I Think a MacArthur Genius Is Wrong About 'Grit'
The development of "grit" as a key to success is a popular theory among education reformers. I think it tells a very limited story.
I am not a psychologist. I am not an expert in human behavior. I am a teacher who used to be – and in many ways still is – a student. I don’t know that I even have the standing to challenge Dr. Angela Duckworth, the recipient of a MacArthur Genius grant who heads her own lab at the University of Pennsylvania, but I’m going to give it a shot.
Dr. Duckworth is the pioneer of the theory of “grit” as a key to student achievement. In her words:
"Grit is passion and perseverance for very long-term goals. Grit is having stamina. Grit is sticking with your future, day in, day out, not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years, and working really hard to make that future a reality. Grit is living life like it's a marathon, not a sprint."
In her research, Dr. Duckworth has discovered that those who are able to practice grit are more successful, whether it be mastering algebra, navigating the challenges of West Point, or maintaining a successful marriage. She believes that the key to improving education is in figuring out how to teach “grit.”
"Grit" contains a very seductive narrative. We don’t have to worry about talent or IQ. As long as students can learn to persevere, they will have success. We just have to teach them how to do it.
Dr. Duckworth herself says she doesn’t really (yet) know how to teach grit. She believes that Dr. Carol Dweck’s theory of having a “growth mindset,” essentially a view where we recognize that our abilities are not fixed and we are on a continuum of “growth,” is a promising avenue.
I think grit explains success for a lot of people. I know some personally.
I also think it’s a dangerous narrative in that it isn’t the whole story of success. I don’t have research to back me up, but I have stories, including my own. I wonder if others recognize mine in themselves.
For some people, the key to success is grit. For others, others like me, it’s “fit.”
As a kid, I was widely and justifiably viewed as lazy.
The laziness manifested itself in numerous ways, from a near-refusal to cut the grass to substandard grades in challenging subjects like math.
I was good at the things I liked, which were the things I was good at. The fatigue preventing me from cutting the lawn miraculously disappeared in time for hockey practice. The cursory effort given to geometry was nowhere in sight when it came time to write anything creative in English.
“Doesn’t meet his potential” was my middle name. Yet, because I grew up in a privileged suburb and standardized tests were grooved to my particular skill set and socioeconomic advantage, no one was particularly worried about my future, including me.
The pattern continued in college at the University of Illinois. I became a master of “sufficient” studying and the “good enough” essay. The exception was my creative writing classes which I found energizing and fascinating. And it’s not that I was averse to school-like work. I often chose pleasure reading over assigned texts that might be very similar in my literature classes. I did this because I wanted the freedom to read and think about what I wanted to read and think about when I wanted to read and think about it.
I was good at the things I liked, which were the things I was good at.
For twenty-two years I was mostly an educational sleepwalker, only occasionally bolting awake for brief flurries of academia-approved success.
Somewhere along the line, though, something must have changed for me, grit-wise. My present day grit-résumé actually looks pretty good.
In 2011, I published a novel that had taken me eight years to write. This fall, a collection of short stories, some of which go back to 1997, will be released. For each of the last two years, between this outlet and a column I write for Printers Row, the Chicago Tribune’s book supplement, I have written over 100,000 words for publication.
I would like to believe each of these achievements is testimony to Dr. Duckworth’s advice to living life like it’s a “marathon.”
I would like to think that it is because my character has changed, that I have matured, and in so doing have developed grit, except that I know that I am still that lazy kid. Because I still won’t mow the lawn, I hire it done. Cleaning the toilets is one of my household duties, and sometimes I wait until there’s visible fuzz in the bowl.
Since I do not possess grit, I find myself wondering what explains these successes.
I believe the key is that as an adult I have found ways to orient my working life around things I’m deeply interested in like writing and teaching. I do not need grit to pursue things I’m passionate about. I never have.
If I am curious, if I am interested in the process of my work, I do not need "grit."
If I am successful – and I’ll leave that judgment to others – it is because of “fit” not "grit."
In fact, I find adopting Duckworth’s “marathon” view tends to derail both my work and my happiness within it. Contemplating writing a novel – particularly now that I’ve done it several times (including two unsuccessful/unpublishable efforts) – makes me despair.
When I look beyond the horizon of the moment, I, personally, experience paralysis. Writing a novel doesn’t seem possible. It is a mountain I cannot climb. What I can write, however, are sentences, and ultimately, there will be enough sentences to make a book, and once I have enough sentences for a book, there will be a new challenge in shaping these sentences into a narrative that at least approaches the intentions and effects inside my head.
Similarly, I cannot write an essay/blog post that successfully counters the theory of a pre-eminent research psychologist and MacArthur Genius, but I can carefully develop my own ideas down the length of the page, one after the other. I can tell my story and see if others recognize it in themselves.
When I am focused on long term goals, all I can see is my failure to achieve them. When I stop worrying about the payoff and get busy in the moment, I have success. I become mindful, aware and alive.
I have no doubt that those with grit will be successful. Dr. Angela Duckworth’s CV seems to tell a story of grit par excellence: Harvard undergrad, Oxford and then Penn for graduate school, grants, fellowships, tenure. I also believe that it’s tempting for those with grit to believe that if others could just manage to be more like them, we’d all be better off. This may be true, but that doesn’t mean it’s possible.
My CV is not as impressive, but I believe I have my own markers of success and perseverance, and yet, on Duckworth’s own “grit” test, I score rather average or even below average.
Angela Duckworth’s story doesn’t speak to me and my experience. I know it’s not complete.
Neither is my personal exploration of grit and its limits.
Next time, in an effort to flesh out what I see as limits to the grit narrative, I intend to explore how I got around my lack of grit during previous jobs that weren’t nearly as stimulating as my present work in writing and teaching.
The reason I am concerned about grit is because it is becoming a significant, perhaps even dominant narrative in educational reform – as witnessed in the “no excuses” charter movement - and similar to the embrace of standards-based education (i.e., Common Core), I think it’s potentially destructive to students. For more readings that discuss and critique grit, I recommend the following.
“The ‘Grit’ Narrative, ‘Grit’ Research, And Codes that Bind” by Paul Thomas
“Does Grit Need Deeper Discussion?” by Grant Lichtman
If you have other related articles or research, please share them in the comments or tag me with them on Twitter.
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