Tag: Grit

True Grit: What an Olympic Snowboarder, an A-list Actor and Finland Can Teach Us About Building Resilience

“Grit is passion and perseverance for extremely long intervals.”


Last month I hi-lighted the research of Angela Duckworth on why grit can matter more than IQ in determining success in life. But that doesn’t help us become grittier.

There is a link between grit and expertise. To become grittier, Duckworth advises, we should look at who is gritty and ask ourselves how they approach things and what they do. In a recent interview, she said:

If you want to be gritty, you can look and see what do Olympic athletes do with their time. How do they organize their lives and their days?
World class experts tend to be gritty and talented. You can model what they do. World class experts do not just practice, but deliberate practice, which has certain features. When they are working on what they do, it’s with a specific and intentional goal in mind. Not like, “I’m here to do a better job today. But I’m working on the angle of my elbow as it reaches,” really specific.

They work on weaknesses, not strengths. They’re comfortable being uncomfortable. They’re falling down a lot. They’re playing things that are too hard. They’re attempting challenges that are too high. They’re getting feedback.

Duckworth gave the example of Shaun White and this article in the New York Times magazine. She continued:

He (White) was interviewed. He was watching a videotape of himself after he’d come down from the run, which is what all experts do. Seek feedback as immediately as possible. What he said is also particular of the attitude of experts. One could role model or emulate to get a little grittier.

It was not a particularly good run. Apparently he was trying to do a kind of snowboarding or whatever that’s new for him. The interviewer said, “Why don’t you just go back and do something a little more familiar?” He said, “I don’t want to be the kind of person who doesn’t finish what they began.

The Great Philosopher Will Smith

One thing that comes up again and again when we talk about how to develop mastery is deliberate practice. You can’t just repeat the same task over and over, you need to break it down and work on the individual parts. You need to work on the hard stuff.

The other thing about reading people as they do deliberate practice, try to get better, get feedback, work on specifics, and work on their weaknesses, is that they actually conceive of themselves as the sort of person who is loyal to their interests and steadfast about their goals, a harder worker.

Have you ever listened to Will Smith? He says, “Nobody will outwork me. If you and I are getting on a treadmill together, two things, either you’re getting off first, or I’m going die.” It’s really that simple.

Keep in mind, that a relentless focus on our goals can make us blind to danger. Too much grit can be a bad thing.

Developing Grit In Organizations

I know a lot of people in audience run organization. I think there’s a really important role. You want to shape human behavior, organizations, culture, values, norms. That’s the way to do it.

There probably are companies that embody and promote grit more than others. I think there are countries. In Finland, they have this word “sisu“, which roughly translates to grit. In Finland, people talk about building their “sisu”. Young children in Finland talk about, when you do a hard thing, you need to use “sisu”. If I do a really hard thing, my “sisu” will get stronger.

There are companies who try to have this very self aware identity at the corporate level, organizational level, pursuing things with focus, not getting too hung up on any given obstacle, being flexible about this. If I can’t get that this way, I’ll try that way. The vision, the mission that organizes that company is stable and true.

On the Role of Failure

Failure is a necessary part of the process of learning. While the benefits are not so great that we should seek it out, it does bring us a huge amount of information that we can use to make ourselves better.

You embrace it in the sense that it’s just a necessary part of the process, which is why when I said that experts are working in their discomfort zone. They’re working where they’re failing more than they’re succeeding, and thereby growing in line.

The thing to embrace is probably the information that’s carried in failure. Not, I failed. I’m going to get up. I’m going to be resilient. But why did I fail? How do I adjust so that the probability of failure is lower in the next round, when in fact, I am going to get up again and do it.

… If you look at world class athletes, world class chess players, world class violinists, world class mathematicians, they’re all faced with the same difficult psychological challenge. I think it’s a universal for learning.

What about kids?

As for kids, Duckworth says to focus on Carol Dweck’s growth mindset.

So far, the best idea I’ve heard about building grit in kids is something called growth mindset. This is an idea developed at Stanford University by Carol Dweck, and it is the belief that the ability to learn is not fixed. That it can change with your effort. Dr. Dweck has shown that when kids read and learn about the brain and how it changes and grows in response to challenge, they’re much more likely to persevere when they fail because they don’t believe that failure is a permanent condition.

