Success? You need grit, not IQ

27 April 2014

What if the key to your child’s success had nothing to do with their intelligence, their social intelligence, or even their physical health?

What if the key to your child’s success had nothing to do with their intelligence, their social intelligence, or even their physical health?

Dr Angela Duckworth is a research psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania who have been studying “the psychology of achievement” and in a TED conference talk done earlier this year, she says for people to be successful in life, there is one key ingredient: grit.

Before you read further, you need to know this about her: before she became a psychologist, she was a math teacher. And it’s from here that she became interested in what makes children successful at school and ultimately, at life.

“After five years of teaching I became frustrated with my inability to change the number of hours that students were willing to spend on math problems,” she says. “What struck me was that IQ was not the only difference between my best and worst performers.”

She wanted to know what it was that made some people more successful than others, regardless of their intelligence. She went to children and adults, all in different settings, and she says her main question was always: ‘who is successful here and why?’ She went to a military academy, the American National Spelling Bee, she even studied salespeople and teachers who worked in dangerous neighbourhoods – all to see who stuck around and who fell out.

“In all those different contexts, one characteristic emerged as a significant predictor of success. It wasn’t social intelligence, it wasn’t good looks, physical health or IQ. It was grit,” says Angela in her talk.

But what is grit?

“Grit is passion and perseverance with very long term goals. Grit is having stamina. Sticking with your future, day in, day out. Not just for the week. Not just for the month. But for years. And working really hard to make that future a reality. Grit is living life like it’s a marathon, not a sprint.”

Angela also went to schools and tried to see if the same would apply to school children. She developed a ‘grit questionnaire’ whereby she measured people’s grit score and found that not even household income could keep back a gritty child:

“Gritty kids were significantly more likely to graduate – even when I measured them on every characteristic I could measure: family income, standardised achievement test scores, even how safe they felt at school.”

The most surprising thing? “Talent doesn’t make you gritty. Our data shows very clearly that there are many talented individuals that do not follow through on their commitments. In fact in our data grit is usually unrelated or even inversely related to measures of talent,” says Angela.

But what if you’re not gritty?

“Every day teachers ask me: how do I build grit in my kids? The honest answer is I don’t know,” she says in the talk. But she does mention one thing: ‘growth mindset’. It’s an idea developed at Stanford and it is the belief that the ability to learn is not fixed and can change with your effort. “When kids read and learn about the brain and how it changes and grows in response to challenge, for example, they are much more likely to persevere when they fail because they don’t believe that failure is a permanent condition.”

Angela’s future studies will look at how to improve grit. But she says this is not enough. Parents and teachers and people in general need to find ways to improve our grittiness.

“We need to take our best ideas and strongest intuitions and we need to test them and be willing to fail, be wrong and start over again with lessons learned. In other words, we need to be gritty about getting our kids grittier.”

To test your own grittiness, you can do the test on her page on the University of Pennsylvania website. Click on the tab on the right that says ‘get your grit score’.

You can watch Angela’s talk at the TED conference and find out more about the conference here.

- Dalena Theron

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