Grit: How this Personality Trait is the Key to Success
Grit is becoming one of the most frequently used buzzwords today among psychologists, researchers, parents, teachers, business leaders, and much more. When we think of someone who seems to have an innate ability and talent to succeed at everything they do, grit isn’t always the first thing we think of. Perhaps, the movie “True Grit” (2010) may come to mind. The storyline follows a fourteen-year-old girl Mattie Ross who sets out to capture her father’s killer. She hires the toughest U.S. marshal she can find, a man who demonstrates “true grit.” We often put high IQ, great genes, and even sometimes luck on top of the list of things intelligent and successful people possess. However, the measurable power of grit takes the forefront as the highest predictor of achieving remarkable accomplishments throughout the life-span.
Grit: What does it mean?
Grit is a personality trait within individuals who demonstrate passion and perseverance towards a long-term goal. This non-cognitive trait is characterized by an instinctive need to achieve objectives despite the hurdles that may come along the way. The strong dedication and endurance that gritty individuals have definitely correlated with long-term success rather than short-term gratification.
Passion follows perseverance (the ability to delay a reward) in the cycle of attaining long-term goals. Grit plays an important part of our current and future success and helps us stay on track. It is a valuable characteristic that provides the framework for the meaning and value of long-term efforts, which helps cultivate drive, passion, courage, and stamina. If you have ever heard of The Big Five personality traits which generally applies to all human personalities, then you have probably come across the trait: conscientiousness. The domains have been measured and researched since the 1970’s and are labeled as Openness, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism (Goldberg, 1992). Conscientiousness is closely related with grit and has been the reason why people get through the obstacles associated with achieving goals.
Grit over talent: Angela Duckworth
Angela Duckworth was the first to coin the term grit and develop research on the grittiness of high achievers throughout the US. She is a professor and founder of the Character Lab at the University of Pennsylvania and is well known for her viral TED Talk and book called “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance” (2016).
In her book, Duckworth explains how she visited first-year cadets at West Point, public high-school students in Chicago, and competitors in the National Spelling Bee. Her dedication to find out what helped them manage to succeed in their high-pressure environments came down to one word – grit. When Duckworth was a child, she was often looked down upon by her father for not being a ‘genius.’ Years later after graduating from Harvard and Oxford University, she received the ‘Genius Grant’ from the MacArthur Foundation to study her own passion on the key to achievement.
Earlier research in this field began with Galton (1869) who sought out to discover the underlying drive of high achievers in the 1800’s. He considered “self-denial” to be the essential feature of their personalities. What he called ‘self-denial’ is now known to be the new form of self-control. Although their meaning could be interchangeable, they are not identical.
Angela Duckworth and James J. Gross (2014) did a study on the similarities and differences of the two outcomes – grit and self-control. In their study, they constructed a hierarchical goal framework for the two. In the framework, self-control refers to the successful resolution of a conflict between two action impulses – one that corresponds to a goal that is more valued in the moment (subordinate goal), and another that corresponds to a goal that is of a greater enduring value (superordinate goal) (Duckworth & Gross, 2014). Subordinate goals and actions are all taken in order to achieve the superordinate goal. In the same framework, grit entails a superordinate goal, which basically means that a person tries to obtain the rewards in a long duration of time. When people are willing to work months, sometimes even years to achieve their goals, they often have a set of ‘other intellectual features’ that help them put their goal at the top of their priority list.
Grit is a value stretched over time and is not held back by setbacks or difficulties. This superordinate goal sits at the top of a well-organized goal hierarchy in which lower-order goals are tightly aligned with the superordinate goal and these lower-order goals, in turn, give rise to effective actions that advance the individual toward the superordinate goal (Duckworth & Gross, 2014).