* * *

Still curious? Read about the two mindsets that change everything and pick up a copy of How Children Succeed.

Angela Duckworth on Why Grit Matters More than IQ

Angela Duckworth has advanced our understanding of how self-control and grit impact success more than most.

When she applied to the PhD program at Penn, she wrote that her experiences working in schools left her with an unconventional view of school reform. “The problem, I think, is not only the schools but also the students themselves,” she wrote. “Here’s why: learning is hard. True, learning is fun, exhilarating and gratifying— but it is also often daunting, exhausting and sometimes discouraging. … To help chronically low-performing but intelligent students, educators and parents must first recognize that character is at least as important as intellect.”

She was accepted. At Penn she began to collaborate with Walter Mischel, a professor of psychology at Columbia University who is famous for his study known as the marshmallow test.

Paul Tough picks up this story in his excellent book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character.

The Marshmallow Test

In the late 1960s, Mischel, then a professor at Stanford University, developed an ingenious experiment to test the willpower of four-year-olds. At a nursery school on the Stanford campus, a researcher brought each child into a small room, sat him at a desk, and offered him a treat, such as a marshmallow. On the desk was a bell. The experimenter announced that she was going to leave the room, and the child could eat the marshmallow when she returned. Then she gave him a choice: If he wanted to eat the marshmallow, he needed only to ring the bell; the experimenter would return, and he could have it. But if he waited until the experimenter returned on her own, he would get two marshmallows.

Mischel intended the experiment as a study of the different techniques that children used to resist temptation. But it took on a new dimension more than a decade later when Mischel began to check up on the children in the experiment to see if their ability to delay gratification had predicted any academic or other outcomes. Starting in 1981, he tracked down as many students as he could find, and he continued to follow them for years afterward. The correlations between the children’s marshmallow wait times and their later academic success turned out to be striking. Children who had been able to wait for fifteen minutes for their treat had SAT scores that were, on average, 210 points higher than those of children who had rung the bell after thirty seconds.

Duckworth was intrigued by Mischel’s results but she was more interested in answering the question behind Mischel’s original premise: If you want to maximize your self-control, which tricks and strategies are most effective? And, if you can determine those things, can they be taught?

Mischel’s experiment had suggested some interesting answers. For instance, both psychoanalytic theory and behavioral theory had held that the best way for a child to motivate himself to wait and get two marshmallows was for him to keep the reward at the center of his attention, to reinforce how delicious those two marshmallows would be when he finally got to eat them. But in fact, the opposite turned out to be true: when the marshmallows were hidden from view, children were able to delay much longer than when the marshmallows were right in front of them. The children who did best at the delay test created their own distractions. Some talked or sang to themselves while they waited for the experimenter to return; some looked away from the treat or put their hands over their eyes. One young master of self-control actually managed to take a nap.

Mischel found that children were able to delay more effectively if they were given simple prompts to encourage them to think differently about the marshmallow. The more abstractly they thought about the treat, the longer they were able to delay. When children were invited to think of the marshmallow as a puffy round cloud instead of a marshmallow, they were able to delay about seven minutes longer. Some children were encouraged to look at a picture of a marshmallow instead of the real marshmallow. They were able to wait longer too. Others looked at the real marshmallows but were told to “put a frame around them in your head, just like a real picture.” Those children were able to wait almost eighteen minutes.

Adapting Mischel’s findings to schools proved difficult.

The problem with self-control techniques like the ones that the most disciplined marshmallow resisters employed is that they work only when a child knows what he or she wants. The long-term goals Duckworth hoped kids would aspire to were less tangible and immediate and attractive than two marshmallows after twenty minutes. So how do you help children acquire the focus and persistence they will need for longer-term, more abstract goals: passing a test or graduating from high school or succeeding in college?

