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The Future of Self-Improvement, Part I: Grit Is More Important Than Talent

What if long-term success doesn't really have that much to do with your "potential"? A look at recent research that debunks talent in favor of true grit.

In the late ’60s, Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel performed a now-iconic experiment called the Marshmallow Test, which analyzed the ability of four year olds to exhibit “delayed gratification.” Here’s what happened: Each child was brought into the room and sat down at a table with a delicious treat on it (maybe a marshmallow, maybe a donut). The scientists told the children that they could have a treat now, or, if they waited 15 minutes, they could have two treats.

All of the children wanted to wait. (Who doesn’t want more treats?) But many couldn’t. After just a few minutes or less, their resolve would break down and they would eat the marshmallow. But some kids were better at delaying gratification: They were able to hold out for the full 15 minutes.

When the researchers subsequently checked in on these same children in high school, it turned out that those with more self-control — that is, those who held out for 15 minutes — were better behaved, less prone to addiction, and scored higher on the SAT.

Recounting Mischel’s research in an excellent New Yorker article (that this piece could not exist without), Jonah Lehrer writes that, after observing hundreds of hours of videotape of the children, Mischel concluded that the kids who resisted temptation used “strategic allocation of attention”:

Instead of getting obsessed with the marshmallow — the “hot stimulus” — the patient children distracted themselves by covering their eyes, pretending to play hide-and-seek underneath the desk, or singing songs from “Sesame Street.” Their desire wasn’t defeated — it was merely forgotten. “If you’re thinking about the marshmallow and how delicious it is, then you’re going to eat it,” Mischel says. “The key is to avoid thinking about it in the first place.”

It’s not difficult to see how self-control would be predictive of success in certain spheres. It means trading short-term gratification for long-term goals, skipping the temptation to go to the movies and working on your novel instead. But that’s a relatively simple example — one that makes the decision to exercise self-control, or not, easy to see.In reality, we are faced with hundreds of these “tradeoff decisions” within the span of a single day. As the thoughtful blogger James Shelley has written, very often when we talk about the skill of “productivity” what we are really talking about is “self-control” — the disciplined ability to choose to do one thing at the cost of not doing another (perhaps more tempting thing).

Very often when we talk about the skill of ‘productivity’ what we are really talking about is ‘self-control.’

As the hierarchy of the traditional workplace breaks down, we are all gaining more freedom and flexibility. More and more, we can set our own long-term goals, we can determine our own work schedules, we can work at an office or at a coffee shop, we can make our own decisions about what we focus on today, and what we focus on tomorrow. But this “freedom” also brings responsibility — a responsibility that, I would argue, demands a vastly increased capacity for self-control.

In essence, Twitter is the new marshmallow. (Or Facebook, or Foursquare. Pick your poison.) At any given moment, a host of such “treats” await us. Emails, social media messages, text messages — discrete little bits of unexpected and novel information that activate our brain’s seeking circuitry, titillating it and inciting the desire to search for more. Our ability to resist such temptations, and focus on the hard work of creative labor, is part and parcel of pushing great ideas forward.

And yet: Self-control isn’t the whole story.

Intrigued by what qualities would most accurately predict outstanding achievement, Harvard researcher Angela Duckworth picked up where Walter Mischel left off. As she outlines in this TEDx talk, Duckworth found that self-control is an excellent predictor of your ability to follow through on certain types of difficult tasks — staying on your diet, studying for a test, not checking your email — but it’s not the most important factor when it comes to predicting success at “extremely high-challenge achievement.”

Duckworth was also suspicious of qualities like talent and intelligence as reliable predictors for remarkable achievement. And with good reason: Way back in 1926, a psychologist named Catherine Morris Cox published a study of 300 recognized geniuses, from Leonardo Da Vinci to Gottfried Leibniz to Mozart to Charles Darwin to Albert Einstein. Cox, who had worked with Lewis M. Terman to develop the Stanford-Binet IQ test, was curious what factors lead to “realized genius,” those people who would really make their mark on the world. After reading about the lives of hundreds historic geniuses, Cox identified a host of qualities, beyond raw intelligence, that predicted “greatness.”

Studying Cox’s findings, Duckworth isolated two qualities that she thought might be a better predictor of outstanding achievement:

  1. The tendency not to abandon tasks from mere changeability. Not seeking something because of novelty. Not “looking for a change.”
  2. The tendency not to abandon tasks in the face of obstacles. Perseverance, tenacity, doggedness.