Duckworth’s book summarizes what she knows about grit and the scientific evidence behind it. While studying neuroscience in graduate school, she was interviewing leaders in art, business, athletics, journalism, medicine, and law. She wondered what characteristics do the people at the top have and what was it that made them so special in their field? She developed what is known as the Grit Scale and asked participants to rate questions that ranged from their level of commitment to how often do their interests change. Duckworth found college students who were determined to get good grades earned higher grade point averages than their peers. In her studies on older age groups, she found grittier adults were more likely to pursue a higher graduate degree such as an MD, PHD, JD, or MBA. She went to West Point to examine the talented Green Barets from the Army Special Operations Forces who went through the most rigorous of training. Duckworth examined the type of work ethic they entailed while taking these rough paths of grueling and demanding work. The exam used to test the skills needed to be a military leader was scored on The Whole Candidate Score. However, it did not reliably predict who made it through training. Surprisingly, the cadets who scored high were more as likely to drop out than cadets who didn’t. Before she was a psychologist, Duckworth set out to teach math in a Lower East Side public school and finally unraveled the difference between having high work-ethic and talent. The ‘talented’ students excelled when solving problems but did not do as well as she expected at the end of the marking period. The struggling students in her classroom whom she thought of as ‘overachievers’, were aware of their difficulties and faring better than she expected by asking more questions and going for extra help. Their hard work was shown in their grades and Duckworth came to the conclusion that aptitude did not guarantee achievement.
After her experience working with students in an urban city setting, she transitioned to San Francisco where she began teaching high school students from Lowell High School – a school that admits students based on academic merit. What she found was similar to her previous experience with students’ effort in the classroom. Students there were by far more distinguished by their work ethic than by their intelligence. All three of these situations had one thing in common which proved that high scores and luck did not guarantee success or accomplishment. Duckworth states:
“Tests on talent – and tests of anything else psychologists study, including grit – are highly imperfect.”
She also notes that a focus on talent distracts us from what matters the most and that is the effort.
Grit: A soft skill
Grit is a type of soft skill that is developed through self-preservation and reinforcement-like behavior. The difference between soft skills and hard skills is the fact that soft skills enable us to solve problems using patience, communication, and interpersonal skills. Because soft skills are often difficult to measure and interpret accurately, most institutions place greater value on individuals who possess hard skills. Hard skills are technical skills that one acquires from teachable methods that are stored in our declarative and procedural memory.
Individuals should have a balance between the two since they are both very effective for their careers and personal life. Grit is a type of non-cognitive soft skill that takes more effort to measure than anything else since there are factors like experience and genetics that count just as much. At the same time, it’s becoming the most valued virtue an individual can have. Part of the domain from The Big Five, conscientious, grit entails a type of emotional effect that conscientiousness lacks.
A study about predicting school success based on conscientiousness, grit, and emotion regulation found that Big Five traits predicted between 8% and 20% of the variance in school success outcomes. It is not surprising that conscientiousness predicted all outcomes, introversion predicted academic honors and GPA, while emotional stability predicted school satisfaction.
Stable personality traits do occur and studies show that our heritability may have something to do with it. Both nature and nurture play an important role and a person can gain soft skills from their environment as well. During the adolescent years, non-cognitive skills are more malleable than cognitive skills. The differential plasticity of our brains by age has an effect on which skills are more present. Personality traits and soft skills determine an individuals level of performance on completing tasks. Grit falls into this area when there is a challenge before the long-term goal is completed. It can be developed into our personalities with the right growth mindset. Although it is not easy, our brains are malleable and grit can help us move forward with our goals with self-control and hard determination.
The neural processes of grit in the brain
Grit is a form of self-regulation that manifests in the prefrontal cortex – an area that helps us make decisions and control our behavior. When chasing your dreams, tendencies such as impulses from the pre-frontal brain areas become involved in top-down regulation. According to Duckworth, one of these impulses is affiliated with short-term gain and gratification whilst the other is geared toward enduring values and long-term goals. Self-control helps us make the right decisions on a daily basis while grit is affiliated with a long-term commitment to a goal. Together, they contribute to overall success and accomplishment. Many studies that involved lesions have suggested that people with prefrontal cortex damage have difficulty making plans and attaining long-term goals. The cognitive control that underlies grit can depend on individual differences in pre-frontal cortices.
