This month’s book is Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth.
“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again, then try something different.”
She had a neuroscience degree from Oxford and a job at Mckinsey and she quit to become a public school teacher. Oh sure, Angela Duckworth’s parents are happy now that she’s a best-selling author, but can you imagine? Lucky for us she applied her considerable skills to figuring out what makes people like her succeed.
Her time as a teacher got her interested in researching why some people worked much harder than others. She discovered that what made superstars “tick” is something called “grit.” She defines grit as being the “combination of passion and perseverance that [makes] high achievers special.”
Digging Into the Nitty Gritty
To understand the source of grit she interviewed (among many others) Pete Carroll, head coach of the Seattle Seahawks, Olympic Swimmer Rowdy Gaines, novelist John Irving, actor Will Smith, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos (and his mother), puzzle master Will Shortz, and legendary 49ers quarterback Steve Young (and his mother). She also mined the test results from neuroscientists, the results reported by behavioral psychologists and she created her own “Grit Scale” to assess her test subjects.
The Myth of Natural Talent
What she discovers is that diligence accounts for the majority of highly successful people. Very few succeed on natural talent alone although she found that people have a natural bias. They assume only those with innate skills prevail. “Mythologizing natural talent lets us off the hook.” If we think “you either have it our you don’t” then maybe we just don’t. It turns out natural talent guarantees very little.
“Mythologizing natural talent lets us off the hook.” If we think “you either have it our you don’t” then maybe we just don’t. It turns out natural talent guarantees very little.
The Grit Equation
Her theory is that:
Talent x Effort = Skill
Skill x Effort = Achievement
You’ll notice that “effort” appears twice in her equations. In her conversations with John Irving she discovered that he spent more time revising a novel than he took to write the first draft. That sounds familiar.
“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.”
She includes her testing instrument so you can assess yourself on the “Grit Scale.” Getting your “Grit Score” helps you envision yourself in her scenarios and take heart that you have the ability to improve yourself. That’s actually one of the more enjoyable parts of this book. Her discoveries actually pave the way for a better you – if you’re interested.
What Does Grit Take?
She boils grit down to 4 psychological assets that mature paragons of grit have in common:
- Interest: Having some passion for the thing you do
- Practice: Figuring out your weaknesses and forming a daily discipline to challenge yourself to improve
- Purpose: Having the conviction that your work matters to yourself and others
- Hope: Getting up again after getting knocked down
She advises millennials to foster passion by spending time discovering things they like and then working to develop those interests. After that it’s a “lifetime of deepening.” The description seems akin to what parents do. They send their kids to drama class, sign them up for music lessons and play catch in the yard in the hopes that something sticks. Once it does, attentive parents foster that interest and encourage their kids to develop those skills. That’s what you can do for yourself. It’s interaction with the outside world that makes the difference.
It’s interaction with the outside world that makes the difference.
She includes a funny but valuable insight after interviewing crossword puzzle editor Will Shortz of the New York Times. These rules of thumb are how to approach a crossword puzzle, but try applying these to figuring what you want to do in life:
- Begin with the answers you know and build from there
- There are some things you already know you don’t like
- Don’t be afraid to guess
- Engage in some trial and error and see what sticks
- Don’t be afraid to erase an answer that isn’t working out
- You might think you’ve found your passion but don’t be afraid to change your mind
For this asset she brings up the Japanese concept of “Kaizen” which, as many Lean Six Sigma readers know, translates to “change for the good.” In her interviews Dr. Duckworth found this theme of continuous improvement present in many of her interview subjects. She also found that experts didn’t just log more hours of practice, they engaged in something called “deliberate practice.”
She also found that experts didn’t just log more hours of practice, they engaged in something called “deliberate practice.”
“As soon as possible, experts hungrily seek feedback on how they did. Necessarily, much of that feedback is negative. This means that experts are more interested in what they did wrong – so they can fix it – than what they did right.” Practice alone doesn’t cut it. You’ve always got to be in “problem-solving” mode as Lean Six Sigma practitioners know.
Sounds like PDCA
She outlines a deliberate practice model that is reminiscent of PDCA (Plan-Do-Check-Act):
- A clearly defined stretch goal
- Full concentration and effort
- Immediate and informative feedback
- Repetition with reflection and refinement
Part of success is developing a healthy relationship with failure. She makes a great point about children starting out with no issues around failure. Think of an aspiring toddler trying to walk and falling again and again. There’s no point at which they get dispirited and decide walking just isn’t in the cards for them. They go at it until they’re able to walk!
Adults on the other hand feel embarrassment, fear and shame when they fail. As children, once we learn those reactions to failure from adults we start protecting ourselves and we stop sticking our necks out. That’s a tough one to relearn but essential to continuous improvement.
This is also central to process improvement efforts. It’s no surprise that purpose is key to having grit. Angela Duckworth points out that what’s different about purpose, as opposed to goal setting, is that it is “other-centered.” She also points out that it’s often developed over time. What’s reassuring, for those still searching, is her description of it as a three-phase process:
- Phase 1: Forming a relatively self-oriented interest
- Phase 2: Learning a self-disciplined practice
- Phase 3: Iterating that work with an other-centered purpose
She quotes famed UCLA basketball coach John Wooden, “figuring out the overarching vision is of utmost importance.”
“It is imperative that you identify your work as both personally interesting and, at the same time, integrally connected to the well-being of others.”
She likes the old Japanese saying, “fall seven times, rise eight.” She defines hope as “the expectation that tomorrow will be better than today.” Those with grit don’t just yearn for better days, they assume their own efforts will make the difference. They have to actually get up that eighth time.
Her advice around developing this psychological aspect is to recognize our own pessimism and focus on the fact that learning from mistakes means that we grow. The research shows that “the brain is remarkably adaptive. Like a muscle that gets stronger with use, the brain changes when you struggle to master a new challenge.” Research says you can improve your IQ score which is good news for everyone!
My only nit is that she focused her interviews and research almost exclusively on successful men. I’ll bet she has first-hand experience that women have to be twice as gritty to succeed in this world. That makes them wonderful grit subjects!
But that’s just a nit. Her spotlight on taking a positive view of failure alone makes it worth the read, and there’s lots in here to pull from. There’s a whole chapter for new parents interested in fostering grit in their children. She’s a warm inviting writer who advocates that we keep building our problem-solving muscles and that’s a message we believe in.
About the Author:
Angela Duckworth, PhD, is a 2013 MacArthur Fellow and professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. She has advised the White House, the World Bank, NBA and NFL teams, and Fortune 500 CEOs. Prior to her career in research, she founded an award-winning summer school for low-income children. She is also the founder and scientific director of the Character Lab, a nonprofit with a mission to advance the science and practice of charter development. She completed her BA in neurobiology at Harvard, her MSc in neuroscience at Oxford, and her PhD in psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance is her first book.
Practical Tools and Concepts Covered:
- Deliberate Practice (Kaizen Kata)
Who Should Read Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance?
- Change Agents
- Champions/Sponsors, Master Black Belts, Black Belts, Green Belts, Yellow Belts and White Belts
- Lean Practitioners
- Process Improvement Professionals
- Parents, Students, Educators & Athletes
From the Page:
“The four psychological assets of interest, practice, purpose, and hope are not ‘you have it or you don’t’ commodities. You can learn to discover, develop, and deepen your interests. You can acquire the habit of discipline. You can cultivate a sense of purpose and meaning. And you can teach yourself to hope.”