Duckworth, Angela. Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. Scribner, 2016. 333 pages. $28.00.
We have all achieved something in life, but few have thought deeply about the topic of accomplishment. Francis Galton, Charles Darwin, William James, and Angela Duckworth represent that second category. In the 1860s, Galton suggested in Hereditary Genius that overachievers or “outliers … are remarkable in three ways: they demonstrate unusual ‘ability’ in combination with exceptional ‘zeal’ and ‘the capacity for hard labor’” (qtd in Duckworth 20-21). When Galton’s cousin Charles Darwin read the above findings he expressed surprise, writing “I have always maintained that, excepting fools, men did not differ much in intellect, only in zeal and hard work; and I still think this is an eminently important difference” (qtd. in Duckworth 21). In the 1900s, William James wrote “The Energies of Men” and posited that “the human individual lives usually far within his limits; he possesses powers of various sorts which he habitually fails to use. He energizes below his maximum, and he behaves below his optimum” (qtd. in Duckworth 23). In the 2010s, scholar Angela Duckworth updates and complicates the topic of achievement.
Instead of referring to high achievers as outliers, she calls these people paragons of grit, a characteristic that melds being passionate with persevering. She also replaces the idea of ability, zeal, and hard labor with a belief in that magic that happens when talent and effort work together. Yes, Duckworth thinks, “talent—how fast we improve in skill—absolutely matters. But effort factors into the calculations twice, not once. Effort builds skills. At the very same time, effort makes skill productive” (42, italics in original). Grit is a blend of biological determinism and social construction; also, grit changes with age and the cultural era we grow up in. All paragons of grit have four psychological assets: they have interests; they practice to a level of mastery; they believe their passions are purposeful; they have hope that circumstances will improve (90-91). So closes Part I “What Grit Is and Why It Matters.”
Part II, “Growing Grit from the Inside out,” explores how we learn, acquire, and cultivate each asset. I found Duckworth’s writing on mastery most appealing. In the seventh chapter, we learn that gritty people practice differently: They create a stretch goal, “one narrow aspect of their overall performance” (121). Educators could easily adapt this approach when we discuss grades and goals with our students. We can discourage them from just wanting to do better in our classes and encourage them to find a specific way to improve. Is it by participating 25% more? Is it by writing longer and more thoughtful extended paragraphs? Is it by completing more mathematics problems in a shorter time? Gritty people, then, practice, observing the 10,000 hours dictum. Educators might need to take this wisdom in spirit, not in law, showing students how fifteen minutes of intense and focused practice over a month can improve any skill. The math here works out to 450 minutes or 7.5 hours of dedicated practice. Lastly, gritty people seek feedback from experts who emphasize, “what they did wrong—so they can fix it—[over what] what they did right” (122, italics in original). Here too is a chance for educators to modify the approach, because offering praise is equally important to criticism. We would need to learn about our students’ temperaments to best get them to continue to be gritty people.
In Part III, “Growing Grit from the Outside In,” Angela Duckworth offers some practical advice. We must be authoritative and supportive. We should encourage students to try an extracurricular that interest them and follow through by doing it for at least a year. Duckworth is most brilliant when she explains her Hard Thing Rule. In her household, everyone chooses something difficult to do, everyone can quit at a “natural stopping point” (241), and everyone picks the hard thing for herself/himself. Educators can model this behavior by talking to our students about the challenges we still have in learning and choosing a goal. For me, I always do the writing assignments along with my students and offer to show them my progress as I work on the project. I also try to teach at least one to three new texts each term, telling them about this explicitly and making my lessons during those times more of a workshop in how one scholar approaches a new text.
If we encourage our students to practice the Hard Thing Rule, we can change the way they think about genius. “If you define genius,” Duckworth writes on the last page of book, “as being able to accomplish great things in life without effort, then he [her father] was right: I’m no genius, and neither is he. But if, instead, you define genius as working toward excellence, ceaselessly, with every element of your being—then, in fact, my dad is a genius, and so am I, … and, if you’re willing, so are you” (277).
With fluid, coherent, and cohesive prose Duckworth presents her findings. Her technique with the rhetorical model of multiple examples and illustrations, though at times overdone, helps readers understand the various theories she presents. Overall, Grit deserves the praise it has received.