As MHS seniors graduate and embark on their next adventure, there is great optimism about their prospects. Mamaroneck’s educators and parents of these graduates want to see students thrive and succeed. But what do most people say is the secret to success? Intelligence? Talent? Socio-economic status? College choice? All of these factors play a role, but according to Angela Duckworth, professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, the most important variable in success is grit. In her book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, Duckworth defines grit as passion and perseverance toward long term goals. She explains that the highly successful people of the world have a “ferocious determination” that inspires them to work hard, face adversity with resilience, and stay focused on their goals. Contrary to popular belief, Duckworth’s research suggests grit may be more important than intelligence or talent. Grit goes hand-in-hand with achievement. Studies show grit is also associated with life satisfaction and well-being. Given the importance of grit, it stands to reason that educators, parents, and employers might want to learn how to encourage “gritty” qualities.
Historically, Americans have been more impressed by talent than by hard work. The notion of natural talent may be more interesting than considering this drudgery of hard work and persistence. We favor “naturals” over “strivers,” which explains our attraction to shows like America’s Got Talent, the X Factor, and So You Think You Can Dance? In the mythology of talent, Americans tend to idolize those people who seem to be born with innate skills, not taking into consideration that most individuals at the top of their fields are also spending thousands of hours working to develop whatever innate talents they posses. Our intense focus on talent sends the message that other personal traits are unimportant. This might cause us to look at talented individuals and think I’m never going to be as successful as they are. It’s probably not even worth trying. This refers to spending less time improving and pushing ourselves to our maximum potential. A Harvard psychologist, William James, explained this phenomenon: “The human individual usually lives far within his limits; he possesses powers of various sorts which he habitually fails to use.”
Duckworth has theorized that “talent is how quickly your skills improve when you invest effort. Achievement is what happens when you take your acquired skills and use them.” She explains that talent has influence, but effort is two times as important as talent in terms of reaching success. To demonstrate this concept, Duckworth cited a study done in 1940 at Harvard University. Researchers had 130 sophomores run on a treadmill for up to five minutes. The treadmill was set on a steep angle and a high speed. The experiment was designed to evaluate the extent to which a “‘subject is willing to push himself or has the tendency to quit before the punishment becomes severe.’” As it turned out, the “Treadmill Test” was a “reliable predictor of psychological adjustment throughout adulthood.” In other words, the subjects who were willing to put forth effort, even after the exercise became very difficult, were more successful and well-adjusted in the long run. The researchers concluded that effort counts significantly in terms of psychological well-being. Duckworth explains that if she designed this study, she would have had the young men come back the next day to complete the Treadmill Test again. It is one thing to stay on the treadmill, but an ever better measurement of grit is if one gets back on the treadmill the next day and tries again.
It appears from Duckworth’s research that the grit factor is highly predictive of success. She asked thousands of high school juniors to take her grit questionnaire in which she measures the levels of passion and perseverance in an individual. “It turned out that grittier kids were significantly more likely to graduate,” she explains. She emphasizes the importance of “follow through,” explaining that “students who earned a top follow-through rating were those who participated in two different high school extracurricular activities and in both of those activities, advanced significantly in some way (e.g. becoming editor of the newspaper, winning MVP for the volleyball team, winning a prize for artwork).” In other words, students who engage in an activity and continue it throughout their high school years, are those who rate high on “follow through.” On the other hand, some students engage in no extracurriculars at all, or if they do, fail to continue with those activities across time. A high level of “follow through” in high school students was a better predictor than any other variable in predicting graduating from college with academic honors. It was also the best indicator of who would hold a leadership position and predicted achievements for young adults in a variety of measures.
So how can we engender this powerful combination of passion and perseverance? First, one must develop an interest. People perform better when they are doing something that they enjoy. There is a direct correlation between interest and hard work. Interests result from discovery and interactions with the outside world. The initial discovery of an interest may be subtle, and it is possible to go unnoticed. When, however, you do recognize that interest, it is important to surround yourself by encouraging supporters. What separates grit paragons (Duckworth’s name for individuals who show high levels of grit) from others is their ability to deepen their interests. This comes from deliberate practice, which is more focused on the quality of time spent, not the quantity. In order to recognize if you are practicing deliberately ask yourself: Do I have a clearly defined goal? Am I concentrating fully and putting in maximum effort? Am I receiving immediate and helpful feedback? Am I reflecting on what I am doing and refining my skills? It is also important to drill in habit. When you practice something over and over again at the same time and in the same place, you barely even need to think about getting started. Of course, this kind of practice is not always enjoyable, but it can be deeply gratifying, especially if you are able to see skill improvements.
Another important factor in becoming “gritty” is learning how to create and develop goals. One of the most effective ways to do this is to imagine goals in a hierarchy. The higher the goal, the more important it is. A example of a high-level goal could be writing a book. Most people are able to envision a large goal, but have difficulty breaking down the steps they need to take to reach that achievement. This is known as “positive fantasizing.” You may feel great about your goal to write a book, but have no idea where to even start. It is also common to have many mid-level goals that have no relation to a top-level goal. In order to be “gritty,” you must hold the same top-level goal for a long time. It is also effective to develop low and mid-level goals that are in some way related to that top-level goal and are concrete and specific enough to maintain. One can’t just write a book instantaneously. He/she might first start by spending ten minutes a day free writing. Or perhaps, they could engage in an exercise where they train their brain to come up with topic ideas, which may eventually be further developed. A mid-level goal might be to sign up for a writer’s workshop, and so on.
In her research, Duckworth has discovered that grittier people are also “dramatically more motivated than others to seek a meaningful, other-centered life. Higher scores on “purpose” correlate with higher scores on the Grit Scale. Some of our goals are to seek personal pleasure, as we are evolutionarily predisposed to do. However, we are also social creatures, and we aim to connect with and help others. When we have a higher purpose that transcends our own selfish needs, we are actually more likely to persevere.
Growing grit is not an easy task. All the time spent developing an interest, practicing, setting goals, and finding meaning in that interest is challenging. When facing failure, it is easy to give up or focus our attention on a new goal. Grit paragons are able to prevail after facing failure. It turns out that one of the qualities that predicts such resilience is optimism. In his research, Martin Seligman, a world renowned psychologist, discovered that optimists are just as likely to encounter bad events as pessimists, but optimists are focused on learning about the cause of their failure and problem-solving, while pessimists assume “permanent and pervasive causes are to blame.” Having a growth mindset is holding the belief that people can change through hard work. Optimists are more likely to have a growth mindset, do better in school, have better physical/emotional health, and have stronger, more positive relationships. Fortunately, there are skills that can increase optimism. Such “cognitive reconstructing” strategies emphasize challenging automatic negative thoughts, looking for strengths and solutions, and attempting to use a more rational (versus emotional) approach when evaluating one’s thoughts.
Duckworth’s book provides a compelling body of research on the importance of grit in a variety of outcomes. But many questions still remain and may require further research: How should teachers include practices that encompass grit? Should colleges include grit in their assessments of prospective students? Should grit measures matter more than standardized tests? Should grit be used in job applications? Currently, we don’t have the answers to these questions, but Duckworth certainly makes the case that we should explore these topics further. Here at MHS, there are ample opportunities for students to pursue their passions, above and beyond academics, with programs ranging from film-making to engineering to culinary arts. There is also a strong emphasis on sticking with chosen electives and clubs all four years which is the “follow through” Duckworth has found to be so important. We are also fortunate to have so many faculty members who are invested in helping students develop their interests. Let’s hope these MHS efforts have helped lay the groundwork for our 2018 graduates to have a purposeful and passionate future!
By Sophia Glinski