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How Do You Spell Success? G-R-I-T

by on October 21, 2013 6:50 AM

I was chatting with a friend recently and the subject of success came up. What are the factors in being successful?

Is it personality? Is it ability? Talent? Is it luck?

As parents, we hope to provide a foundation for our children so they can experience success in their relationships, in their careers -- so they can find health and happiness. As teachers and employers, we want to support success.

"It's grit" he said. "Grit?" I asked.


University of Pennsylvania researcher Angela Duckworth investigated what she has calls "grit" as a factor in success. According to Duckworth and her colleagues, the passion and motivation to continue working towards a personal goal -- grit -- may be the best predictor of success.

Using a variety of population samples, Duckworth and her fellow researchers have attempted to sift out grit as a factor in success. From national spelling bee contestants to cadets at West Point, Duckworth and others have concluded that it is more than IQ or grades or even physical fitness that predicts success.

Two people. Same skill set. Similar in ability. Similar IQ. Grit may be what makes the difference.

Working hard is a known factor in achievement but working longer and staying with the effort may be the key. Like the story of the tortoise and the hare, it was likely the tortoise's slow plodding along, ignoring the distractions, and staying focused on the finish line that resulted in the win over the faster yet less focused hare. The tortoise had grit.

The $64,000 question remains. Can we teach grit? As parents, educators or employers, we ask ourselves, how does one come by grit?

Some will argue that grit is an attribute of our personality. Our nature and DNA have a lot do to with our direction in life and our response to what life throws at us. Case in point is my daughter who, since she learned to talk, cannot be derailed if she gets her mind on something. She has always been able to focus and push herself (and push us to get what she wants) sometimes to the point of driving us crazy. We used to say "get out of her way" if she wanted something. We now watch in awe as she manages 3 jobs, her social life and her academics as she finishes her senior year at Penn State. The kid has grit.

Others will say that grit is a learned response. We watch those around us and learn commitment by seeing the commitment and effort of others. Those folks would say that my daughter learned her grit from watching us or by receiving positive reinforcement for self-motivation and self-directed behaviors.

I have asked my husband "Where does she get that drive?" He looks at me, shakes his head and says "graduate school." I laugh, knowing that he's referring to my graduate degree which I earned around my full-time job. In the 6 years it took me to finish that degree, I got married, got promoted and finished my thesis. I walked across the stage at commencement in Eisenhower Auditorium, with my husband and toddler in the audience and Baby #2 on the way. Looking back, I'm not sure if that was grit or just stupidity. Quitting was never an option.

Using a self-report "grit scale", individuals are asked about staying on task, how likely they are to give up or switch foci, etc. People with higher levels of education rate higher on the grit scale. People with higher grit scores report fewer career changes than their peers with lower scores.

The studies on grit suggest that age is positively correlated to grit (i.e. the older we are, the grittier we become). Researchers have hypothesized that age as a factor in grit may, in fact, be environmental. That is, the Greatest Generation may have learned that commitment is what leads to success. Conversely the plugged in Millenial generation are all about immediacy and the here and now and may not have learned that hanging in there matters. It could just be that we learn the benefits of following through as we mature.

As with much of the stuff that comes out of research, how do we apply the concept of grit to day to day life? What does it mean? It means that we need to train ourselves to look for passion and commitment as well as "talent." Directing resources and support in the direction of a child or a student who shows motivation and passion for a subject or an activity is as important as supporting the gifted or talented student.

It likely means that short bursts of activity or limited, encapsulated assessments may not be a good predictor of success. In other words, a drills test or a timed run might not have picked up the grit that we saw from the Penn State football team in a 4th overtime. By focusing on a short interview, team try-outs or other "snap shot" evaluations, we may miss out on those who bring commitment and effort (and ultimately success) to the classroom, the sports field or the workplace.

An individual's ability to follow through and "stick with it" over the long term may be the best predictors of success. For many, success comes down to grit.

Patty Kleban is an instructor at Penn State, mother of three and a community volunteer. She is a Penn State Alumna. Readers of State College Magazine voted her Best Writer of 2010 and 2012. She and her family live in Patton Township. Her views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State.
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