The Virtue of Hard Things

By Emily Esfahani Smith, The Wall Street Journal

A study of Ivy League undergraduates showed that the smarter the students were, as measured by SAT scores, the less they persevered. Most people would think of John Irving as a gifted wordsmith. He is the author of best-selling novels celebrated for their Dickensian plots, including “The Cider House Rules” and “The World According to Garp.” But Mr. Irving has severe dyslexia, was a C-minus English student in high school and scored 475 out of 800 on the SAT verbal test. How, then, did he have such a remarkably successful career as a writer?

Angela Duckworth argues that the answer is “grit,” which she defines as a combination of passion and perseverance in the pursuit of a long-term goal. The author, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, has spent the past decade studying why some people have extraordinary success and others do not. “Grit” is a fascinating tour of the psychological research on success and also tells the stories of many gritty exemplars, from New Yorker cartoon editor Bob Mankoff, who submitted some 2,000 drawings to the magazine before one was accepted, to actor Will Smith, who explains his success as follows: “The only thing that I see that is distinctly different about me is: I’m not afraid to die on a treadmill. . . . If we get on the treadmill together, there’s two things: You’re getting off first, or I’m going to die.”

As for Mr. Irving, though verbal fluency did not come easily to him as a young man, what he lacked in aptitude he made up for in effort. In school, if his peers allotted one hour to an assignment, he devoted two or three. As a writer, he works very slowly, constantly revising drafts of his novels. “In doing something over and over again,” he has said, “something that was never natural becomes almost second nature.”

Ms. Duckworth first realized the importance of grit as a teacher. Before she became an academic, she worked as a seventh-grade math teacher at a public school in New York. Some of her students were more inherently gifted with numbers than others. But not all of these capable students, to her surprise, got the best grades. Those who did weren’t always “math people”: For the most part, they were those who consistently invested more time and effort in their work.

Ms. Duckworth decided to become a research psychologist to figure out what explained their success. One of her first studies was of West Point cadets. Every year, West Point enrolls more than 1,000 students, but 20% of cadets drop out before graduation. Many quit in their first two months, during an intense training program known as Beast Barracks, or Beast. The most important factor in West Point admissions is the Whole Candidate Score, a composite measure of test scores, high-school rank, leadership potential and physical fitness. But Ms. Duckworth found that this score, which is essentially a measure of innate ability, did not predict who dropped out during Beast.She created her own “Grit Scale,” scored using cadets’ responses to statements like “I finish whatever I begin” or “New ideas and projects sometimes distract me from previous ones.” Those who scored highest on the Grit Scale were the most likely to make it to the end of Beast.

It’s a similar story among the other groups that Ms. Duckworth writes about here, including spelling-bee champions and sales associates: Grit predicts their success more robustly than innate ability. And there is no positive correlation between ability and grit. A study of Ivy League undergraduates even showed that the smarter the students were, as measured by SAT scores, the less gritty they were.

Grit may be defined by strenuous effort, but what drives that work, Ms. Duckworth finds, is passion, and a great service of Ms. Duckworth’s book is her down-to-earth definition of passion. To be gritty, an individual doesn’t need to have an obsessive infatuation with a goal. Rather, he needs to show “consistency over time.” The grittiest people have developed long-term goals and are constantly working toward them. “Enthusiasm is common,” she writes. “Endurance is rare.”

This raises a question: What if someone doesn’t feel particularly passionate about anything? Ms. Duckworth’s research focuses on children, and she does not shy away from dispensing advice to adults on how to cultivate passion in kids. If children aren’t overscheduled or under the shadow of a hovering parent, chances are that they will naturally develop some interests, and an adult’s role is to give them the time and support to explore those interests. When Jeff Bezos was in middle school, for example, he was constantly inventing mechanical gizmos. His mother took him to RadioShack—sometimes four times in one day—to help him get parts.

But even preternaturally gifted people reach a point where their talent is not enough. Here the second part of grit—perseverance—becomes critically important. Adults must expect the children in their care to see their interests through. Ms. Duckworth tells the story of NFL quarterback Steve Young, who had a disappointing first semester on the Brigham Young football team and wanted to come home. His father told him: “You can quit. . . . But you can’t come home because I’m not going to live with a quitter.”

This sounds very harsh. Yet Ms. Duckworth cites research showing that when adults set high expectations, while also providing support, kids respond by upping their game. So it was with Young. “It was tough, but it was loving,” he said about his father’s response. Young stayed on, eventually winning an award for best collegiate quarterback.

In her own home, Ms. Duckworth has instituted the Hard Thing Rule. She, her husband and their two teenagers commit themselves to one difficult activity that they choose and that requires daily practice. They cannot quit until there is a natural stopping point, like the end of the season. For one daughter, it’s playing the viola. For the other, it’s piano. The point of the Hard Thing Rule is not for her daughters to become professional musicians—but for them to learn how to follow through.

Read the article: Smith, E.E. (2016, May 4). The virtue of hard things. The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from

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