An important idea is making the rounds: Psychologist Angela Duckworth set out to figure out what set the most successful individuals apart from the crowd. The result? Not talent, not luck but something Duckworth defines as “grittiness”. You might have already heard about grit from this Freakonomics episode
or this TED talk
. So what is this so-called secret to success? Well, according to Duckworth’s research, grit is all about the ability to continually sustain interest and effort in pursuing a goal.
For most of us, the idea that the secret to success lies in hard work probably doesn’t sound all too revolutionary. And in a way, you’d probably be right for wondering what exactly the use is of this research which seems to be confirming what a lot of us already knew. However, I think there is a lot of good to be gained from familiarizing ourselves with Duckworth’s research, because it can help clear up some serious misconceptions about how success is achieve in school, work and life.
The Problem With Believing That Talent Equals Success
We are all born with certain talents and innate abilities: that is undeniable. We’ve just learned too much about biology, genetics and evolution to fully believe in John Locke’s “blank slate” theory, which assumes we are all born with no inherent dispositions and everything we are is shaped solely by the experiences and environments we are born into. That being said, the battle between nature and nurture still rages on in the scientific community and Duckworth’s research is helping us adjust our conceptions of the world.
One of the wonderful things about studying education is that you’re constantly getting exposed to the latest research on what makes students successful, and there is one idea I run into all the time: student success is highly correlated to what is called a high sense of “self-efficacy”. Self-efficacy is an individual’s belief in their ability to perform the actions necessary to reach a goal. Essentially, if students really do believe they can achieve success, then they are significantly more likely to do so. If they don’t believe they can achieve success, then they are much less likely to succeed. And it’s not just true of students—research also indicates that the most successful teachers also show a high sense of self-efficacy. If you believe you have the ability to successfully teach your students, you are much more likely to successfully teach your students.
So, yeah, most of us believe that hard work equals success, but many of us also probably believe that inherent talent plays a big role in it too. What Duckworth’s research shows us is that hard work above all else
is the predictor to success. And since we can all work hard, it would seem that believing in grit might also help with our self-efficacy. After all, if we’d gone through life believing that success was all about natural talent and didn’t believe we possessed that natural talent, we’d have a pretty low sense of self-efficacy with little to no hope for changing it. Research indicating that grit is the biggest factor in success can help us combat that toxic inner voice that keeps us from believing in our own abilities.
Self-Control Plays Into It Too
Grit was one of the two predictors of success that Duckworth concentrates on. The other one is self-control. Just because it’s always important look at exactly what the term means in the context of the research, we’re going to define this one too. In this study, self-control is a person's ability to voluntarily regulate their impulses, and not give into momentary gratification.
Duckworth points out that self-control and grit are not necessarily a packaged deal— some people possess one trait while being weak in the other. This is where the research gets interesting for me. See, if I’m being honest, I’m about 100% sure that I’m a pretty gritty person. Maybe even an exceptionally gritty person. Every single time I’ve heard Duckworth talk about gritty individuals, I go: “Yep, that’s me.”
This isn’t just me tooting my own horn—I have the evidence to back it up. Take writing, for example. When I was in the 2nd grade, my dad read the first two Harry Potter books to me and I fell in love. Immediately, I knew what I needed
to do: become a writer. From that point on, I obsessively pursued this dream, a pursuit which (if we’re honest) continues today.
I watched every interview, read every blog post and listened to every podcast I could about writers talking about how they wrote. I kept diaries, twelve of which I have stored in my College Station bedroom right now. By the time I got to high school, I was keeping both a physical and digital journal, which I alternated writing in depending on my mood. In high school, the most significant of the various word documents journaled on totaled more than 50,000 words long. Then I started storing my journal on a website dedicated to free-writing, which I’ve currently written 519,110 words on since April 2013. Oh, and I still
keep physical journals: I average about one journal per semester. I’m fond of letter writing, and I’ve written my boyfriend 19 letters in the past five months, which usually are between 1,000 and 5,000 words long. I’ve tried my hand at National Novel Writing month seven times, even though I only succeeded in reaching my goal once.
I could go on, because that’s really just the tip of the iceberg. When it comes to things I love I’m gritty, real
gritty, but I’m not at all exceptional in self-control. In fact, when it comes to things outside of my interest areas, I’m almost certain I’m well below average. I have terrible ADHD and I live for momentary gratification. I’ve gotten better with age and hard work, but self-control isn’t likely to be my strong suit in the near future.
This is why I find the self-control aspect to be so interesting. I get distracted from my writing goals on a monthly—or even weekly—basis. I’ve found a lot
more success in my writing in the past year because I’ve temporarily given up on the whole novel-thing. Novels take an incredible amount of self-control. Sticking with essays, blog posts and letters means that I can produce writing and actually finish it before the next shiney new idea distracts me.
Angela Duckworth says that passion really has to come first when it comes to grit, and when I think about my lack of self-control, I find myself agreeing with her 100%. The thing about my passion for (and fascination with) writing is that it doesn’t actually take a lot of self-control for me to write most things. Writing actually provides
me with instant-gratification, which is why more than a decade later I still can’t stop. There have been many times where I’vestruggled to forcibly stop myself from working on something I’m writing only to fail, in the same way a video game addict might struggle to stop playing a game.
One reason I’m always so interested to read the newest psychological research like what Duckworth is doing is because it’s such a wonderful tool for self-reflection. Whenever I watch a TED talk like hers, I find myself considering whether or not I fit into the framework, whether or not their findings make sense to me and most of all how I can use information like that to grow. It seems to me that most of us who have made it to the graduate level must have at least a little grit or self-control. So let us know in the comments: Do you think you’re a gritty person or a self-control champion? Why or why not?
Jessica is a masters student in the Education & Human Development's Teaching, Language, and Culture department.