Sunday, June 5, 2016

Duckworth, Grit

Grit is one of those books I thought had been published long before it actually appeared in print. The idea central to Angela Duckworth’s book (Scribner, 2016)—that grit, a combination of passion and perseverance, is the best predictor of high achievement—was popularized before she herself could properly explain it to laymen and defend it against criticism. Duckworth, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, got a MacArthur “genius” award in 2013, and by 2014 school reformers were already clamoring to teach kids to have grit, citing her research.

Finally we have the book, an instant New York Times bestseller, and it was worth the wait. The thesis may be straightforward, but Duckworth is quick to qualify it where necessary. She admits that talent is a plus and that we aren’t all equally talented. But, she argues, “as much as talent counts, effort counts twice.” Here’s how. Talent x effort = skill, and skill x effort = achievement. That is, “talent is how quickly your skills improve when you invest effort. Achievement is what happens when you take your acquired skills and use them.” Of course, having a great coach or teacher matters, as does sheer luck. But “when you consider individuals in identical circumstances, what each achieves depends on just two things, talent and effort. Talent—how fast we improve in skill—absolutely matters. But effort factors into the calculations twice, not once.”

Duckworth illustrates her points with anecdotes, some from her own life. For instance, as a second term freshman at Harvard she enrolled in neurobiology, a course for which she was obviously not qualified. Despite studying “madly,” she got an F on her first exam and another F on the midterm. Her TA strongly urged her to drop the course so she wouldn’t have a failing grade on her transcript. But, with only the final exam remaining, she resolved to stick it out—and, in fact, to become a biology major with a concentration in neurobiology. She writes: “For the rest of the semester, I not only tried harder, I tried things I hadn’t done before. I went to every teaching assistants’ office hours. I asked for extra work. I practiced doing the most difficult problems under time pressure—mimicking the conditions under which I needed to produce a flawless performance. I knew my nerves were going to be a problem at exam time, so I resolved to attain a level of mastery where nothing could surprise me. By the time the final exam came around, I felt like I could have written it myself. I aced the final. My overall grade in the course was a B—the lowest grade I’d get in four years, but, ultimately, the one that made me the proudest.” Talk about grit!

Throughout her book Duckworth describes in some detail research that, though sometimes tangential to her own, supports her thesis. She writes about Carol Dweck’s work on fixed vs. growth mindsets. She cites the claim of her colleague Philip Tetlock in Superforecasting that “The strongest predictor of rising in the ranks of superforecasters is perpetual beta, the degree to which one is committed to belief updating and self-improvement. It is roughly three times as powerful a predictor as its closest rival, intelligence.”

Grit is an inspiring book that blends solid research with good storytelling. I couldn’t put it down.

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