCKWORTH: I think the popular imagination has it right and wrong. I think if you have the intuition that somebody like Einstein or Picasso, that they, you know, had a certain ability or a sensitivity, a sensibility, I think that's right. I don't think Einstein was just, like, another guy on the street, and nor was Picasso. So I think having some intuition that there is an ability part of the achievement - talent is one way to name that - I think that's right. I don't want to be the one to say that Einstein wasn't talented, nor was Picasso. But that other thing that they did, which was to work furiously hard with a kind of obsessive love for a very narrow, in the end, you know, domain in which they decided to go forward and not kind of diversify and do six things, 12 things, I think that's also important. And that second thing, you know, really being able to focus for a long time on something that you love and that's so important to you that it kind of wakes you up every day and is the last thing you think about before you go to bed, I think that's also true. So the popular intuition isn't wildly off. It's importantly incomplete.

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VEDANTAM: One of the most interesting things Angela told me is that there might be a psychological reason why we want to think of genius as being effortless.

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DUCKWORTH: There is a fluency and an ease with which true mastery and expertise always expresses itself, whether it be in writing, whether it be in a mathematical proof, whether it be in a dance that you see on stage, really in every domain. But I think the question is, you know, where does that fluency and mastery come from? And those hours and hours of laborious effort, of misfires, of poorly written drafts, of, you know, falling on your butt when you're trying to do a turn, those things are hidden. And I think there's motivation for the performer to hide that, right? So if I showed you, Shankar, my 197 drafts of the manuscript that finally got produced, you know, what effect would that have when you then read the 198th draft? You know, the - Nietzsche, the German philosopher, said that when there is excellence, you know, if we know whence it became - right? - if we know its messy origins, we immediately grow cool, Nietzsche said. We want it to come out of the ground as if by magic. And I think the motivation from the performer has a parallel motivation from the audience. You know, why does the audience want to hide the effort? Here, Nietzsche had a very observant insight, which is to say that if we believe that what you can do is because you have a gift that I don't do, here, Nietzsche says, I do not have to compete. Here, the audience can relax, shoulders back, sit into your chair and just marvel at something where you don't even have any obligation to try yourself to match the performance.

VEDANTAM: That is so interesting. So in other words, when you present genius as being effortless, at some level, it's more pleasurable to the audience than if you present genius as being the product of very, very hard work.

DUCKWORTH: I think that's absolutely true. I mean, one of my favorite thinkers on this topic is a sociologist at Hamilton named Dan Chambliss. Now, Dan is, you know, well into adulthood now, but he was a competitive swimmer all throughout high school into college and even in his first couple of years I think of being an assistant professor was still coaching. And he spent six years with swimmers at all levels of, you know - from the local club swim team to, you know, Olympic hopefuls. And I think one of the things that he, you know, observed that surprised him was that how excellence is really the confluence of many, many, many small acts, each of them doable, each of them able to be honed with practice. When you put it all together, there is a kind of mystery to it or a magic to it. He titled his article on this "The Mundanity Of Excellence" to suggest that really, if you ask the question whence it became, you do get to this kind of, like, oh, 10,000 small acts, each of them very doable and none of them terribly interesting. But when I was talking to him more recently about his older work, he started to describe what it was like to watch Spitz, the great, you know, American swimmer. And he said, you know, when he got into the pool, I mean, he was like - it was like he was a fish. And I could hear the awe in his voice. It was, you know, like describing somebody who really was superhuman. And, you know, I think we both then had the insight that all of us, no matter what we study and how much we know intellectually, that it is effort and it is practice, and, you know, there are many unglamorous hours that don't get caught on camera. We sort of have this, you know, craving for that magic and mystery.

VEDANTAM: You did a study a few years ago that looked at winners of the spelling bee, and you discovered something about the students and young people who did very well in the spelling bee. What did you find?

