Somewhere around my freshman year of high school, I realized that successful students usually fell in one of two groups. The first group was made up of students who were naturally gifted, naturally smart. These kids didn’t have to study for hours to ace a test. They just got it. The other group was comprised of students who studied for hours and hours to get that A. Because it didn’t come naturally to them, they worked long and hard to make the grade.
I usually fell into the first group (math and science notwithstanding), but I remember respecting the kids in the latter camp immensely– for their perseverance, their drive, their dedication– and frankly, I envied their unwavering dedication.
So, it was particularly interesting for me to hear what teacher-turned-psychologist Angela Lee Duckworth had to say about that latter group in her fascinating TED talk
While teaching 7th
grade math at a New York public school, Duckworth noticed that IQ was not the only difference between her best and worst students. “Some of my strongest performers did not have stratospheric IQ scores. Some of my smartest kids weren’t doing so well.” Ultimately, she noticed that whether or not the student was successful came down to effort. Every one of them could learn the material, and get good grades, as long “as they worked long and hard enough.”
“What we need in education is a much better understanding of students and learning from a motivational perspective, from a psychological perspective,” Duckworth says. So she headed to graduate school to study precisely that.
She began a study that asked people from all walks of life– students at Cornell Business School, rookie teachers, kids at the National Spelling Bee, sales people– the following question: “Who is successful here, and why?”
It turns out that the #1 predictor of success, in every place she investigated, was grit, which is defined as
an individual’s passion for a particular long-term goal coupled with a powerful motivation to achieve it. Thus, an individual’s willingness to work extremely hard– day in and day out– to turn their desired future into reality is more important to success than IQ, talent or any other factor.
When your teacher told you to never give up, she wasn’t kidding.
Duckworth goes on to point out how little we really know about grit. How can we teach kids to be gritty? How can we motivate them to work hard over a long period of time? How can we ensure them that the road to success is a marathon, not a sprint? These are questions Duckworth is currently exploring in her research.
Others have explored these questions, including Justin Coulson, Ph.D. who posted Raising Gritty Kids
back in 2011 on his Happy Families blog. He recommends telling kids stories of determination and courage, and to point out when they themselves are being gritty. It’s always good to show rather than tell, so demonstrate grit firsthand: if you’re learning something new, talk to kids about the challenges and struggles you’re encountering, and remind them that regardless, you’re still at it.
Perhaps most importantly, encourage kids in their goals and be unwaveringly supportive. Lots of kids give up because they don’t think they can do it, and they’re scared of failure. Let them know that failure is okay– is normal, in fact– and encourage them to keep at it.
In the end, it turns out what I envied about those kids in the second group– those who were so dedicated and worked so hard for their success– was actually their grittiness. And now that we have proof of the importance of grit, we can better look for ways to foster it in ourselves and our children. Indeed, as Duckworth pithily concludes, “We need to be gritty about getting our kids grittier.”
Learn more about MacArthur Genius Angela Duckworth on Brain Pickings. And for further reading, check out How to Make Stress Your Friend.