BOOK REVIEW: The power of perseverance

Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, by Angela Duckworth

FOR decades the US Army has been educating its finest at West Point military academy. Only about half of the 2 500 applicants meet its rigorous academic and physical standards, which are as high as the elite universities. Nearly all men and women are ‘varsity athletes’. The first few months, known as the Beast, are the most physically and emotionally demanding of the four-year course. All admitted candidates have been selected based on the ‘Whole Candidate Score’ test.

However, those who stayed and those who dropped out during the Beast had indistinguishable scores. Both the army and Dr Angela Duckworth, author of Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, were perplexed by the question: “Who spends two years trying to get into a place and then drops out in the first two months?”

What emerged from Duckworth’s work on the problem was the Grit Scale - a test that measures the extent to which you approach life with grit. Grit turned out to be an astoundingly reliable predictor of who made it through.

The Grit Scale was tested with sales people, among others, who are subject to the daily hardship of rejection. In an experiment involving hundreds of men and women who sold vacation time-share, Grit predicted who stayed and who left. Similar results were found in other demanding professions such as education.

“I came to a fundamental insight that would guide my future work,” explains Duckworth. “Our potential is one thing. What we do with it is quite another.”

Natural talent as the explanation of success, according to sociologist Professor Dan Chambliss, “is perhaps the most pervasive lay explanation we have for athletic success”. However, his research led him to the conclusion that the minimal talent needed to succeed is lower than most of us think.

“Without effort, your talent is nothing more than your unmet potential. Without effort, your skill is nothing more than what you could have done but didn’t. With effort, talent becomes skill, and effort makes skill productive.”

Grammy Award–winning musician and Oscar-nominated actor Will Smith says of himself: “I’ve never really viewed myself as particularly talented. Where I excel is a ridiculous, sickening work ethic.”
Too many of us, it appears, give up far too early and far too often.

Duckworth’s research has led her to the conclusion that Grit has four components: interest, practice, passion, and hope.
According to the meta-analysis of 60 studies conducted over the past 60 years, employees whose personal interests fit with their occupations do their jobs better, are more helpful to their co-workers, and stay at their jobs longer.

Of course, just because you love something doesn’t mean you will excel at it. Many people are poor at the things they love. Many of the Grit paragons interviewed by Duckworth spent years exploring several different interests before discovering the one that eventually came to occupy all of their waking thoughts.

“While we might envy those who love what they do for a living, we shouldn’t assume that they started from a different place than the rest of us. Chances are, they took quite some time figuring out exactly what they wanted to do with their lives,” she explains.

The second requirement of Grit is practice. Numerous interviews of Grit paragons revealed that they are all committed to continuous improvement. There are no exceptions. This continuous improvement leads to a gradual improvement of their skills over years.

“That there’s a learning curve for skill development isn’t surprising. But the timescale on which that development happens is,” Duckworth discovered. Anders Ericsson’s work with a German music academy revealed that those who excelled, practised about 10 000 hours over ten years before achieving elite levels of expertise. The less accomplished practised half as much.

Ericsson’s crucial insight is not that experts practise much more, but that they do so very deliberately. Experts are more interested in correcting what they do wrong rather than what they did right, until conscious incompetence becomes unconscious competence.

'Daily small deaths'

Dancer Martha Graham says: “Dancing appears glamorous, easy, delightful. But the path to the paradise of that achievement is not easier than any other. There is fatigue so great that the body cries even in its sleep. There are times of complete frustration. There are daily small deaths.”

Gritty people do more deliberate practice than others.

The third component of Grit is purpose, the desire to contribute to the well-being of others. If Grit starts with a relatively self-orientated interest to which self-disciplined practice is added, the end point is integrating that work with an other-centred purpose.

“The long days and evenings of toil, the setbacks and disappointments and struggle, the sacrifice - all this is worth it because, ultimately, their efforts pay dividends to other people,” Duckworth identified. Most Gritty people saw their ultimate aims as deeply connected to the world beyond themselves.

The bricklayer may have a job laying bricks so he can pay for food. He may later see bricklaying as his career, and later still as a calling to build beautiful homes for people. It is this last group who seem most satisfied with their jobs and their lives overall, and missed at least a third fewer days of work than those with merely a job or a career as opposed to a calling.

The final component of Grit is hope, but a different kind to the “hopium” many embrace. It is the expectation that our own efforts can improve our future. The hope that creates Grit has nothing to do with luck, so failure is a cue to try harder, rather than confirmation that one lacks ability.

The book also includes chapters on developing Gritty children, sports teams, and companies.

It is a book for those who relish solid research and well-reasoned conclusions. It is highly motivational, in a mature and thoughtful way. Get the book. Work it, and share the knowledge. It could be transformative.

Readability:     Light ---+- Serious
Insights:        High +---- Low
Practical:        High -+--- Low

* Ian Mann of Gateways consults internationally on leadership and strategy and is the author of Strategy that Works. Views expressed are his own.

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