DUCKWORTH: I did that study on the spelling bee finalists with a psychologist probably well known to your listeners named Anders Ericsson. So the very popular, you know, version of his work is the 10,000 hour rule of practice. But what Anders would say I think in his own words is that it's the quality of practice in addition to the quantity that really matters. He calls the highest quality of practice deliberate practice, and that's what he's found experts to do in all physical and intellectual domains that he's studied. So, Anders and I got together, and we asked a question, which is, what is the kind of practice that kids who are in the National Spelling Bee finals do? What kinds of things do they do? And which of these kinds of practice activities is the most effective, and what personality traits predict what kind of practice kids will engage in? So what we found is that kids do three things to win the spelling bee broadly. They read a lot, which they love to do. And they rate it about as effortless and as about as enjoyable as eating ice cream. They also get quizzed by mom or dad, you know, by a computer. So your mom says, ursprache, you say ursprache, U-R-S-P-R-A-C-H-E, ursprache, which I believe is the correct spelling and is certainly the winning word for the year that we studied spellers. And then the final thing that we categorized from, like, looking at the journals that we asked kids to sort of keep something of a diary just to, you know, tell us, you know, what kinds of things they were doing and how long they were doing and how it felt. And the last category would be deliberate practice, you know, usually done alone, you know, working on things that you can't do, like word origins that are not familiar to you, you know, trying to respell words and write vertically on a page, you know, words that you've misspelled before, the kind of honing in on your weaknesses that is really crucial to the kind of deliberate practice that Anders has found in other experts. And what we found is that the quantity of deliberate practice was far more predictive of how far you would actually get in final competition when you compare it to the other two kinds of practice. And the phenomenology that - that's a fancy and awful jargony word for saying the feeling of practice - really differed among these three. So if you look at deliberate practice, it's that which kids found to be the most effortful of the three kinds of practice and the least enjoyable. Finally, we found that of all the personality traits that we looked at, grit was the best predictor of how much deliberate practice you would actually get done. So stitching this altogether, we see a narrative where, you know, very gritty individuals may accumulate more of this very high quality, effortful, not always enjoyable practice. It makes them better, and it pays off in their achievement.

VEDANTAM: As I read that paper, I had a moment of great sadness because it felt not just that you were finding that deliberate practice produced these wonderful results but also what you just said, which is that deliberate practice was the least enjoyable part of the practice. We would like to think that people who work hard are doing it partly because they just really enjoyed what they're doing and that it's enjoyable to be working hard, but you are finding something that's much more - I don't know if the word is Calvinist - but, you know, the Puritans would approve of this message, the idea that, you know, very, very hard work that's painful, boring, difficult, unpleasant yields great rewards.

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, there's a lot of nuance to this question of, you know, is it awful? Is it - there's a kind of paraphrasing of Aristotle that the roots of knowledge are bitter. Only the fruit is sweet. I mean, that is certainly, you know, one way to read the results of the spelling bee study. But I just want to get a little more nuanced than that because I think you're now, Shankar, at the frontier of what I know and I think really of what science knows. I think it's a debate about whether it has to be that way or is just often that way. I will say that when I talk to, you know, world-class athletes and people who are at, like, the top of their game in terms of writing or in other domains, many, many, many of them will express this kind of, yes, it is bitter, but there's this other part of it that I love that's sweet. It's, you know, more of a means to an end. But I also am hearing some contrary voices, and so that's where we really want to understand because if we can make the hardest, most effortful and most effective practice into an experience that is more palatable, then I think that we'll go really, you know, a long way towards getting people to do more of it.

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VEDANTAM: Angela talked about the source of her own grit. It came from her dad at the family breakfast table.

DUCKWORTH: Being Asian by upbringing, you know, my dad would often say things like, you know, life is suffering. I mean, he would just sort of say it out of the blue at breakfast, you know.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

DUCKWORTH: It's like, please pass the milk. Life is suffering.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

