When Grit Gets Out of Hand

Photo: Daniel X. O’Neil via Flickr

Angela Duckworth’s new book on grit is exploding. In fact, it’s moving so quickly that her nuanced take on the concept is being trampled in the process.  Everyone’s excited about the idea that our kids can do better with more stick-to-it-iveness.

Except Duckworth, that is.

Part of the problem is the grit is a strong word that carries a payload of meaning. Most of us think of unbending perseverance in the face of repeated failure. It reminds me of the line from The Thomas Crown Affair when Crown and his lieutenants get the better bargain after signing a deal with an older, more established company:

It’s sad to see another tired man lay down his hand and quit the holy game of poker. Thats the line, Danny. He’s right you know… third generation company, you would think they would show more grit.

As Tim Harford (and others) noted, however, banging one’s head against a wall that never yields, pursuing a dream that is utterly unrealistic, and hanging onto losing stocks because of our aversion to losses just doesn’t make sense. The argument is that blind persistence needs to be tempered with some degree of objectivity.

Duckworth herself is disappointed that her idea has taken off in a more flattened form. That’s because her view of grit includes equal doses of perseverance and passion.

That’s a good thing, in part because her grit scale seems an awful lot like the already established personality construct of conscientiousness. (Some research suggests there’s almost no difference; other that there is a fair amount of overlap.) In other words, her grit scale may need to be adjusted to capture elements of passion rather than just persistence.

Duckworth’s sense that passion is a key element of grit makes a lot of sense to me, and here’s why. Passion is joy is found in the pursuit rather than in the achievement itself.  When that’s the case relentless persistence in service of that pursuit makes all the sense in the world.

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