Duckworth boiled these two characteristics down to a quality she called “grit,” defined as “the perseverance and passion for a long-term goal,” and set about testing it as a predictor for outstanding achievement. Here’s a recent New York Times article summarizing Duckworth’s research:

People who accomplished great things, [Duckworth] noticed, often combined a passion for a single mission with an unswerving dedication to achieve that mission, whatever the obstacles and however long it might take.
…She developed a test to measure grit, which she called the Grit Scale. It is a deceptively simple test, in that it requires you to rate yourself on just 12 questions, from “I finish whatever I begin” to “I often set a goal but later choose to pursue a different one.” It takes about three minutes to complete, and it relies entirely on self-report — and yet when Duckworth took it out into the field, she found it was remarkably predictive of success.

At Penn, high grit ratings allowed students with relatively low college-board scores to nonetheless achieve high G.P.A.’s. Duckworth and her collaborators gave their grit test to more than 1,200 freshman cadets as they entered 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 at the end of Beast Barracks, the more accurate predictor of which cadets persisted and which ones dropped out turned out to be Duckworth’s 12-item grit questionnaire.

Duckworth carried out a similar “success study” with kids who competed in spelling bees. Again, it turned out that grit — in this case, the ability to persist and passionately pursue your goal of winning the spelling bee whatever it takes — was the best predictor of success. Verbal IQ scores were a factor, but they were inversely related to the grit scores. In essence, the smarter kids just didn’t try as hard, but still did pretty well sometimes. Self-control was also an influential factor, but not as reliable a predictor of success as grit, and not a completely necessary factor. That is, there was a subset of kids who had poor self-control but a lot of grit, who still performed very well.If it was ever in question, we can now rest assured that dogged hard work is the cornerstone of remarkable achievement. That said, Duckworth’s findings still raise some nagging questions: Is grit an inborn ability, just like intelligence or talent? Or, can grit be cultivated?

We’ll continue to examine the innerworkings of remarkable achievement in Part II of this article series. In the meantime, you can take Duckworth’s Grit Scale Test here.

What Do You Think?

Can we develop our capacity for grit? How have you done it?

More Posts by Jocelyn K. Glei

A writer and the founding editor of 99U, Jocelyn K. Glei is obsessed with how to make great creative work in the Age of Distraction. Her latest book is Unsubscribe: How to Kill Email Anxiety, Avoid Distraction, and Get Real Work Done. Her previous works include the 99U’s own bestselling book series: Manage Your Day-to-Day, Maximize Your Potential, and Make Your Mark. Follow her @jkglei.

Comments (110)
  • cirsqutri

    Or, what about the kids who held out for two marshmellows and still just ate the one, they must be “crazy”.

  • cirsqutri

    This article is completely groundless. Especially since it is based on a psychological study in the United States during the 1960’s. “Grit”, how profound. I think its time to “seek” a different term…maybe dedication or persistence, but Grit? The military test is particularly interesting. Questions like “I finish whatever I begin?” Gee talk about a black and white question. A self aware individual might decide that the activity they are engaged in is simply boring and begin another task. The ones who dropped out of military training sound like the intelligent ones of the group. They may have recognized that they were being trained to kill and thus had enough self awareness and compassion to take a different path even if that path was indirectly chosen for them. I am coming to the conclusion that the author’s interpretation of grit is very different than Lehrer’s.

  • benziengm

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  • brettlee

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  • jkglei

    Hi David. The research mentioned in this article is by Angela Duckworth and was conducted quite recently.

  • Alice Sercy

    omg u sceptic u. good point but when u had already acheived what had leaving behind future generations clues of the future is far from being unfinished work,imHO

  • Derrick Richards

    lol what? Why does it take you so long to eat a marshmallow? One bite, done.

  • Natalie

    Found it very funny that at the end of the article, it suggests that we can follow the author on twitter – anyone up for a high on anti-self-control dopamine?

  • sthrendyle

    I just finished Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit, which takes the ‘grit philosophy’ and utilizes many different examples of people who have changed their lives – generally for the better – by changing bad habits. It’s a good read, but one troubling aspect I have with this whole thesis is that it ignores some basis circumstances many of us find ourselves in. For instance, unless you really know what you want to do when you finish high school (other that ‘Question Authority’ of course) – you will likely take some general arts or sciences degree, graduate with a ton of student debt, and pretty much be strangled into your failure to make a sound decision earlier in your life. But… who really knows WHAT they want to be at that age? Socio/culturally, males, especially, just plain DON’T KNOW. In the 70s when I went to university, most of us just seemed to ‘fall in’ to something and before we knew it, 15 years or so had passed. (Oh, and BTW, the economy at that time really sucked. Seriously. Just as bad as today, for the most part. And a lot of us did not want to toil for The Man, anyway). Still, developing good habits and grit is definitely a good thing (this used to be under the term ‘common sense’). But magazine and book writers seem to be able to make dough from these trends.

