Adobe-full-color Adobe-white Adobe-black logo-white Adobe-full Adobe Behance arrow-down arrow-down 2 arrow-right arrow-right 2 Line Created with Sketch. close-tablet-03 close-tablet-05 comment dropdown-close dropdown-open facebook instagram linkedin rss search share twitter


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)
  • GIngerWhiteArt

    At first glance of the boy looking intently at the marshmellow, I thought he was trying to cook it with his mind. Anyway, I took the test and yes, I am that gritty…gritty enough to cook a marshmellow with my mind. 😀 lol
    Although I am too gritty in my jack of all trades area. I pick too many projects and beat myself up trying to achieve great things in all of them. Not good for the grit, got to keep that stuff …uh…bubbling??
    So, yes, thanks for the article. Helpful reminder of goals I need to accomplish.

    (again with the grit already?)

  • Milesdjazz

    I had trouble finishing this article and focusing on its content because I kept eating a marshmellow that was sitting on a desk in front of me.

  • CameronGott

    Grit can be cultivated.  I think a common mistake is that people’s perception of grit or self-control is that is is a singular entity or product that “I don’t have but I need”, like that nice technical rain gear on the REI website or your neighbor’s new espresso maker.  Self control is not a new convenience to purchase.  It takes grit to get grit.  Self control is a result one gets from practicing a dynamic interaction of awareness (an immediate ‘brain stim’ like reading a blog and a real completion available like writing a blog), and engagement (practicing writing the blog and returning to write the blog to a completion point).  Grit cultivation doesn’t have to be hard and it can be fun.  But it will never be convenient.

  • jkglei

    Well put, Cameron. I couldn’t agree more!

  • Paul

    Great article.
    Grit can be learned, but it takes effort. And time.
    But since the earnings can be pretty interesting, you better start practising now.

  • jenn mahoney

    This explains why asians are good at math

  • Shauna

    “Is grit an inborn ability, just like intelligence or talent? Or, can grit be cultivated?”…….from my perspective grit is an inborn ability and is cultivated by us.   it’s one in the same thing, not an either or.   Once someone realizes their true calling in life (inborn in all of us) grit naturally kicks in to help persevere the dream to fruition.  Therefore grit is naturally cultivated by following ones heart, which is already inborn.

    I think there are three things that come to mind regarding achieving success.  Success is following your passion, don’t indulge negative defeating thought patterns, and know yourself well enough to makes choices that reflect who you truly are.  It doesn’t matter what you’ve been told about yourself, or learned in school, or tested on test, or how you compare to your peers, or even how you performed yesterday.  Success is if your choice in this moment is feeding what you love.  

  • fred flux

    this has always bugged me. some kids, like myself, would have been fine with one in the first place, and would have preferred, that perhaps someone else had the other. it’s such black and white logic, that very little understanding of nuance can be derived from. are we all nothing but nuance in the first place?

    also in today’s world, adderall would dramatically change this entire theory. on adderall i’m a machine. off adderall i’m a dreamer. left / right brain parity is FAR FAR FAR more important than grit, “intelligence” or anything else these studies conclude. This is part of what made Steve Jobs successful, his ability to switch gears and see the nuances and interconnectedness of things.

    all one need do is look at successful high school and college drop outs to shatter this theory. They have drive, but absolutely no desire to follow a path designed in some antiquated school / social system.

    even the comment twitter is the new marshmallow is absurd. firstly it depends on how you use it… are you consuming, that is, taking the world and all it’s rabbit holes in and gaining an advantage in your interests by filtering and so on, or are you providing content, so to speak to your followers, or using it passively to stay in touch with friends. there are many nuances to this and facebook for people who understand the potential good of social media interactions.

    this sort of marshmallow premise overall seems so antiquated, much like the way there are four different classrooms for four different subjects. is not all of history intertwined with multi faceted scenarios that all at once, used math, language, science and social awareness. the story of Columbus coming to america alone involved every facete of these, yet no one every talks about the technology and mathematics that made his journey possible, along with the social domination that spain wanted at the time, and the economic factors that causes the journey in the first place. 5 subjects in one story, that would engage the whole room, but god forbid anyone teach it that way. nope black and white is much easier. 

    to hell with nuance. you either want it now, or are just disinterested, desperate or greedy enough to think i can get more out of this if i play their game. sad really.

