When Angela Lee Duckworth was a young teacher in New York, she became obsessed with something seemingly simple yet remarkably hard to predict: why did some students "succeed" (learn the material and perform well), while others didn't? Why did certain smart kids fail to learn hard concepts, while certain less talented kids got them?
She took this inquiry with her to graduate school, where she and her team started studying both children and adults in challenging settings. As she explained in her TED talk, the research question was always the same:
"Who is successful here, and why?"
As it turned out, there was an answer. One trait rose above all others. In contexts as disparate as West Point, the National Spelling Bee, private companies, and low-income schools, the one characteristic that emerged as highly predictive of success wasn't IQ. It wasn't social intelligence, nor was it good looks, physical health, or socioeconomic status.
What was it?
As Duckworth defines it, grit is, "passion and perseverance for long-term projects; having stamina; sticking with your future, day in, day out ... and working really hard to make that future a reality." (my emphasis)
In other words, grit is tenacity. It's the ability to stay connected to a goal, even when that goal is far away or there are setbacks.
It's the tortoise and the hare, in real life.
Once grit was identified, more research revealed just how critical it is: Duckworth gave thousands of Chicago public school high school juniors grit questionnaires, then waited a year to see what happened.
It turned out grittier kids were significantly more likely graduate (an event that leads to more earnings, more professional possibilities, and higher self-esteem)--even when Duckworth factored in everything she could measure, like family income, standardized test scores, and how safe a child felt at school.
Back up, because this is remarkable. It means grit trumps all outside circumstances--socioeconomic status, tutoring, whether a child is a good test-taker--all of it. It means grit is far, far more important to a child's success than any external thing a parent can provide.
The million-dollar question then becomes the one posed so frequently to Duckworth: How do we make our kids (or young adults) grittier? If it's so vital to success, how do we teach it?
How do you instill grit?
According to Duckworth, part of the answer lies in establishing a "growth mindset."
Dr. Carol Dweck of Stanford University came up with this concept, and it's basically the belief that you can improve your ability to learn--that it's not fixed. Thus instead of "I'm smart" or, "I'm dumb," (fixed states), it's, "When I'm challenged, I get stronger."
The reason this matters is that if a kid believes they're "dumb" because, say, they got a wrong answer, they tend to stop trying. They become afraid of failing. But when kids in Dweck's research studies read and learn about the brain (particularly how it grows in response to challenge), they become more brave, more resilient, more likely to try even harder things, more ... gritty.
Why? Because they start to see that simply doing the hard thing helps them expand. That it doesn't matter whether you get the answer right--it just matters that you try, and keep trying.
It's a lesson we can all take to heart, especially since grit research showed something else totally fascinating: there is no relationship or an inverse relationship between grit and talent. Hang on and make sure you got that last part -- inverse means the less talented you are, the more gritty you are likely to be ... which may be exactly what leads to your success.
In other words, data backs up the fact that you truly don't have to be the best in the class, or get into the most prestigious tech accelerator, or be the most talented graphic designer at your firm to succeed.
You just have to know where you're going, and be willing to keep going.
No matter what.
Want to teach kids about growth mindset? Start here.
Want to take Duckworth's quiz to see how gritty you are? Go here.
After that, the sky's the limit.
"Always bear in mind that your own resolution to succeed is more important than any one thing." - Abraham Lincoln