Review of Angela Duckworth’s Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance

If you’re looking for a single metric that measures the ability for someone to become successful in life, it might be grit – but, as the title of the book indicates, grit is an aggregate indicator. It encompasses both passion and perseverance. So, which comes first? Does passion come first or does perseverance? The answer is both – sort of.

Passion develops after people have been able to experience life and discover what it is that’s truly important to them. Passion is like a blazing bonfire. But it doesn’t start out that way. It’s cultivated from a small spark, then a fragile flame. Passion, which ultimately can provide great power to someone’s life, starts small.

What fans the flames of passion? Perseverance. It’s perseverance that nurtures the gentle flame until it becomes a solid fire. Paradoxically, perseverance is itself fragile. Like willpower, it’s an exhaustible resource that isn’t limitless. Perseverance can only last so long, but the warm fire of a burning passion can reenergize it and create more perseverance. So they lead to one another.

However, the relationship between perseverance and passion is even more complicated than this. While passion doesn’t develop until you’ve had a variety of experiences and the opportunity to find the ones which are the most important to you, it’s perseverance that allows you to discover your passion, as it keeps you exploring the world and seeking new experiences.

So perseverance is the genesis of grit, but perseverance without passion will eventually run out of steam. Perhaps it runs out of steam because it requires a degree of hope.

Duckworth explains that grit starts with interest. Our reticular activating system (RAS) flags an experience as interesting. From there, a bit of enjoyment will cause us to come back and do more. I’d soften Duckworth’s statement a bit. I don’t think that the genesis must be a specific interest in an activity. I’ve seen people develop passions that were sparked initially by their zeal for life and not necessarily archery, serving at a soup kitchen, etc. Their interest was substantially more diffuse than seems to be suggested.

After interest comes the capacity to practice. Deliberate practice is essential for becoming the top of your field. It is the constant drive to become better at one specific, measurable aspect of something, which allows people to become great at what they do. Duckworth is careful to say that deliberate practice isn’t any fun. It’s not the part that folks enjoy.

The third stage of grit is purpose. This is the belief that your work matters. Purpose may be small, like providing for my family – or large, like reducing pollution of the Earth; but fundamentally, purpose means that what you’re doing matters. That’s true even if it only seems to matter to you.

Duckworth describes hope as the last stage – but also a part of every stage. Hope as an end stage is the belief that you’ll rise to the occasion – that you’ll overcome. She’s also cautious to say that you need hope at every stage.

The Psychology of Hope explains that hope is created from two components. The first is willpower – that is, the decision to make things happen (or not happen). The second is waypower – that is, the skills, talents, time, and treasures to make it happen. Because of the waypower component, the more skills you develop, the more hopeful you become. The more hopeful you become, the more likely you are to be gritty.

Even the most hopeful people in the world are faced with despair from time to time. There are times when hope fades and what you’re left with is only willpower and the unflinching desire to make it work – whatever it is. That’s the heart of grit. It means working when you don’t feel like it. It means working when you don’t know whether you’ll make it or not – but you’re convinced that you must try. It also means knowing what you can sustain.

Duckworth calls it “effort.” It figures in twice to her equation for grit. The first part is in the development of skill. She says that talent multiplied by effort equals skill. She goes on to say that skill multiplied by effort equals achievement. If you want to achieve something in life, effort counts exponentially more than talent. This is a conclusion that other researchers have reached as well.

Work isn’t about short bursts of limitless energy. It’s not the all-nighters that matter. It’s the things that you do consistently. It’s the things that you do day after day, week after week, month after month, and year after year. If you look deeply at the success of most people, you’ll find years and years of toil and turmoil. Though a work ethic can’t guarantee success, it can change the odds.

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