Is ‘grit’ the new black? Probably not.

‘What single trait accounts for success’ is the question at the heart of this book.

Angela Duckwork’s answer is grit.

Her instant New York Times bestseller takes readers on a journey of what it takes to be a winner.

People who know what they want, enduring gruelling competitive environments to achieve. People who had the passion and relentless perseverance to stick at something until they were successful.

Grit has become wildly popular, both in praise and critique. It’s become a hot topic in education, with many schools around the world looking at how they can integrate this holy grail of success into education policy. In business, it’s seen as the trait to recruit and develop for. It’s also the topic of numerous TED talks, hailing it as ‘the secret to outstanding achievement’, ‘word of the year’ and ‘the next big thing that’s going to replace the failed self-esteem movement’.

After reading this book, I was left with two distinctly different emotions.

The first emotion was a sense of gratitude to Angela for her research. Much like Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule in his book Outliers, her findings highlight the valuable role persevering can play in our lives.

The second emotion however was less positive. I had a sense of unease, that grits public message was being sensationalised, when really, care is warranted in its use and application.

In this review, we discuss 4 underlying myths worth recognising when talking about grit, and explore why it may not be the new black its being hyped up to be.

Myth 1 — A single trait is more important than others

It’s been suggested many times throughout history — that there are silver bullets for success.

This book is another in this tradition, presenting story after story of why grit is accomplishments number one predictor.

While Duckworth recognises there may be other traits that support grit, its lost in a sea of seductive statements like; “the secret to outstanding achievement is not talent but a special blend of passion and persistence called grit.”

Duckworth provides a theory of achievement;

The reality, I’d suggest, is different. We live in a complex world. There are no silver bullets. No simple formulas. How do qualities like creativity, empathy, compassion, resilience, wellbeing and purpose fit into this ‘achievement’ formula? How do different context’s — being privileged, poor or discriminated against impact achievement? Is grit appropriate for the traumatised?

While there are undoubtedly simple habits for complex times, let’s not fool ourselves there is a single secret trait everyone should be aspiring to. Our world works on the beauty of diversity — and ideally we want a vibrant collection of traits performing in concert. While grit may be appropriate for some people in certain contexts, it’s no silver bullet.

Myth 2 — Success is an individualistic competitive pursuit

The book is full of examples of individuals and teams going to heroic lengths to be winners — not losers in competitive cultures. People who restlessly endure to get to the top of their field in some of the toughest and most gruelling conditions.

From cadet’s at west point, students surviving a competitive education system and Duckworth’s own experiences enduring Martin Seligman. Is this really how we want to define success and achievement? As a solo mission to ‘make it through’ and beat others in competitive cultures?

There are many ways to contextualise success — for example, what about our ability to come together with others and become partners in each other’s flourishing. Would grit be the no.1 trait in this culture? How relevant is grit in a contributive and cooperative culture? I don’t imagine it topping any trait lists in this context.

Myth 3 — We are effectively human doings

The grit message basically implies — grind away, and keep on grinding. That’s the essence of how you become accomplished. By doing.

As David Denby suggests in the New Yorker — it runs the risk of turning people into unrelenting success seeking drones. A culture of doing whatever it takes to make it.

However, does this take the humanity out of why we’re alive? Where is the discussion of how grit relates to our being? And is there a thing as too much grit?

Is this really how we want to define the beauty of our being?

Myth 4 — The upsides of grit outweigh its downsides

As Todd Kashdan points out in his recent psychology today article, grit is a recycled idea that has been kicking around in psychology for a while under the name ‘John Henyrism’ — and they found a number of noteworthy downsides, particularly for those in minority or traumatised groups.

“The scientific research on John Henyrism offers a stark contrast to the universal acclaim for grit… What they discovered was that young adults characterized by John Henyrism (grittiness) suffered…. higher blood pressure and higher risk for cardiovascular disease. And 25 years later, the toll continued. Slower mental speed. Poorer memory. Worse executive functioning — which means poorer attentional control, problem-solving, planning, and the mental flexibility to work through or around obstacles.”

“The physiological and psychological toll of grit is particularly pronounced in adults from disadvantaged backgrounds, who are minorities, who lack the financial and social capital to get through the trials of everyday life. People with the greatest hardships who are given the message that they just need to be a bit grittier, suffer greatly.”

It’s also not great for those in leadership positions.

“When the going gets tough, those at the top often take a single-minded, myopic approach. The belief that I can do this myself can lead to missed opportunities for successful collaboration and frustrated followers.… No matter how mighty and powerful the leader may be, fatigue eventually sets in — think of John Henry. Low self-awareness is directly related to fatigue. As followers begin to mirror the poor attitude and actions of tired leaders, relationships falter and dysfunction sets in.”

Therefore, there is a case to be made that the shadow side of grit may cause wide spread collateral damage to the lives of leaders, whole organisations and the lives of the disadvantaged and minority groups. And when you imagine the millions of dollars being spent in schools and businesses on this trait, these findings are rather alarming.

The power of myth

There is no doubt passion and perseverance can play a valuable role in our lives. This is a good message. But is it really ‘the secret’ of ‘outstanding achievement’ that we should all be aspiring too?

Sure, if you’re a privileged person, know what you want to achieve in a highly competitive culture, are willing to endure to win and don’t mind the side effects of higher blood pressure, higher risk for cardiovascular disease, slower mental speed and poorer memory — grit may be the secret sauce you’ve been looking for.

But for the rest of us, perhaps it’s something to be aware of and to be used with care.

Where grits public message worries me the most is when I think of the young people all over the world who are being told grit is the trait of success . What are we doing when we get “gritty about getting our kids grittier”? Telling them that life is about enduring to achieve, rather than becoming yourself and using your uniqueness to play a valuable role in the communities and ecosystems we belong.

What worries me further is how Duckworth has since acknowledged that “grit isn’t everything” and impact of grit is modest.

This is where we have to bring the public messaging of grit into serious question. Sensationalising research like this gives science a bad name, as highlighted by John Oliver in this awesome episode of Last Week Tonight.

The questions I’d like to leave you with are; as individuals living in a global society, what myths do we want to be living? Who do we really want to be as people? What kinds of cultures do we really want to create? What myths about achievement and purpose do we want to be passing onto our children?

These questions are at the heart of why I started the Benefit Mindset project. A project that puts concepts like grit, growth mindsets and our aspirations for success into the context of what it means to be a whole human being in a profoundly interconnected world.

If this is a conversation you’d like to be having, we’d love to have you in our community.

Benefit Mindset

Creating cultures of everyday leadership

Ash Buchanan

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Social Innovation | Benefit Mindset I Wellbeing Design I Regenerative Development

Benefit Mindset

Creating cultures of everyday leadership