Duckworth finds it useful to divide the mechanics of achievement into two separate dimensions: motivation and volition. Each one, she says, is necessary to achieve long-term goals, but neither is sufficient alone. Most of us are familiar with the experience of possessing motivation but lacking volition: You can be extremely motivated to lose weight, for example, but unless you have the volition— the willpower, the self-control— to put down the cherry Danish and pick up the free weights, you’re not going to succeed. If a child is highly motivated, the self-control techniques and exercises Duckworth tried to teach those fifth-grade students might be very helpful. But what if students just aren’t motivated to achieve the goals their teachers or parents want them to achieve? Then, Duckworth acknowledges, all the self-control tricks in the world aren’t going to help.

Motivation is tricky. In Freakonomics, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner tell the story of researchers in the 1970s who conducted an experiment to see if giving money to people giving blood would increase blood donations. It had the opposite impact, fewer people gave blood, not more.

This is the same as the daycare study, where in an effort to stop parents from picking up their kids late the daycare took the seemingly simple and rational step of instituting a fine for late pickups. This too had the opposite impact, more parents were late.

Material incentives do not often work the way we think they should. The problem with motivating people is we really don’t know-how. Different people respond to different things.

So what do you call … (people) who exerted themselves whether or not there was a potential reward? Well, here’s the technical term that personality psychologists use: conscientiousness. Over the past couple of decades, a consensus has emerged among personality psychologists that the most effective way to analyze the human personality is to consider it along five dimensions, known as the Big Five: agreeableness, extraversion, neuroticism, openness to experience, and conscientiousness.

Conscientiousness predicts outcomes …

People high in conscientiousness get better grades in high school and college; they commit fewer crimes; and they stay married longer. They live longer— and not just because they smoke and drink less. They have fewer strokes, lower blood pressure, and a lower incidence of Alzheimer’s disease. “It would actually be nice if there were some negative things that went along with conscientiousness,” (Brent) Roberts told me. “But at this point it’s emerging as one of the primary dimensions of successful functioning across the lifespan. It really goes cradle to grave in terms of how well people do.”


Even self-control has its limitations.

It may be very useful for predicting who will graduate from high school, but, (Duckworth) says, it’s not as relevant when it comes to identifying who might invent a new technology or direct an award-winning movie. … Duckworth began to sense that self -control wasn’t precisely the driver of success that she was looking for. She considered her own career. She was, by objective measures, very intelligent, and she recognized that she had high levels of self-discipline: she got up early; she worked hard; she met deadlines; she made it to the gym on a regular basis . And though she was certainly successful— very few doctoral students have their first-year theses published in a prestigious journal like Psychological Science—her peripatetic early career was much less directed than that of, say, David Levin, who had found his life’s calling at twenty-two and had persisted at the same goal ever since, overcoming many obstacles and creating, with Michael Feinberg, a successful network of charter schools educating thousands of students. Duckworth felt that Levin, who was about her age, possessed some trait that she did not: a passionate commitment to a single mission and an unswerving dedication to achieve that mission. She decided she needed to name this quality, and she chose the word grit.

Grit is what helps us attain long-term results on abstract goals. It’s what keeps us going. Duckworth teamed up with Chris Peterson, the co-author of Character Strengths and Virtues, and developed a test to measure grit. Duckworth calls it a Grit Scale — a deceptively simple test, with only 12 questions to which respondents self-evaluate, including “I am a hard worker;” “New ideas and projects sometimes distract me from previous ones;” and “I finish whatever I begin.

For each statement, respondents score themselves on a five-point scale, ranging from 5, “very much like me,” to 1, “not like me at all.” The test takes about three minutes to complete, and it relies entirely on self-report — and yet when Duckworth and Peterson took it out into the field, they found it was remarkably predictive of success. Grit, Duckworth discovered, is only faintly related to IQ — there are smart gritty people and dumb gritty people — but at Penn, high grit scores allowed students who had entered college with relatively low college-board scores to nonetheless achieve high GPAs. At the National Spelling Bee, Duckworth found that children with high grit scores were more likely to survive to the later rounds. Most remarkable, Duckworth and Peterson gave their grit test to more than twelve hundred freshman cadets as they entered the military academy at West Point and embarked on the grueling summer training course known as Beast Barracks. The military has developed its own complex evaluation, called the whole candidate score, to judge incoming cadets and predict which of them will survive the demands of West Point; it includes academic grades, a gauge of physical fitness, and a leadership potential score. But the more accurate predictor of which cadets persisted in Beast Barracks and which ones dropped out turned out to be Duckworth’s simple little twelve-item grit questionnaire.