Although most of the neural processes of the trait are still unknown, one study found that grit was related to the resting-state functional connectivity (RSFC) between the ventral striatum and the prefrontal cortex (PFC), including the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (DMPFC), dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) and anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) (Myers et al., 2016). These regions deal with emotional processing, executive functioning, anxiety, memory, and learning. It is also known that regions responsible for conscientiousness and neuroticism are correlated with subregions of the PFC, such as the DMPFC and DLPFC. A study explained the connection of the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex with the trait, grit and academic performance. Their findings provided initial evidence of the neural correlates underlying grit and identified the right DMPFC as a neural link between grit and academic performance.
A study on the relationship between grit and the growth mindset in the brain has given us insight into the areas of the brain associated with cognitive-behavioral control and the reward system. An fMRI was used to examine how grit and the growth mindset are associated with cortico-striatal networks used for learning. Their models show that non-cognitive skills can be measured to ensure that people can rise to their challenges in life. The connectivity related to grit were in regions such as the medial prefrontal and rostral anterior cingulate cortices that corresponded with perseverance. For instance, the growth mindset that helps us cultivate the motivation to learn new things was closely related to the ventral and dorsal striatal regions. Reward systems and cognitive control are two riveting systems that balance a person’s mindset while working towards a goal. Grit may be characterized by a robust network of cognitive and effective control to persevere while
maintaining focus on a delayed receipt of reward (Myers et al., 2016).
Grit: Beneficial for academics
School isn’t all about IQ however it’s never too late to start training your brain to keep it as sharp as possible.
Because grit corresponds with self-regulation and control, it is important for students to have the ability to delay gratification both inside and outside of the classroom. Fifty years ago, Stanford University Psychologist Walter Mischel conducted the famous “marshmallow test.” The study included four-year-old subjects who had to delay their gratification and hold off from eating a marshmallow for fifteen minutes in exchange for two after the time was up.
In the years that followed, numerous studies have found the preschoolers who managed to delay gratification were more likely later on to do well in school, avoid substance abuse, and even perform better on the SAT than peers who couldn’t resist temptation. Like Mischel, Duckworth has also studied the effects of delayed gratification and self-control. She also collaborated with the New York charter middle schools operated by the Knowledge Is Power Program or KIPP.
The program focuses on developing character strengths and self-control in academic settings. Character grades are listed on students’ academic report cards twice a year and report on skills such as zest, grit, self-control, hope/optimism, gratitude, curiosity, and social intelligence. Many schools are using self-regulation tasks to help students enhance their soft skills. Grit is rated on the scale that includes pointers such as, finishing whatever he or she begins, commitment, working hard and trying even after failure.
The KIPP Approach:
“We believe that an excellent college-prep education will set students up for success in whatever life path they choose. Our students complete college at a rate that is above the national average for all students and four times higher than that of students from similar economic backgrounds.”
Grit: How organizations are choosing this skill over everything else
Companies are testing soft skills in interviews by accessing self-awareness, team-work skills, and initiative. They ask questions about what their candidates have learned from their previous jobs and how they got through challenges. Hiring managers are interested in seeing how the person has grown from a project that was not successful and how he or she found a solution to the issue.
Interpersonal skills are important when working with others in a team-orientated environment. A person that is constantly interacting and sharing thoughts with other team members and taking initiative should display high levels of interpersonal skills and grit.
Both of these terms will lead to a successful outcome when there is respectfulness of another person’s belief and a clear focus of the goal. Companies look for people with high levels of grit since become great leaders from never giving up. Individuals with resilience are also able to work in fast-paced environments and still get the job done efficiently. What separates them the most from others is their ability to stay clear of anything that gets in the way of their determination and perseverance.
Kristen Hamilton, the co-Founder, and CEO of Koru has developed a career training program for job seekers who recently graduated. Hamilton’s vision is to expose companies to all candidates – not only the ones who look good on paper. She knows what traits and skills make candidates great performers and one of them is grit. The premise behind this company is to seek raw talent and skills that are not listed on paper. Koru identifies candidates who possess abilities such as having the initiative to finish tasks, demonstrating team-work skills, and having tenacity and grit.