  • Albertng28

    it would be nice to see a follow up article on that last question the author has asked -> is it possible to develop grit? from the facts used in the article about the marshmallow experiment it almost seems like grit is largely an innate feature, but I am sure this may not entirely be the case

  • jkglei

    The second article in the series is here:

  • Joshua Bull

    This was excellent.

  • lolol

    bitch suck dick

  • mr.hroanbitchnigga

    mr.horan is a bitch

  • MeandYou

    I want to suck your pussy hole, i want to finger your butt and rub on your big juicy titties. ima stick my big fuckin cock in your bung holy-o

  • Matthew

    Great article. It definitely speaks to the part of me that knows it’s time to exhibit the grit.

  • nathan

    What about your circumstances? Say you take a kid from a ghetto with a high score on the grit scale and you take a kid from an Ivy League family with a low grit score. At the end of the day is it really going to be the grit that makes the person successful? And when I use the term successful, it is in the societal viewpoint of success. 

  • Susan Ladue

    I agree that grit is the key factor in success.  If an ambitious person is doing something he/she loves, perseverance might not feel like grit, but in the end you have to work hard to make it, and there are inevitably moments when you feel like your only resource is will power.  People as different as Michael Jordan, Hillary Clinton, Meryl Streep, and David Balducci may be extraordinarily talented, but we would never have heard of them if they hadn’t pushed their way “grittily” through the boring, contrary, seemingly impossible moments.

  • Cladonia

    This is an excellent article I think, partly because it provides a balanced framework for the issues. Another way to look at them is through the lens of “invention and convention.”


  • Vera

    Perserverance is a necessary quality for succes on all social or intellectual levels but it must be accompanied by a good intellect or some kind of talent and sense of reality. Grit is not enough. You can persue a modelling career but if you don’t have a body…?
    How I did it? I was brought up by immigrant parents who illiterate. My father gave me a lot of confirmation and encouraged me to follow my dreams and he explained there were no boundaries if you have the intellect, work hard and have integrity. My mother still does not give me any confirmation she never did. She waved and waves all my worries with oh that’s not so bad etc… My father died 10 years ago. My mother lives. My mother was never a rolemodel for me in a sense of wanting to become like her. My father was but now I am my own rolemodel. I believe that we are born with some personality traits: even integrity. But it’s my opinion that in my case the fact that I had the opportunity to see and observe two different parental characters has bbroadend my horizon. Confirmation worked but the lack of it is still an issue because it cripples my strength. My perseverance is there lying in me but my lack of confidence kills it. Nevertheless I always try to find my best way in pursuing the best possible for me my children and husband. I became a MD specialising in neurosurgery. In relation to my parents it feels like if my kids will tell me later that they are going to the moon or something like that.

  • sam hammer

    Grit and learning the hard way…


  • Mark

    The simple answer is yes.  That’s how someone born in the ghetto can graduate form a Ivy League school.  Most people from Ivy League schools don’t accomplish much…..then there are some graduates that do.

  • Ulrich Weihler

    Great series. Want to contribute two sources:… and

  • KylieRyan

    Oprah Winfrey.

  • sana khan

    Thanks for sharing this.
    Kids Games

  • cirsqutri

    But what if the kids were watching their caloric intake and thought one marshmellow was sufficient.

blog comments powered by Disqus

More articles on Productivity

Illustration by the Project Twins
Female Athlete Gymnastics by Gun Karlsson
Painting Woman By Emily Eldridge
Two figures looking at painting