Some thoughts on Grit.

This week, as I’ve been thinking through some of what interests me about this Ted Radio Hour podcast on math,  I couldn’t help but think about Angela Duckworth’s book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. Grit is a great read if you’re looking for career, parenting, or life advice, and Duckworth’s research and insights on the difference between a fixed mindset and a growth mindset are really valuable. 

When you’re in college, people frequently ask you what you’re majoring in. My answer was comment inspiring: English and Math. It seemed an odd pairing to most people, and  I often heard, “Wow, I could never do that. You must be so good at math.”

But, my experience was not that I was innately good at math. What I was good at was figuring out how to do math. I did my homework. I went to my professor’s office hours. I got my classmates who did seem to understand things to join me for study groups to explain it to me until I got it. What I liked was figuring it out.

I had, what Duckworth would call, a growth mindset. I always felt like the ability to think mathematically was like a muscle in my brain, and the more I used it the stronger it got. I wouldn’t say that it started out particularly strong, but I wanted to get better at it, so I kept taking math classes until it seemed kind of silly to not declare a major.

I was flipping through her book again this week because I was looking for her reference to “The Hard Thing Rule” (which we’ll probably get to on Monday). But I thought some of her insights about what grit is were worth sharing. Grit, as she defines it, is not just caring passionately about something, but also pursuing it with perseverance.

She shares a quote from Will Smith (like the actor/musician) describing what grit looks like:

The only thing that I see that is distinctly different about me is: I’m not afraid to die on a treadmill. I will not be outworked, period. You might have more talent than me, you might be smarter than me, you might be sexier than me. You might be all of those things. You got it on me in nine categories. But if we get on the treadmill together, there’s two things: You’re getting off first, or I’m going to die. It’s really that simple.

Duckworth recognizes that Smith is onto something. In her research, if you want to be good at something, talent counts. Passion counts. But effort counts twice. So, while we are often encouraged to follow our passion to success, it’s really that persistent effort and willingness to stay with things that might be a better path to follow.

She also adds this insight to the treadmill,

Staying on the treadmill is one thing, and I do think it’s related to staying true to our commitments even when we’re not comfortable. But getting back on the treadmill the next day, eager to try again, is in my view even more reflective of grit.

There’s one more passage that I underlined in this chapter (Effort Counts Twice) that I think is so good.

“The separation of talent and skill,” Will Smith points out, “is one of the greatest misunderstood concepts for people who are trying to excel, who have dreams, who want to do things. Talent you have naturally. Skill is only developed by hours and hours and hours of beating on your craft.

I would add that skill is not the same thing as achievement, either. Without effort, your talent is nothing more than your unmet potential. Without effort, your skill is nothing more than what you could have done but didn’t. With effort, talent becomes skill and, at the very same time, effort makes skill productive.

I know that being “productive” and “useful” are not the end all be all of life. I am, at this moment, really putting some thought into how to be less productive and explore having some “not useful” time in my life. I also think that unlike Will Smith, I am not willing to die on the treadmill. Still, I think these insights are really useful in reimagining what it takes to be successful, and whether or not we should keep going when the going gets tough (the answer: probably).

(By the way, if you do need a pep talk, Will Smith is pretty inspiring.)


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