What is True Grit?
Last year, the film True Grit provided a rich and provocative tale of one woman’s search for justice. While facing insurmountable odds, fourteen year-old Mattie Ross embarks on a journey to find her father’s killer. She enlists the assistance of two tough lawmakers and stays with them for their entire journey despite their repeated attempts to rid themselves of her.
This powerful film, which resulted in ten Oscar nominations, also sheds some light on a recently studied concept that may be increasingly important for individual and organizational success. Angela Lee Duckworth, now Assistant Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, has defined grit as the following:
“Grit entails working strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity, and plateaus in progress. The gritty individual approaches achievement as a marathon; his or her advantage is stamina. Whereas disappointment or boredom signals to others that it is time to change trajectory and cut losses, the gritty individual stays the course. (page 1088).”
Dr. Duckworth was inspired to study this construct through her countless interviews with professionals across various fields (e.g., medicine, law, science), as they recounted stories of traits that separated the exceptional from the average performer. She was fascinated by the tales of extraordinary achievements attained by those who were not judged by their peers to be exceptionally talented while others who were deemed to be the “future stars” failed to live up to their billing.
How much grit do you have?
She created the “Grit Scale” as a way to measure this construct. Here is the complete test, which is taken directly from her website.
For the following items, please use the following scale to assess yourself (1=Not at all like me; 2=not much like me; 3=somewhat like me; 4=mostly like me; 5=very much like me).
1. New ideas and projects sometimes distract me from old ones*.
2. Setbacks don’t discourage me.
3. I have been obsessed with a certain idea or project for a short time but later lost interest*.
4. I am a hard worker.
5. I often set a goal but later choose to pursue a different one*.
6. I have difficulty maintaining my focus on projects that take more than a few months to complete*.
7. I finish whatever I begin.
8. I am diligent.
To find your score, add up your score on statements 2, 4, 7, and 8 (Score A). Next, add items 1, 3, 5 and 6 and subtract this score from 24 (Score B). Add Scores A and B together and divide by 8. This is your average grit score (i).
Each item on the above list can have direct implications on our potential performance. For example, it is easy to identify situations in which failing to demonstrate grit can get in the way of our goal attainment. Many of us can experience frustration and discontentment without immediate feedback or opportunities for progress.
Grittier individuals generally do not experience these types of setbacks. Although grittier individuals may appreciate these validations and reassurances, these individuals do not see these validations as necessary for pursuing their goals. The application of grit to various “core pursuits” like weight loss, professional development, retirement savings, etc. is endless.
Why grit matters?
Professor Duckworth and her colleagues have examined the impacts of grit on performance. In a study conducted at the elite military academy West Point, Duckworth and her team explored how grittiness affected retention within the military programs.
In 2008, Duckworth tested incoming West Point students with the Grit Scale and found that, when compared to all of the other tests (including IQ), grit was a better predictor of which new arrivals would complete the gruelling introductory training program and which ones would drop out. She replicated the study at West Point the following year and went on to find that grit predicted retention in the U.S. Special Forces (ii).
In another interesting example of its application, Duckworth and her colleagues found that for finalists of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, grit scores were better than IQ scores at predicting whether the participant made it to the final round of the competition. It appears that Edison had it right when he famously remarked “Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.”
Other interesting findings
In addition to the provocative findings above, there are other intriguing aspects of this concept. First, the preliminary research to date suggests that, like wine, grittiness improves with age. The idea here is that over time and with experience, adults learn that adopting a single-mindedness of pursuit maximizes the chances of goal attainment. Thus, as we age, we can increase our “grittiness quotient.”
This finding also bodes well in terms of further developing this characteristic in ourselves and in our organizations. Specifically, the dynamic nature of this attribute suggests that we can enhance or lessen our capabilities in this space. Therefore, focusing on further developing our grittiness may be beneficial for our individual and organizational performance.
A very important point must also be made here. In all of her experiments, it has been shown that grit has no relationship to IQ. In other words, they are separate from one another! This explains why those with similar levels of intelligence may achieve varying degrees of objective ‘success.’
This suggests that achievement is not necessarily a “talent game,” but rather a finely tuned focus on a desired outcome. It should be noted that this is also not a new idea. In his groundbreaking book, Talent is Overrated, Geoff Colvin argues that the key to exemplary performance and accomplishment is commitment to dedicated practice, an idea that has also drawn attention through Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point.
The concept of grittiness has a tremendous amount of intuitive appeal and the evidence behind its importance in a professional capacity is continuing to build. When looking at what we truly value, it may be worthwhile to conduct a grit audit on ourselves and answer the questions provided within this column. Indeed, it would be valuable to think about how we can enhance our grittiness and learn more about the situations and people that may derail us from our true passions. Enhancing our self-awareness regarding how we pursue our goals puts us in the best position to succeed.
While reflecting on writing this article, a quote from Randy Pausch kept resonating with me. Randy was the Carnegie Mellon Professor who authored the internationally best-selling book “The Last Lecture,” which summarized the final invited address he gave to an audience after being diagnosed with terminal cancer. He said the following about obstacles:
“The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something.”
As always, good luck in your journey.
Craig Dowden, Ph.D.
André Filion & Associates Inc
(i) It should be noted that the 50th percentile scores are 3.38 for men and 3.50 for women.
(ii) Martin Seligman, “Flourishing” (page 123).