Still curious? Pair with: Angela Duckworth on how to develop grit.

How Children Succeed contains more on Duckworth’s impact as well as a fascinating look at the efforts to quantify character.

Slow Down and Think

Sebastian Garcia made a mistake, but he couldn’t figure it out. At the 2011 National Junior High Chess Championship, he was looking strong and heading towards a victory. Then he made a mistake, squandering his advantage. A few moves later, the collapse was complete. Sebastian shook hands with the boy who had beaten him and walked back to Union B, the conference room down the hall. Union B was the makeshift home for his chess team from Intermediate School 318 in Brooklyn.

Elizabeth Spiegel, the school’s chess teacher, was waiting. It was customary to come back to the room for a postmortem. Sebastian, feeling sorry for himself, slouched into the room, his head held low, and approached Spiegel. “I lost,” he announced.

“Tell me about your game,” Spiegel said. Sebastian flopped into the chair and handed her his notepad, where he’d recorded all the moves for both players in the game.

Sebastian explained that the other guy was simply better. “He had good skills,” he said. “Good strategies.”

And this is the point where many of us would simply say something along the lines of “did you do your best?,” in which case the likely response is “Yes.” Everyone is at least let off the hook. The teacher for ensuring students try their best, the student for having lost to someone better. Spiegel did not take this approach.

“Well, let’s see,” said Spiegel as she started to re-create the game on a chess board. At one point Sebastian fell into a trap. His opponent quickly pounced and took a pawn just four moves into the game. He was already down a piece.

Spiegel looked at him. “How long did you spend on that move,” she asked.

“Two seconds.”

Spiegel’s face tensed. “We did not bring you here so that you could spend two seconds on a move,” she said with an edge in her voice. In the face of this obvious challenge to what he did, Sebastian looked down. “Sebastian!” He looked up. “This is pathetic. If you continue to play like this, I’m going to withdraw you from the tournament, and you can just sit here with your head down for the rest of the weekend. Two seconds is not slow enough.”

Her voice grew more understanding. “Look, if you make a mistake, that’s okay. But you do something without even thinking about it? That’s not okay. I’m very, very, very upset to be seeing such a careless and thoughtless game.”

Then the storm passed. Spiegel resumed moving pieces and examining the game. She pointed out his good moves. “Very clever,” she said when he took the knight. As the game progressed, Spiegel praised his good ideas and asked him to come up with alternatives to others. “You were playing in some ways an excellent game,” she told him, “and then once in a while, you moved superfast and you did something really stupid. If you can stop doing that, you’re going to do very, very well.”

By the thirty-fifth move, Sebastian recovered completely from his early errors. The position on the board favored him. He pushed his queen forward, checking the white king. His opponent countered, drawing a pawn up to block the path. Sebastian moved his queen ahead: check. His opponent moved his king one square out of the queen’s range.

Rather than keep the pressure on, Sebastian went for an easy score: taking a white pawn with his queen. But in this move he had missed the threat. On the other side of the board, his opponent took his bishop and Sebastian’s advantage started to slip away.

“You took the pawn?” Spiegel asked. “Come on. What’s a better move?”

Sebastian didn’t answer.

“What about check?” Spiegel suggested. Sebastian stared at the board evaluating the move.

“Think about it,” Spiegel said. “Remember, when I ask you a question, you don’t have to answer right away. But you do have to be right.”

Suddenly a light went on his head. “I could win the queen,” he said.

Spiegel looked at him and said “Show me.”

Sebastian made the moves, understanding how one more check would have saved his bishop and sealed the game.