DUCKWORTH: And I think there is a part of grit which is, like, dealing with that, you know. It's - you know, whatever color you are, whatever socioeconomic status you are, whatever you want to do with your life, you know, there's going to be some amount of friction to overcome to really get somewhere. On the other hand - I just want to say this, too, because I think it often gets lost in that one syllable that I call this thing, which is that there is nobody that I've ever interviewed who I would consider a paragon of grit who does not passionately, like ardently, love what they do and get a thrill from it, get a sort of visceral and intrinsic satisfaction from thinking about it, from doing it, no chef that I've ever interviewed, no musician, no academic, no CEO. So, you know, we have to reconcile these two accounts. And I think they're both true, and I think it might be reconciled in the fact that, you know, that CEO who loves what they do might not love, you know, 20 percent of what they do, but they love the overall project. Rowdy Gaines, the Olympic swimmer who actually was, you know, subsequent to Spitz, but, you know, great American swimmer gold medalist and a world-record holder in the freestyle, said that he loved swimming, and you could feel it in his voice when you talked to him. But then I said, well, what was practice like? He's like, oh, what is waking up at 4 in the morning, walking in the dark, in the cold, in a bathing suit to jump into a pool and to push yourself physically to the point of pain? Like, not fun, but I love swimming.

VEDANTAM: You talked a second ago about how as members of the audience we derive a certain pleasure from imagining that performers are naturally gifted, that the genius comes effortlessly. And I'm wondering at some level if the same thing is also true in our observations of people who are gritty, that we want to see some people as just being naturally gritty. We say, Angela Duckworth is a gritty person. If she stopped doing psychology today and started doing something else tomorrow, she would excel at that. And we can marvel at Angela because Angela just has this quality of grittiness about her. And this leads us to a depressing idea, which is that grit really is the domain of just a few people who happen to have it. Is that true?

DUCKWORTH: I don't believe that grit is an either you have it or you don't. I don't believe that it's entirely genetic. You know, you have the gene for grit or you don't have the gene for grit. I don't believe that whatever your grit is today means that that's what your grit is going to be tomorrow. Now in terms of, like, what you could do then - right? - if it's true that there is a window here, there's something that we can do about our own grit, I believe that so many, you know, things that we would call character or virtue really are, as both William James and as Aristotle said, habits, you know. And then you could ask like, well, where does the habit of being passionate and persevering about something come from? I really think that you can trace the origins of grit to four psychological assets, which, again, themselves can be acquired, practiced, cultivated. One is an interest. I mean, you can't be gritty about something that you're not interested in, so understanding your own interest, cultivating them, deepening interest. The second thing is the capacity to do deliberate practice. Part of that is knowing what deliberate practice is and what it's not and being willing to do it. Part of it is habit. The third thing that I find that's a psychological asset of gritty people that I think can be acquired or cultivated is a sense of purpose. I mean, there isn't a single paragon of grit that I've interviewed - and I'm not saying that there aren't those out there who might be this way - but I have interviewed person after person who I think exemplifies passion and perseverance. And 201, they have sense of how what they do, day in, day out, is meaningful and beneficial to people who are not them, a beyond-the-self outlook, a beyond-the-self purpose. And you might think, oh, what about athletes? It's kind of selfish or, you know - I even interviewed a wine master named Antonio Galloni. I mean, I was thinking, like, what is more selfish than, like, basically tasting wine all day and, you know, writing about it?

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

DUCKWORTH: And, you know, he has - he said, I wake up every day with a mission. And he can see these, like, I know I'm not curing cancer, but I really believe that if I can help people appreciate wine, it will enrich their lives in a small way. So a sense of purpose I think can be cultivated. And then finally, there's hope. And we haven't talked too much about that, but I think, you know, the hope to keep going when hope seems lost, I mean, you can trace this back to growth mindset, to having an optimistic explanatory style for negative events. But I do believe hope and purpose and a capacity to practice and interest, all of these things can be cultivated.

VEDANTAM: Angela says she works hard to cultivate grit in her own children.

