At the least, it’s progress. Instead of joining other psychologists in search of the key to mental health or even the meaning of life, Angela Duckworth has sought out the secret to success. In a sense, later qualified, she called it “grit.”
At a time when the psycho world is prescribing warm baths of empathy, sympathy, sentimentality and compassion we are encouraged to see someone presenting a more manly virtue. Better yet, she shows that you do not have to be a man to understand how the world really works.
In our feminized culture Duckworth is not alone in trying to revive the old moral virtues. She is not alone in seeing that character matters. But, she, along with stalwarts like the Tiger Mom, counts among the few.
Perhaps it’s a symptom of our secularized time, but it seems no longer to be possible to present a call to virtue without wrapping it in the mantle of science. If grit can be measured, we can test for it. We can run experiments about it. And we can get promotions and tenure and research grants.
So, we understand why Duckworth needed to find a new way to market an old idea. Reviewing Duckworth’s book in Slate, Daniel Engber asks the right questions. In the subtitle of his review he (or his editor) says:
A new book says you need passion and perseverance to achieve your goals in work and life. Is this a bold new idea or an old one dressed up to be the latest self-help sensation?
And he adds:
Grit the measure and Grit the book are clearly triumphs of rebranding. It’s not as easy to discern whether Duckworth has produced something more than that—a set of new and substantive ideas to match her innovative presentation. To put this another way: Is she the Alice Waters of psychology, the leader of a revolution, or is she the field’s Rick Mast, more a pioneer of pretty packaging?
Duckworth has the same problem that many other psychologists confront. She, like them, is not a moral philosopher. She is not trained in delineating concepts, thus, her “grit” feels imprecise.
Is grit another word for perseverance and persistence? Does it resemble conscientiousness? Duckworth says that it has to do with passion, but the connection is far from clear. Are you more likely to persist and persevere at work you are passionate about? Or are you more likely to be passionate at a task you are good at?
After all, persistence is not quite the same thing as perseverance. Any serious work ethic, of which the world has known many, prescribes both qualities.
Stick-to-itiveness is surely a good thing, up to a point. You build character when you are struggling against obstacles. But, obviously, this only pertains if you are doing the right thing. And science does not really tell us how to differentiate right from wrong.
Other psychologists have touted the importance of conscientiousness, but it is not the same as perseverance. Conscientiousness implies an attention to detail, but it also contains a moral dimension: being conscientious implies doing the right thing.
You can certainly persist and be passionate about doing the wrong thing. People who refuse to accept the verdict of reality, the verdict that tells them that they have no talent for playing the violin, might well persist passionately in their violin playing. Eliminating the moral dimension in favor of more scientific measurement makes the concept that much more difficult to apply.
Also, as Engber points out, good character requires a number of different virtues:
To excel across the board, teens must have the social skills to forge relationships with both their teachers and their peers, and their focus must be balanced across many different kinds of challenges.
To excel one needs also to respect authority, whether the authority of parents or that of teachers. One also needs to develop good manners, good conduct and good behavior… qualities that are essential to getting along with others. And Engber also points to the research that has shown the value of self-control and self-discipline.
And then there is the importance of raw, natural talent. In studying student success, researchers have found that IQ matters more than grit, perseverance, persistence and the rest. If you do not have the talent, you cannot grow it. You would do better to try to discover where your talent lies.
Duckworth is aware of these aspects of the problem. But she takes it a step further. Engber summarizes:
But that’s only half of Duckworth’s argument. It’s one thing to argue that grit matters more than talent or—more accurately—that your personality helps determine your success. Duckworth goes much further, asserting that you can change your personality and learn to “grow your grit.”
Here Engber gets slightly confused. Good character is not a personality trait. Your personality might make you cheerful or taciturn; but neither quality makes for good or bad character. The latter concerns how you conduct yourself, not the persona you put on to entertain the masses.
Good character requires more than grit. Surely, the Tiger Mom wanted her children to learn the virtue of perseverance, but she also forbade them the indulgence of many activities that American children routinely enjoy. Culture matters here, and American culture emphasizes self-actualization, emotional serenity and mental health… more than it seeks to produce children with good character.
As for academic success, Engber offers some suggestions of his own:
It may even be the case that a child’s personality is no more (or less) amenable to change than his basic cognitive skills. That is to say, we might do just as well (or poorly) at helping kids to thrive if we tried to help them grow their genius, not their grit.
Surely, this is a good idea, but a child also needs to discover where his genius lies. It might lie in language skills; it might lie in math; it might lie in basketball. No one should assume that children are equally proficient at everything.
Engber recommends that if we want children to improve their grades, we should not be teaching them an abstract virtue, which is poorly defined in the best of cases, but to focus on study skills:
Even better, we could focus on more specific skills that have a clear relationship to student grades. Why not try to foster better study habits in our kids or teach them tricks for improving their attendance? Those aren’t big book tour–ready concepts, but they’ve been shown to have effects. If Duckworth’s book can tell us anything at all, it’s that we shouldn’t lose our focus every time we come across a new idea in shiny packaging. It might be better if we persevered and stuck to things that work.
True enough, but there is nothing about grit that precludes teaching children to acquire good study skills.
Then Engber offers a caveat. Upon discovering (by taking a psycho test) that he lacks the required amount of grittiness, he questions its value. And yet, his essay, if I may say so, shows a conscientious concern for thoroughness. He may not have a lot of grit but Engber has done his homework.
Apparently, he believes that grit feels too much like a manly virtue. After all, Duckworth had discovered the virtue of grit while observing incoming cadets at West Point.
Engber is less convinced:
The NFL sells itself on manly virtues: fighting through adversity, getting knocked down and getting up again, leading with the head, playing through your injuries, giving up your body for the game. That sounds a lot like grit—but is it good?
Yes, it is good. It is good if you want to compete in the NFL or on the battlefield. In any competitive endeavor you will only succeed by being purposeful. As it happens, by the time anyone is playing in the NFL or is attending West Point, his ability and his talent has already been fully recognized.
Strangely enough Engber seems to believe that his individual case and condition should provide an argument against grit. He does not see that grit involves cooperation, working with others, getting along with others, and competing against others. It does not value anecdotal evidence and individual cases. And it does not fall into the trap of so much modern therapy and allow people to believe that they need to develop their unique individuality… regardless of how well or poorly they do in competition.