“This is the thing,” Spiegel said, moving the pieces back to the point where they were when Sebastian had gone for the easy pawn. “Think back on this moment. When you made this move,”— she captured the white pawn, as Sebastian had done—“ you lost the game. If you had made this move,”— she put the white king in check—“ you would have won the game.” She leaned back in her chair, her gaze fixed on Sebastian. “It’s okay if the loss hurts you a little,” she said. “You should feel bad. You’re a talented player, but you have to slow down and think more. Because now you have”— she checked her watch—“ four hours until the next game, which means that you have four hours to think about the fact that you got beat by this kid.” She tapped the board. “All because of this one time when you could have slowed down, but you didn’t.”

* * *

A version of that story appears in Paul Tough’s incredible book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. Spiegel’s story is straight out of Hollywood — inner-city teacher and low-income students, against all odds beating the pants off private school students. Often when you look into these stories, you find an asterisk. But in this case, Tough “couldn’t find one.”

Take a look at this tournament, held only a few months before the tournament that Sebastian Garcia was playing in:

Kindergarten Oak Hall School, a private school in Gainesville, Florida
First grade SciCore Academy, a private school in New Jersey
Second grade Dalton School, a private school in New York City
Third grade Hunter College Elementary, an exam school in New York City
Fourth grade Tie between SciCore Academy and Stuart Hall School for Boys, a Catholic school in New Orleans
Fifth grade Regnart Elementary, a public school in Cupertino, California, home of Apple and dozens of software companies
Ninth grade San Benito Veterans Memorial Academy, in southern Texas, a public school whose student body is mostly Hispanic and low income
Tenth grade Horace Mann, a private school in New York City
Eleventh grade Solomon Schechter, a private school in a New York City suburb
Twelfth grade Bronx Science, an exam school in New York City

With the exception of Grade nine, the winning team, “came from a private school, an exam school, a parochial school, or a public school populated by the children of Apple engineers,” Tough writes.

Except, that is, for middle school grades, the space where Elizabeth Spiegel teaches.

Sixth grade IS 318, a low-income public school in Brooklyn
Seventh grade IS 318, a low-income public school in Brooklyn
Eighth grade IS 318, a low-income public school in Brooklyn

These students didn’t win just one grade; they won every grade they entered. “The roster of schools they beat,” Tough writes, “reads like a wealthy parent’s wish list of the most desirable private schools in the country: Trinity, Collegiate, Spence, Dalton, and Horace Mann in New York City, and exclusive private schools in Boston, Miami, and Greenwich, Connecticut.”

The chess program at IS 318 is one of the best in the country because it teaches students how to think.

…they win tournaments because of what Elizabeth Spiegel was sitting in Union B doing that April afternoon: taking eleven-year-old kids, like Sebastian Garcia, who know a little chess but not a lot, and turning them, move by painstaking move, into champions.

“Most of the major academic studies of chess miss much that is essential to the way that chess-player thinks and feels,” Jonathan Rowson wrote in his book The Seven Deadly Chess Sins. “They are guilty of thinking of chess as an almost exclusively cognitive pursuit, where moves are chosen, and positions understood only on the basis of mental patterns and inferences.” In reality, he wrote, if you want to become a great chess player, or even a good one, “your ability to recognize and utilize your emotions is every bit as important as the way you think.”

Most of us probably think that Spiegel was teaching the kids chess. Of course, she often passed along specific chess knowledge: how to weigh the comparative value of moves, etc. “But most of the time,” Tough writes, “it struck me whenever I watched (Elizabeth Spiegel) at work, what she was really doing was far simpler, and also far more complicated: she was teaching her students a new way to think.” More than that, she was teaching students how to think.

Two of the most important executive functions are cognitive flexibility and cognitive self-control. Cognitive flexibility is the ability to see alternative solutions to problems, to think outside the box, to negotiate unfamiliar situations. Cognitive self-control is the ability to inhibit an instinctive or habitual response and substitute a more effective, less obvious one. Both skills are central to the training Spiegel gives to her students. To prevail at chess, she says, you need a heightened ability to see new and different ideas: Which especially creative winning move have you overlooked? And which potentially lethal move of your opponent’s are you blindly ignoring? She also teaches them to resist the temptation to pursue an immediately attractive move, since that type of move (as Sebastian Garcia found out) often leads to trouble down the road. “Teaching chess is really about teaching the habits that go along with thinking,” Spiegel explained to me one morning when I visited her classroom. “Like how to understand your mistakes and how to be more aware of your thought processes.”

