Grit By Angela Duckworth – Book Review


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Best for: 

Grit is best for those interested in achievement, high-performance, goal setting, grit, resilience, and general psychology. While narrowed into a few subjects, the lessons are generally applicable to behavior and resilience. 

Difficulty to digest:

Grit has a conversational tone, with lots of examples and stories. Explanations of core concepts are clearly explained and outlined. Everyone should be able to get the main concepts from a single readthrough, regardless of background. 

Key Insights:

Angela Duckworth’s Grit is essentially a deep dive on resilience. It covers a wide range of aspects related to grit starting with a definition, moving into composition, and ending with creation. Through the way, it meshes with other psychological concepts and a myriad of entertaining and engaging stories. While focused on a particular realm, these are ideas which all of us can utilize.

Attributes of Grit

Grit is an incredibly important characteristic. It determines how well we stick with high-level goals in the long term, which often requires huge volumes of lower-level tasks along the way. Duckworth starts by exploring the ways in which grit touches our lives, such as college acceptance rates, military, and spelling bees. Those who persevere tend to perform better. 

Grit also clarifies a few misconceptions, such as distinguishing hard work from staying on the same project. Duckworth’s definition necessitates not just working hard, but working hard toward the same ends over a long period of time. It’s about pursuing a goal through both the easy and hard times.

Grit & Achievement – Nature Or Nurture?

Grit also addresses the common belief that talent creates most successes. While it’s a nice and tidy belief about how others achieve, it doesn’t appear to be true. Duckworth refutes this with a number of examples and studies, coming to the conclusion that talent does matter, but grit matters about twice as much. The story that it’s mostly talent helps individuals fill in the gap between their position and others – even though the truth typically contains countless hours of hard work. 

Duckworth covers a number of examples of individuals with little aptitude for a particular realm practicing until they become great. The book includes a discussion about a list of high-achievers by estimated IQ. The results, while somewhat higher than average, are not consistent with the need for an extremely high IQ to achieve highly. Instead, just showing up to do the work, over and over, is the most important. 

Grit also discusses that grit isn’t a fixed trait. Our genetics may provide a baseline, but we can nurture grit-related attributes and scores change over time. Aging populations are one instance of grit generally increasing over time. Though there may be some confounding factors, it’s reasonable to guess that as we gain experience we become more resilient. In addition, intentionally cultivating this process, as Duckworth has in studies, has shown results.

Anatomy of Grit

Few of us start with a passionate, high-level goal. Instead, it’s something we must discover, build toward, and cultivate. Duckworth explores and explains how individuals come to possess grit for a particular top-level goal. While you could expand that grit to other realms, it’s especially relevant for long-term, lifelong goals because part of grit is sustained effort. Here’s how Grit explains the development of a high-level passion.

Exploration

First is a phase of exploration. This can be forced by trying activities at random, but simply listing out and explore interests helps. For example, an individual may play many sports as a child before deciding tennis or hockey is the one that appeals most. Of course, few of the activities tried will stick around long enough to develop into a full passion.

This discovery stage provides time and flexibility to find what’s truly a good fit between interest and aptitude. Without this phase, it’s impossible to know which activities you like – because you won’t have experienced them. Specializing too early can lead to burnout and dissatisfaction.

Practice & Building

Competence must be built after an activity is chosen. In the beginning, this typically requires a huge number of hours and deliberate practice. As skill develops effort can still remain high, but is diverted toward other goals. The basics become easier and development is placed into more specific pieces of work.

Duckworth explores how high performers repeatedly do this. They find a stretch goal just outside their current comfort zone and push toward it, being as specific as possible. By drilling down into one specific piece, they can more clearly see progress against the metric. Each time a goal is reached it’s replaced by a new stretch goal. Repeated many times, performance continually improves over time. 

Passion & Purpose

Grit mentions several times that passion comes from purpose and having a high-level goal. Many times, Duckworth argues, this doesn’t come naturally but is born from the development stage. Having and creating this clear, high level goal allows individuals to draw on their reasons when times get tough.

Passion is more of a compass than a particular, exact goal. For example ‘helping children’ can be a passion but doesn’t have a particular endpoint. While following passion still involves hard work, grinding, and grit, it’s one of the critical factors in sticking with a goal over a long period of time. 

Cultivating Grit

Grit wraps up with several ideas on how to cultivate grit as an individual, a parent, and an organization. Though the details vary somewhat, the message is clear; great is malleable to environmental forces. Showing individuals the value of hard work and encouraging them to continue has demonstrable positive effects.

Duckworth argues balance here, between tough love and support. Essentially, you want to maintain high standards while still showing positive affect. This means accepting people as people, without allowing their actions to slip. The best candidates for developing are skills with clear outcomes and where progress can be seen. For example, extracurriculars at school.

Those around us also have an influence. If others show grit, we’re more likely to act congruently. This pressure can help push against the human default of laziness. When we see the results of grit, either in ourselves or others, we’re more likely to persevere ourselves. 

Related Psychological Concepts

Throughout Grit, Duckworth touches on a number of other psychological concepts, weaving them into the story. Here are few brief overviews of concepts you might find useful:

Growth vs fixed mindset

This determines whether you believe traits change over time. Growth mindset means believing traits like grit can be developed with effort. Those with a fixed mindset think traits are immutable and effort is unimportant. Those with a growth mindset are more likely to take action and achieve results. 

Learned Helplessness

Learned helplessness is the idea individuals stop trying to find solutions where past efforts have failed, even if conditions have changed. For example, failing a test may lead someone to not try on the next test, even if studying would help. Suffering without the perception of any control tends to produce depression, and decrease effort. 

Flow

Flow is a state of complete concentration as discussed in the book Flow (review here). This state tends to be very pleasurable and something found at the right level of difficulty. Duckworth brings it up in contrast to deliberate practice, which is effortful by definition. She argues experts experience both states at different times, sometimes working on particular skills and at other times having a more natural experience. 

Final Opinion:

Grit focuses heavily on achievement and growth, but these are areas we can all relate to. While you may not be trying to be the best in the world, it’s likely more grit will improve your outcomes. Overall, Duckworth’s stories make grit an easy and digestible read. I think most individuals will get something useful from a read through of this book, and find a few ideas for understanding and better cultivating grit.

Other considerations:

Grit includes a large number of stories, some of which are personal, to drive home points. While some may find these illustrative, others may find them a bit distracting and repetitive. Some points are fairly clear without their story counterparts, while other stories seem to drive home the same point multiple times. Also, some individuals may find the personal stories unappealing, even though they are tied back into the concepts well. 

Duckworth also argues fairly hard that grit and purpose are most optimized when tied externally. This point feels more idealistic than solid and she even adds contrary examples. It’s fairly reasonable to assume that purpose need only be strong and clear to provide grit, not necessarily externally focused. 

Applicable Content:

  1. Grit includes a priority-setting exercise worth trying. The goal is to reduce distractions and hone in on what’s most important, since competing goals can often overshadow focus. Here are the steps:
    1. List 30 goals you’d like to complete. 
    2. Go through and eliminate 25 of them
    3. Analyze the remaining 5. Why are they most important? How do they overlap?
  2. Try taking Duckworth’s Grit Scale

Want to read Grit?

You can get it here:


Other books you might like:

Flow: The Psychology Of Optimal Experience

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