True Grit

Never, ever give up.This is my favorite study of 2007. Angela Duckworth and company have explored that which keeps us going in the face of long odds. Call it perseverance, determination, tenacity; they call it grit. I love that word, all full of optimism and spirit.

The person with grit sets long-term goals and meets them. They may enter the world without special advantages, but that won’t keep them from reaching their destinations Until now, that fact has posed a quandary for researchers who have focused on achievement in terms of intelligence and temperament. As psychologists have tried to pin down a few basic facets of personality, intellect, and success, Duckworth et al. wondered if something has been overlooked.

The Big Five
Did I ever tell you kids about the lexical theory of personality? It states that the most important differences in human personalities will end up as adjectives in every language. If the theory is correct, English words like “resourceful,” “charming,” and “sarcastic” will have counterparts in every other language.

Refining the lexical theory has become a fascinating pursuit. In the late 1800s, Sir Francis Galton wondered if he could extract all of the personality descriptions from the dictionary and distill them down to an efficient and illuminating few. After a century of word-smithery and number-crunchery, psychologists arrived at a generally satisfying group of descriptors known as the Big Five personality traits:

  • Openness to experience
  • Conscientiousness
  • Extraversion
  • Agreeableness
  • Neuroticism

Theoretically, a person could be assigned a value for each one of those traits and that would give us a fair sense of the way in which they view the world and their place in it.

But Duckworth et al. noticed that none of the Big Five predict success very accurately. Nor does intelligence, by itself. At least one study cited by the authors suggests that any single Big Five personality trait accounts for less than 2% of variance in achievement. Intelligence only accounts for up to one third of the variance in some measures of success.

Something is conspicuously absent from the Big Five. Duckworth and company wondered, as did William James a century earlier, “why do some individuals accomplish more than others of equal intelligence?” Being the intrepid researchers that they are, they began to ask around:

“Our hypothesis that grit is essential to high achievement evolved during interviews with professionals in investment banking, painting, journalism, academia, medicine, and law. Asked what quality distinguishes star performers in their respective fields, these individuals cited grit or a close synonym as often as talent. In fact, many were awed by the achievements of peers who did not at first seem as gifted as others abut whose sustained commitment to their ambitions was exceptional. Likewise, many noted with surprise that prodigiously gifted peers did not end up in the upper echelons of their fields.”

In other words, some people simply work harder than others, but that’s not all. They do it in a particular way.

Long-term goals: Grit involves more than a solid work ethic and self-discipline. Hard work by itself is not enough to secure the type of success created by long-term, sustained effort. Back in my loading dock days, I worked very hard and gained no more reward in that environment than guys who did far less. One of the secrets of grit, according to the authors, is passion for long-term goals.

“Grit entails working strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity, and plateaus in progress. The gritty individual approaches achievement as a marathon; his or her advantage is stamina. Whereas disappointment or boredom signals to others that it is time to change trajectory or cut losses, the gritty individual stays the course.”

Commitment: Self-control is not enough, either. In fact, it’s a poor predictor of success in long-term goals.

“An individual high in self-control but moderate in grit may, for example, effectively control his or her temper, stick to his or her diet, and resist the urge to surf the Internet at work – yet switch careers annually.”

Determination: Even the need for achievement is not enough. In fact, the need for recognition can be a hindrance in long-term success. The gritty individual stays the course even when times are tough.

“Whereas individuals high in need for achievement pursue goals that are neither too easy nor too hard, individuals high in grit deliberately set for themselves extremely long-term objectives and do not swerve from them – even in the absence of positive feedback.”

I Think I Can, I Know I Can
The gritty individual sets long term goals, does not waver from them, and is able to ride out the rough patches – even when it means tolerating punishment or foregoing reward for long periods. The authors noticed that grit was a better predictor of first summer retention at West Point then was self-control or the Admission Committee’s prediction of the cadet’s abilities. (Self-control was a better predictor of later academic performance, though.)

Among spelling bee contestants, “gritty finalists outperformed their less gritty peers at least in part because they studied longer. Specifically, weekend hours of practice mediated the relationship between grit and final round.” The pertinacious progenture were clearly more distingue and perspicacious.

If the benefits of grit aren’t obvious by now, the authors spell it out: “among relatively intelligent individuals, those who are less bright than their peers compensate by working harder and with more determination.” It’s these gritty individuals who eventually win the day and achieve their goals. More often than not, great leaps forward are achieved through sustained effort rather than a solid but meandering work ethic. Just ask Winston Churchill.

Hope For Guys Like Me
I love the underdog. Heck, I was the underdog. As a fetus, I lacked the foresight to be born rich or good looking and, like many kids, I had a few legitimate challenges to overcome. The beauty of this study is that it sheds light on one of the great equalizers on an unfair planet. This study offers hope for guys like me.

No matter how we enter the world, perseverance and determination can carry us farther than our talents alone. Sometimes, the rewards of grit can even show up quickly, as they did among undergraduates at an elite university who “scored higher in grit [and] earned higher GPAs than their peers, despite having lower SAT scores.” While the authors did not state it outright, I suspect that sustained effort helps a person develop a level of skill that they would not otherwise possess.

Another beautiful thing about grit: it’s free, and anybody can do it. In one of the six sub-studies comprising this paper, the authors noticed that grit tends to increase automatically with age. Apparently, experience teaches us that “quitting plans, shifting goals, and starting over repeatedly are not good strategies for success.” If we tend to learn that lesson intuitively, then there is no reason a person cannot choose to plot a long-term course and stick to it.


Duckworth, A.L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M.D., & Kelly, D.R. (2007). Grit: perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(6), 1087-1101.

Goldberg, L.R. (1993). The structure of phenotypic personality traits. American Psychologist, 48(1), 26-34.