“Hiring mistakes are expensive. We realized a degree and GPA is not a good signal. We’re looking to be that signal.”
Here is a short list of famous people who had the perseverance to become successful after facing multiple hardships:
J.K. Rowling was at her lowest point in life when she started writing the Harry Potter series. She was struggling with depression and poverty while homeless on the streets with a baby. Her motivation was through her hardships and from being able to seek lessons that helped her grow from her challenges.
Walt Disney was told that ‘he was not creative enough’ and ‘lacked imagination’ during one of his animation jobs. Afterwards, he started a small company, called Laugh-O-Gram, which eventually fell into bankruptcy. It was then that Disney headed to Hollywood with a suitcase and a few dollars to follow his dreams. He literally became the man who believed in dreams and valued his beliefs on the power of imagination, optimism, and creation to fuel his success.
Bill Gates also used failure as a lesson to overcome obstacles and follow his insight and passion. He started his first company, Traf-O-Data at age seventeen and it led to failure. He later used what he learned from that experience to create Microsoft. Gates embraced change and transformed his failures into success from knowing that there are lessons to be learned from mistakes.
Even Angela Duckworth herself was raised to believe that she was ‘no genius’ and was not gifted with any skills. She later became a success for her mission of understanding how certain character traits affect behavior, learning, and long-term success.
How can you use grit in your life?
- Limit distractions and eliminate negative people who you feel have a bad influence on your success. Make sure to feel your passion and let that spark into a growth mindset.
- Use self-regulation skills to plan a journey towards an end-goal. Make sure you finish what you started, stay on track, and remember that commitment is necessary to achieve an accomplishment.
- Challenge yourself. Try to accomplish bigger things by conquering a fear of not succeeding. Use perseverance to power through struggles.
- Don’t give up! Follow your passion and treat rejection and failure as a learning process. Remember, your grit is an attitude and a mindset that only you can envision.
Determine your level of grit using this scale!
Duckworth, A. (2016). Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. New York, NY: Scribner.
Duckworth, A., & Gross, J. J. (2014). Self-Control and Grit: Related but Separable Determinants of Success. Curr Dir Psychol Sci, 23, 5th ser., 319-325. doi:10.1177/0963721414541462
Duverne, S., & Koechlin, E. (2017). Rewards and Cognitive Control in the Human Prefrontal Cortex. Cerebral Cortex, 27(10), 5024-5039.
Heckman, J. J., & Kautz, T. (2012). Hard Evidence on Soft Skills (Doctoral dissertation, University of Chicago , 2012) (pp. 1-54). Institute for the Study of Labor.
Ivcevic, Z., & Brackett, M. (2014). Predicting school success: Comparing Conscientiousness, Grit, and Emotion Regulation Ability. Journal of Research in Personality, 52, 29-36.
Miller, C. A. (2017). Getting Grit: The Evidence-Based Approach to Cultivating Passion, Perseverance, and Purpose. Boulder, CO: Sounds True.
Myers, C. A., Wang, C., Black, J. M., Bugescu, N., & Hoeft, F. (2016). The matter of motivation: Striatal resting-state connectivity is dissociable between grit and growth mindset. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 1-7.
Wang, S., Zhou, M., Chen, T., Yang, X., Chen, G., Wang, M., & Gong, Q. (2017). Grit and the brain: spontaneous activity of the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex mediates the relationship between the trait grit and academic performance. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 12(3), 452-460. doi:10.1093/scan/nsw145
Winkler, L., Shulman, E. P., Beal, S. A., & Duckworth, A. L. (2014). The grit effect: predicting retention in the military, the workplace, school, and marriage. 5(36). doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00036
Jenna is a recent graduate who earned her B.A. in Psychology with a minor in Cognitive Science. She is passionate about how the mind functions and will continue her education studying Behavioral Neuroscience. She hopes to work with children and do research in the field of Developmental Psychology.