  • sthrendyle

    I realize, though, that the 70s might have been a bit of a golden age, though. Much of what we do in life is dictated by demographics as well.

  • Sari Delmar

    Great article.

    I am wondering as an employer if there is a way to test grit in the interview process. I try to ask questions that give an idea of their work ethic and productivity but in an interview process everyone just says what they think you want to hear to make themselves look good. I even find references the same as they are the ones provided to you from that person, so they of course are going to say good things. I listen to how they answer questions and pay attention to how they address emails and how fast they reply when setting up the interview but again, it’s not much to judge by.

    In our office a serious level is grit is needed and I find that someone I think can really pull through is indeed not ready or never had to deal with this amount of work once they are immersed in our office. At that point they are already in the door and thats another can of worms… but is there a way to test it honestly before you hire!?

  • Cara

    “Tell me about a time you finished a task facing many obstacles” and dig deep into the experience so you can see scale and scope of the challenges. “Tell me about a project that took years to accomplish, what did you learn from the process” and dig deep into challenges they faced and determine how difficult it was to overcome. “Within work and without, tell me about an accomplishment that took you months or years to accomplish and the setback you had to overcome.” These types of questions, if you ask enough of them and go deep into their responses, you will see the depth of their grit. Previous and current experience is the best predictor for future experiences.

  • Felipe Veiga

    One of the best articles I have read on the web in a long time. Congratulations Jocelyn for writing it and sharing with us.
    Interestingly enought, the “grit” is clearly recognized and even more valued in other fields other than science, such as soccer and other sports.

  • AndresM

    These kind of topics are the real difference, I love to see that it is finally becoming an important issue to discuss about them. Great!.

  • Christine Adcock

    If you want to read a good book on Grit, check out Samuel Smiles book Self-help. He documented cases throughout English history of people who show all these qualities. Most examples are from the 1700s and 1800s. You can see through the examples the dawn of industrialization. He was one of the first known researchers I’ve encountered on Grit.

  • yang simon

    great article!

  • katie

    Really interesting article, and seems to be in line with other research (10,000 hours to be an expert etc). But what I think is missing is the other perspective… What’s the opportunity cost of having the grit to succeed against all odds? Perhaps, sometimes quitting might make you a happier or nicer person. For example, there are definitely many examples of individuals who accomplish great things, but at the cost of being depressed and/or horrible to other people.

    Not saying that quitting’s better or anything, just that balance might be needed…

  • Jose Santiago

    I agree with much of what you’re saying. I think that seeing “grit” as the issue is a distortion of what’s happening in a person’s psyche. Far more important is the individual’s identity–how he or she sees who he/she is, and the conclusions they come to about that, such as what is possible for them in their life. There is much more going on than “grit” and curiously, seeing it as an issue of grit is, to my mind, based on a distraction…

  • liouba

    ” Is grit an inborn ability, just like intelligence or talent? Or, can grit be cultivated?”. Well I personally think (and much more convinced after watching Cal Newport’s talk called “Follow your passion is a bad advice”, that grit, just like talent (or intelligence), is mostly not an inborn ability. We all have some amount of grit/talent/intelligence, some just have less of it and some – more. It is about being able to realize that it might be your grit (or more precisely -not enough of it) that is holding you back to succeed at whatever that you want to succeed at. And then once having realized that -work on strengthening it. World class talents weren’t born talented or intelligent -its years of hard work and grit that brought them to the top.

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  • John

    I completely agree with this article. Grit is something we teach our boys every day. I work at a boarding and day school called Saint Stanislaus in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi where we went from a 0-9 record in 2012 to a 10-0 record in 2013. The team had most of the same players both years so we attribute the miraculous turnaround to our boys’ grit. We even wrote a story about it here:

    Go Rocks!

  • Hunni

    Definitely try the website where you can let them go on the web and take a grit test, Go to Google and type in “take a grit test”…It will be the very first one…‎
    See you like it :)) hope this helps

  • Nindec

    Actually, yes, this is what many studies have found. Grit is a solid determinant of success. Privileged youth actually struggled more than children who had very challenging lives but persevered despite.

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