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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)
  • Taylor Black

    distance athletic events, long books, meditation. all these have helped, but I think the core thing that has made “grit” my strong suit is a very strong sense of self. 

  • :Daniela*

    The only way, at least for me, to develop my capacity for grit is deep inner strength. I have to tell myself: “defeat resistence, Daniela, keep your attention in one thing, finish what you have started, avoid talking too much with yourself and just DO your work”, something like that. However, I have to use some web services or apps in order to do what I’ve scheduled. It’s the only way.

  • Madhu

    I think the the marshmallow test measures the “inverse” of concentration – how well can we distract ourselves from the marshmallow.
    But often our problem is not that we are overly focussed on something, but it is that we have a 1000 ways to distract ourselves, and NOT able to concentrate on something.
    So does this really measure self-control?

    Also, the second part of the article, where you talk about grit and tenacity, it boils down to the ability to focus and concentrate on one thing, and one thing only.

    Personally, I find it easier to NOT do something (not eat chips, not open a gift before time etc) than it is to DO something (go to gym etc)

    Is it the same for you guys as well?

  • Dimitri

    Excellent Article, thank you!

  • Joy Gallant

    I think ‘grit’ is the external quality demonstrating someone has discovered and chosen the quality of gratification they want to pursue.

    Sometimes I am bored and just want fluffy, shallow gratification of checking our social media accounts… and sometimes I remember that if I apply myself to a specific project with more focus, the personal satisfaction, accolades and possible career benefits of doing an excellent job far outweigh the shallow gratification of small distractions.

    I go to the gym, not because I always enjoy trudging there, getting sweaty and trudging back, but because I know how awesome I will feel when my body has had months of regular stress relief and can fit into that dress size I want.

    I think it all comes down to perspective… Investing in anything with regular commitment creates more more satisfying gratification than shallow distractions ever can.

  • Felix Uriah

    The sentence that struck me the most in your article: “People who accomplished great things,
    [Duckworth] noticed, often combined a passion for a single mission with
    an unswerving dedication to achieve that mission…” A single, clear mission. A clear vision of where I want to get to. That sentence made me realize, that for me, clarity of mission and passion for that mission has had the most effect on my grit exertion. When given a task I’m not passionate for at my day job, I start half-assing it if I run into difficulty, no matter how much I’d like the praise. When working on my own writing, lack of a clear destination for a project…or even for where I want to go in my career in general, had lead me to spinning in circles and jumping from idea to idea. But when the mission is clear and the passion is there — the doing of the project is not any easier — but the willingness to Do is suddenly in abundance. That’s made all the difference.

  • Lorinda3l

    I find this bit of research truly heartening. I am 54 years old and recently unemployed and finding a new job has been challenging. But I am tenacious. If I don’t succeed with one method, I try another. In both my personal and professional life I don’t give up. It’s served me well so far, I hope that continues.

  • John McDougle

    Duckworth’s definition of grit as “the perseverance and passion for a long-term goal,” doesn’t tally with the two elements quoted here of ‘not looking for a change and tenacity in the face of obstacles.

    Those two together are really just stubbornness, a vital and, I think, innate talent/flaw depending on the situation. Flexibility is just as useful a talent when circumstances are changing rapidly.

    Defining grit requires looking more closely at passion or desire. If those are strong enough, then grit can be developed through cultivating habits of hard work and concentration. If you love what you do and believe in it, then you will put up with a lot of cr*p to get where you want to go, whether it be in the army or in business or teaching.

  • Graham Watson

    This article and related research sits nicely with writings
    by Geoff Colvin – ‘Talent is Overrated’ ; Dan Coyle –‘The Talent Code’ ; Matthew
    Syed – ‘Bounce’; and Carol Dweck – – MindSet’ .

  • вебпромо

    Thank you for making this site very interesting! Keep going! You’re doing very well!

  • jkglei

    Thanks for the recommendations, Graham!

  • jkglei

    Glad to hear it, Lorinda. : )

  • jkglei

    Agreed, Joy. That reminds me of a nice David Foster Wallace quotation: “All hollow things are light.”

  • jkglei

    I think distraction and focus are two sides of the same coin. Distraction becomes an important skill when you need to AVOID temptation, but you can’t truly distract yourself without focusing on something else.

  • Patryk Les

    Your articles are always on time 99%. Thanks for “deep breath”

  • Christian Ray

    I am convicted. Very good article. Timely. 

  • Elizabeth Saunders

    Excellent, excellent article.

    Two important points that I’ve noticed in working with clients on habit change:

    1. Grit can be developed. It may be naturally easier for some than others. But just like weight lifting gradually increases our muscle strength so the proper practice of new habits can increase our mental grit.

    2. Positivity is essential. The biggest keys to pushing through when things are hard is confidence in yourself and hope for the future. The mental game of choosing a positive internal state even when the external evidence is negative is critical to sustained grit.

    To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • jkglei


  • jkglei

    That’s nice to hear. Glad we’re helping. : )

  • Guest

    Great article! To me, “Grit” goes hand and hand with confidence. Having the ability to continue on a project or task without being deterred by negative feedback or naysayers takes courage. 

  • jkglei

    Thanks for the comments. Agreed on all fronts. And I must say a good coach can help:… – you might know something about that, eh? ; )

  • Beth Cregan

    Great article! And just as interesting are the comments and discussion that follows. I wish I had read this a year ago when I launched my own business and started working from my home office. I was prepared for the freedom and flexibility but I wasn’t prepared for the tremendous responsibility of ‘staying on track’. It’s hard work and it’s a muscle I have to exercise everyday! Love your site. Always inspiring and timely! 

  • Brian Baquiran

    Grit can be trained. In a study with schoolchildren asked to do a challenging task, some were rewarded with phrases emphasizing the effort they put in, and others were rewarded with phrases emphasizing how smart they were to have completed the task. When asked to do another task, those kids that had been told “you must have worked really hard” were more likely to complete the task compared to those who were told “you’re so smart”.

    I’ll try to find the reference for the study.

  • jkglei

    You’re spot on, Brian. Here’s Jonah Lehrer writing about the study you mention:… – I wanted to include it in Part II of this series but I just didn’t end up having room. Glad you mentioned it!

  • Corrado

    All the teory it is based on one article from New Yorker? And what this say;grit is more important than talent. Why don’t they define “talent”? I can put all the grit in the  world I cannot run like Usain Bolt. I can put all the grit in the world I will never be creative as Leonard or even Matt Groenning. Yes with grit I can improve a lot of other things but to say it is more important than talent they shoudl define: more important in order to achieve what and what it is “talent”

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