DUCKWORTH: I'll say for both of my daughters, you know, they, you know, themselves struggled I think as all children do, even daughters of someone who studies grit, to do things that are frustrating and hard, to do things to come home from a ballet class and to know in your heart that the girl next to you was better than you - right? - and to stay motivated and to stay engaged and to, like, still try to love ballet and come back to the class the next day. Now that was really hard for them. The thing that actually, like, ended up being maybe most useful in our family, my husband and I, we call it the hard thing rule. And what we did was we said, look, you know, from a very early age, we knew that we wanted our kids to develop the capacity for perseverance and to develop a passion, but we didn't to, like, rob them of the opportunity to really direct themselves. So we said, everybody in our family has to do a hard thing. That's the first of three parts, right? So, you know, a hard thing in our family means it requires deliberate practice on a regular basis. So kind of signing up for, you know, pottery class where you just have fun once a week, that's not a hard thing because there's no deliberate practice. But doing viola, you know, or going out for the track team, like, you know, that is. So, you know, my husband said, like, I'm a real estate developer. Trust me. It's a hard thing every day. I said the same thing about my career. And then my daughter's actually, you know - the younger one, Lucy, really struggled to find something that she really, you know, wanted to do. I'll tell you that that the second part of the hard thing rule is that, OK, so the first part is it requires deliberate practice. It's hard in that way. The second part is you can't quit until the tuition payment is up.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

DUCKWORTH: You can't quit, you know, in the middle of the season. You can't quit until the final track meet. You cannot quit, right? So it gave our kids that little push to say, like, I don't want to do it today, but I'm not going to quit in the middle. I'm going to quit at a natural ending point. And the third thing really to get back to that intrinsic motivation was that, you know, yes, you can quit at the end of the semester when the tuition payment is up but not until you've figured out a new hard thing. So you have to kind of go from one right to the other. And nobody picks any of these hard things except for you. So I did let my kids, even when they were in kindergarten, pick their hard thing. And, yes, they had to stick with it until the semester was over, and, yes, it had to require deliberate practice. So I feel like, you know, did we do it perfectly? Is it the best rule? I don't know. But I think it reconciles, like, the kind of tiger mom, you know, this intuition that we have to assist our kids to do things that they don't want to do in the moment but also preserves their autonomy, which I think is so important.

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VEDANTAM: Angela Duckworth is a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania. She's also founder and scientific director of the Character Lab. Her new book, "Grit: The Power Of Passion And Perseverance" is out this spring. OK, so grit is clearly great. It helps you get stuff done, be successful. But is it possible to be too gritty?

LUCAS: Sometimes people with high grit might not do the logical, rational thing because their grit compels them to keep going.

VEDANTAM: When we come back, the dark side of grit.

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VEDANTAM: So I've always thought that grit was a wonderful thing, something I've wanted to cultivate in myself, something I wanted to pass along to my daughter, that is until I talked to Gale Lucas.

LUCAS: My name is Gale Lucas, and I am a senior research associate at the Institute for Creative Technologies, which is part of University of Southern California.

VEDANTAM: From an early age, Gale knew she was a very gritty individual.

LUCAS: My mom often talks about this time when she made a learning book for me when I was pretty young, about five or six. And we were at the beach, and this was something she wanted me to do during the summer to continue by learning. And I got so into it that I didn't stop to go to the beach or do anything fun with the neighborhood kids. I just sat there, and I finished my book because I'd started it, and I pushed right through it.

VEDANTAM: Gale's grit has certainly benefited her in many ways. She's had a successful academic career. But also...

LUCAS: I think I missed out on the beach a little bit.

VEDANTAM: So when Gale Lucas when on to study the potential downside of grit, she knew something about this already.

LUCAS: Sometimes people with high grit might not do the logical, rational thing because their grit compels them to keep going.

VEDANTAM: In one study Gale conducted, participants were asked to play an online game that presented them with a choice. They could quit and get a dollar or keep playing for the chance to win $2. However, if they lost, they would get nothing. Gritty people and non-greedy people both made the rational choice to keep going if they were winning because their chances of getting $2 were looking pretty good. But if they were losing...

LUCAS: The grittier people were more likely to make that choice to stay in the game, risk and not getting the dollar to win the $2, even though they were losing. And it was a very low likelihood that they were going to end up pulling it off at the end.

VEDANTAM: Gale Lucas and her colleagues also showed how being gritty might make it hard for you to take timed exams like the SAT. That's because you're supposed to give up when you don't know the answer to a question. You just skip it, go on to the next question.