Before she was a full-time chess teacher, Spiegel taught an eighth-grade honors, English class. She taught them the same way she taught Sebastian: ruthlessly analyzing everything. She was teaching her English class on how to think.

When students turned in writing assignments, she went through each assignment sentence by sentence with each student, asking, Well, are you sure that’s the best way to say what you want to say? “They looked at me like I was insane,” she told me. “I would write them these long letters about what they’d written. It would take me the whole evening to do six or seven of them.”

Although her teaching style might not have been the right fit for English, this helped her better understand how to teach chess. Rather than follow a set curriculum, she decided to construct her calendar as she went, focusing “entirely on what her students knew and, more important, on what they didn’t know.”

For instance, she would take her students to a weekend tournament and notice that many of them were hanging pieces , meaning they were leaving pieces undefended, which made them easy targets. The following Monday, she would organize the whole class around how not to hang pieces, reconstructing the students’ flawed games on the green felt practice boards hung on hooks at the front of her classroom. Again and again, she would go over her students’ games, both individually and as a class, analyzing exactly where a player had gone wrong, what he could have done differently, what might have happened if he had made the better move, and playing out these counterfactual scenarios for several moves before returning to the moment of error.

Sensible though this process might sound, it’s actually a pretty unusual way to teach chess, or to learn it. “It’s uncomfortable to focus so intensely on what you’re bad at,” Spiegel told me. “So the way people usually study chess is they read a book about chess, which can be fun and often intellectually amusing, but it doesn’t actually translate into skill. If you really want to get better at chess, you have to look at your games and figure out what you’re doing wrong.”

Calibrated Meanness

At the heart of Spiegel’s job was a complex balancing act. She wanted to build up her students’ confidence, to make them believe in their own ability to overcome stronger rivals and master an impossibly complicated game. But the exigencies of her job— and the particularities of her personality— meant that she spent most of her time telling her students how they were messing up. It’s the basic narrative of all postgame chess analysis, in fact: You thought you had a good idea here, but you were wrong.

“I struggle with it all the time,” she told me one day when I visited her class. “Every day. It’s very high on my list of anxieties as a teacher. I feel like I’m very mean to the kids. It kills me sometimes, like I go home and I play through everything I said to every kid and I’m like, ‘What am I doing? I’m damaging the children.’”

After the 2010 girls’ national tournament (which IS 318 won), Spiegel wrote on her blog:

The first day and a half was pretty bad. I was on a complete rampage, going over every game and being a huge bitch all the time: saying things like “THAT IS COMPLETELY UNACCEPTABLE!!!” to 11-year-olds for hanging pieces or not having a reason for a move. I said some amazing things to kids, including “You can count to two, right? Then you should have seen that!!” and “If you are not going to pay more attention, you should quit chess, because you are wasting everyone’s time.” By the end of round three I was starting to feel like an abusive jerk and was about to give up and be fake nice instead. But then in round four everyone took more than an hour and started playing well. And I really believe that’s why we seem to win girls’ nationals sections pretty easily every year: most people won’t tell teenage girls (especially the together, articulate ones) that they are lazy and the quality of their work is unacceptable. And sometimes kids need to hear that, or they have no reason to step up.

Slowing down, examining impulses, and considering alternatives sound reasonable, but it’s “quite rare in contemporary American Schools.”

If you believe that your school’s mission or your job as a teacher is simply to convey information, then it probably doesn’t seem necessary to subject your students to that kind of rigorous self-analysis. But if you’re trying to help them change their character, then conveying information isn’t enough. And while Spiegel didn’t use the word character to describe what she was teaching, there was a remarkable amount of overlap between the strengths David Levin and Dominic Randolph emphasized and the skills that Spiegel tried to inculcate in her students. Every day, in the classroom and at tournaments, I saw Spiegel trying to teach her students grit, curiosity, self-control, and optimism.

How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character is an amazing book. Highly recommended.