Do You Have Enough Grit to Succeed?

One type of grit scale…

A prior post (“What Does it Take to Become a Certified Black Belt?”) explored the issue of how to develop mastery of the skills of a performance improvement professional. A new book by Paul Tough titled  “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character” although it is focused on children, touches on an important aspect, in my experience, of success on the job for adults. Margaret Wente reviewed the book recently in The Globe and Mail and made this observation:

How much influence do parents really have on their children’s success in life? My own view has always been: far less than they think, and far less than the experts tell them. I’ve always thought that how your kids turn out depends a lot more on their genes and their IQ than whether you played them Baby Beethoven or sent them to all-day kindergarten. Various experiments with education reform tend to confirm my fatalistic view. Every so often, some shiny new idea comes along – self-esteem! prizes for all! multiple learning styles! – that is supposed to turn every failing kid into a winner. None of these fads appears to have the least effect on student achievement.

Paul Tough is a realist about all this. But he is also an optimist. He has spent more time with disadvantaged kids than any journalist I know, and he has learned a lot about the factors of success. He has learned how two kids of equal abilities can have wildly different outcomes, and how kids with certain character traits can narrow the achievement gap.

His findings offer some surprising answers to the questions every parent asks: How much do test scores really matter? What’s the real difference between students who graduate from university and students who drop out? What role does parental encouragement play in children’s achievement, and what kind of encouragement do they need?

Mr. Tough’s new book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character, combines compelling findings in brain research with his own first-hand observations on the front lines of school reform. He argues that the qualities that matter most to children’s success have more to do with character – and that parents and schools can play a powerful role in nurturing the character traits that foster success. His book is an inspiration. It has made me less of a determinist, and more of an optimist.

Wente interviewed Tough as part of the review. The elements he describes are, in my experience, exactly the traits that made some people really good Black Belts, people who I would call “certified” in their proficiency as a Black Belt. It is also interesting to note that I found some individuals unable to cope with feedback that was anything less than reinforcing of their self-image as a “straight-A student,” a person who does not fail. We used to call these Black Belts “brittle” in their reaction to feedback and coaching and it was often enough of a reason for me to not sign off on a certification despite whatever technical skills they may have possessed. The basic reason is that as performance improvement professionals we’re always saying to other people that they need to change, to have an open mind, and to accept there is room for improvement. I think a true Black Belt need to turn that same mirror on themselves, to accept that they too need to change and improve.

Wente: You argue, quite convincingly, I think, that IQ is not destiny, far from it. For kids to succeed in life, they need certain character traits – and one of them is what you call “grit.”

Tough: Yes, it’s a psychological category discovered by Angela Duckworth at the University of Pennsylvania. She actually started out studying self-control and demonstrated that it has a huge impact on kids’ grade point average. But she came to think that there was some other skill out there that she hadn’t quite put her finger on – not just self-control but having a passion for something and a determination to stick with it, despite setbacks.

She named that grit, and she invented this thing called the “grit scale.” It’s a short little questionnaire about how likely you are to stick with projects. And she found that it’s incredibly predictive, that people are pretty honest about their grit levels and that those who say, “Yes, I really stick with tasks,” are much more likely to succeed, even in tasks that involve a lot of what we think of as IQ: She gave the test to students who were in the National Spelling Bee and the kids with the highest grit scores were more likely to persist to the later rounds; she gave it to freshmen at the University of Pennsylvania and grit helped them persist in college; she even gave it to cadets at West Point and it predicted who was going to survive this initiation called “Beast Barracks.”

So, in some ways, grit just means what we think it means – what John Wayne said that it meant – but it has something to do with academic persistence as well. It’s not just smarts, it’s the ability to stick with a task that makes a difference.

Wente: Resistance, persistence, perseverance, stick-to-itiveness …

Tough: Yes, and I would add passion. It’s not just dutiful stick-to-itiveness. It’s people who really want to finish – not because someone has told them to, but because they’re dedicated to it.

That’s very new in a world where we’ve raised kids based on the self-esteem movement. So how do you teach grit? Can you?

I think you can. There’s not yet a clear path, but it seems like there are a few things that help. The main one is helping kids learn how to manage failure and adversity. That involves two things: One is just making sure they actually have some failure and adversity in their lives. Especially for high-achieving, high-income kids, that’s often what’s missing.

These kids are so overly protected that they don’t have the opportunity to overcome setbacks. It’s also giving them that experience in a setting that lets them not just be disappointed and hurt by failure, but learn from it.

I also spent a lot of time in some really poor neighbourhoods in American cities. In those neighbourhoods, there’s no absence of failure or adversity. These kids confront it all the time. But some of them are just beaten down by it. So it’s not simply the volume of failure in your life – it’s giving kids an opportunity to fail productively, to grow and learn from it.

Wente: Your writing on these chess kids is absolutely gripping. First of all, this teacher takes kids from low-income, low-achieving environments and turns them into high-performance players who can take on anybody in the United States. But she also doesn’t coddle them. She’s very, very tough. She bawls the kids out. She’ll say, “You played that too fast,” or ‘You made a stupid mistake. Why are you still making that stupid mistake?” What does that tell us about how we’ve gone wrong coaching kids to cope with adversity?

Tough: I think there is a real difference between developing self-esteem and developing character, and in the past few decades we’ve become confused about that. Yes, if you want to develop kids’ self-esteem, the best way to do it is to praise everything they do and make excuses for their failures.

But if you want to develop their character, you do almost the opposite: You let them fail and don’t hide their failures from them or from anybody else – not to make them feel lousy about themselves, but to give them the tools to succeed next time.

Wente: So you don’t need to be a genius but you do need grit.

Tough: Absolutely. And I think that’s true in the workplace too. You need a certain amount of intelligence to survive in any workplace. But we all know people who are really smart but don’t have a good work ethic, or just can’t organize their thoughts, or have terrible social intelligence, and so don’t do well. We also know people who aren’t necessarily going to score high on IQ tests but have all of these other skills – and they’re not just window dressing, they’re important in getting tasks done.

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