LUCAS: So we made by definition some problems that couldn't be solved. We used an anagrams task, so unscrambling words. And this is standard in some of the psychology literature where there's these anagrams that are used that are unsolvable. They don't scramble to any word whatsoever. And so we knew which items were worth persisting on, the ones that were solvable and the ones that were not worth persisting on because there's no way you could actually solve them. And what we showed was that grittier individuals weren't able to get through as many, and they were persisting on these ones that were unsolvable to a greater extent than the less gritty individuals.

VEDANTAM: And so really what you are finding then is that the grittier individuals, they stick at these difficult problems so long that they actually hurt themselves.

LUCAS: Exactly. And that's something that we hope people take away from our research in knowing that this is, again, strategy. And taking strategic choices on when to move on to something else is what we would like to teach. We think gritty people should learn alongside becoming gritty and being gritty. It's certainly we don't want them to abandon being gritty, but we'd like them to see the benefits that sometimes stopping it with something and going on and moving on is the more beneficial path.

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VEDANTAM: Gale says she knows from personal experience how grit can be harmful.

LUCAS: I was married, and I stuck in that relationship for nine years. I ended up getting a divorce, and I persisted in that relationship to the very final end and perhaps longer than was good for either my partner or myself.

VEDANTAM: Gale says she was so gritty about her marriage, she didn't see leaving as an option.

LUCAS: And so now in hindsight, I can see that maybe I did more damage by staying in a relationship that wasn't the right one longer than I should have.

VEDANTAM: Our society looks down on quitting. We don't stop to ask whether it's sometimes a good idea to quit. Gale applied the same drive and determination she had as a child, focused on academics at the beach, to her marriage.

>>LUCAS There's a stigma around getting divorced. There's a stigma around saying, well, I quit this. There's a stigma around, you know, choosing a different job and saying, I wasn't cut out for this job. And so it's hard as a gritty person to not just go along with that because everything supports that rather than really taking that look as to am I hurting myself? Am I going about this the wrong way? And it's only after having such big failures, having such big instances where I hurt myself and people that I really loved and cared about that I could start opening my eyes and seeing that, that I didn't make the connection between the little child on the book and focused on that to my marriage because everybody else and everything else was telling me in society that it's good to stick with what you're doing and don't give up.

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VEDANTAM: So there really are two kinds of grit. One is the good kind. It overcomes obstacles, fights through distractions. Albert Einstein and Mark Spitz and Angela Duckworth herself are shining examples. The other kind of grit is obstinate. Against all evidence to the contrary, it presses on. It ignores signals that failure is imminent, digs deeper into the hole. Let's give this grit another name, stubbornness. But here's the thing. I don't think it's easy to tell whether you are looking at grit or stubbornness before you know how something turns out. If I try my hand at the piano and don't get very far after a few years, should I demonstrate grit and press on? Or should I acknowledge my lack of musical talent and tell myself I'm banging my head against a wall? It's the same thing with those volunteers in Gale Lucas's experiment. They're given unsolvable anagrams. But the thing is they don't know the anagrams are unsolvable. There are certainly difficult problems that can be solved if you stick to them. I found it striking that both Gale Lucas and Angela Duckworth talked about grit in the context of marriage but came to opposite conclusions. Gale felt her stubbornness kept her in a bad marriage longer than she should have stayed. But, Angela told me that grit predicts stable marriages. When two people are gritty, they are likely to weather ups and downs. Is stubbornness just the name we give to grit when things turn out badly? The same thing is true when you look at historical figures. Isaac Newton revolutionized the worlds of mathematics and physics. He exemplified grit in inventing calculus. But, Newton also wasted much of his life on alchemy. He spent hours on what Angela Duckworth would call deliberate practice, trying to turn elements into gold or looking for hidden scientific truths in scripture. Work by the psychologist Philip Tetlock and others suggests that grit and stubbornness might be two sides of the same coin. The people who press on when times are hard and the people who stubbornly bang their heads against a wall, these might be the same people. We call them gritty or call them stubborn after we know how things turned out in the end.

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VEDANTAM: The HIDDEN BRAIN podcast is produced by Kara McGuirk-Alison, Maggie Penman and Max Nesterak. Find more of HIDDEN BRAIN on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Sign up for our newsletter by emailing us at hiddenbrain@npr.org. I'm Shankar Vedantam, and this is NPR.

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