Sarah K. Stephens

Sarah K. Stephens


Grittiness is one of the relatively new watchwords in my field of developmental psychology that has crossed the academic/popular press barrier and become a headline-grabbing term, and for good reason.

It comes from Angela Lee Duckworth’s lab at the University of Pennsylvania, who defines grit as the capacity to continue “effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity, and plateaus in progress” (Duckworth, Peterson, Matthews, & Kelly, 2007, p. 1088).

This ability to persevere despite obstacles has been linked to a variety of positive outcomes, particularly when it is paired with a passionate approach to the goal. Duckworth’s work indicates that grittiness is a better predictor of success than talent or IQ—in fact, that was itself a big headline a few years ago.

Her data to support this finding come from a variety of studies—examination of predictors of cadet retention at West Point Academy, performance at the Scripps National Spelling Bee, and novice teacher effectiveness measures.

Photograph via Geran de Klerk

In other words, there is a decent amount of data to indicate the value of grit as a character trait in predicting positive outcomes in life. When first reading Duckworth’s literature, I found it resonated strongly with what I’d come to see as the essential experiences in my own childhood.

My parents were strong in their emphasis on effort over ability. Consistently over my childhood my parents made it clear that difficulties and setbacks in my goals would be temporary, as long as I addressed the mistakes and worked harder the next time opportunity arrived.

Whether my parents realized it or not, they were imparting the wisdom of Growth Mindset, a term first coined by Carol Dweck, which is the belief that effort is more powerful than innate talent. Dweck and Duckworth both note that one way to grow grit is to emphasize a child’s work rather than their inherent skill.

By doing so—for example, praising a child for the hours they spent practicing their instrument before a solo rather than opting for a statement of what a great musician they are—encourages the child to view their potential as malleable and under their control. They can achieve a better math score, greater fluency with free throws, or higher quality friendships if they work at it.

Although the importance of grit is often connected to the developmental period of childhood, the value of this character trait is not limited to any particular age.

In adulthood, it’s easy to encounter personal and professional examples of both grittiness and its opposite. Working in an academic setting, I encounter a broad group of people each semester as students in my classes.

As a result, I regularly get to interact with individuals who embody grit and those who don’t. I can usually identify them in office hours after the first exam scores are returned to students.

One group of students arrives to office hours dismayed but also energized—they did not perform to their expectations, and they want to troubleshoot their study habits in order to improve their performance for the next exam (I love these types of meetings, by the way).

Photograph via Geran de Klerk

Another group of students arrives for similar reasons—they are disappointed in their earned grade—but they begin the meeting with some version of the statement, “I’m just a bad test-taker.” To which I reply, almost invariably, “And you never will be if you keep telling yourself that.”

Duckworth would argue that defining yourself by a quality as if it is permanent, rather than flexible, is a disservice to yourself.

I’m bad at math. I have a tin ear. I have no coordination.

Each of these skills—mathematic ability, musical skill, and athletic performance—can be grown with deliberate practice. There’s plenty of scientific data and anecdotal evidence we can often pull from our own lives to demonstrate this principle. But the important word there is ‘deliberate’—it takes effort and time for the skill to emerge.

So as we find ourselves in a month that is often replete with admonitions to do something new, make a resolution to change, and challenge yourself with something different, let me argue for a slightly different resolution.

Examine the skills you want but have written off as beyond yourself or those you’ve let lapse because you felt you weren’t making any progress. Pull that manuscript out of the drawer and have at it. Try that macaron recipe again. Re-lace your running shoes. Update your dating profile. And then come up with a plan for how you are going to work at it. Deliberately.

Take your time. Give yourself permission to fail, and then give yourself permission to try again. Is there something to be gained from stubbornly pursuing those passions once again? I would argue a definitive, “Yes.”

Duckworth, A. L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M. D., & Kelly, D. R. (2007). Grit: Perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92, 1087-1101.

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More About Sarah K. Stephens: Sarah K. Stephens earned her Doctorate in Developmental Psychology and teaches a variety of human development courses as a lecturer at Penn State University. Although Fall and Spring find her in the classroom, she remains a writer year-round. Her short stories have appeared in Five on the Fifth, The Voices Project, The Indianola Review, and the Manawaker Studio’s Flash Fiction Podcast. Her debut novel, A Flash of Red, will be released in Winter 2016 by Pandamoon Publishing. Follow her on Twitter or Facebook and read more of her writing on her blog.