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Book Review-Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance

Angela Duckworth’s work on grit has come up in my research more than a few times. Her book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance was most recently mentioned in The Gift of Failure, and it was then that I realized that I couldn’t delay reading it any longer, despite having made a mistake.

My Mistake

Slightly less than a year ago, I was flipping through an email from with a list of books that were discounted. I saw the book Grit: How to Keep Going When You Want to Give Up and bought it. I at some point noticed the author wasn’t Angela Duckworth and was confused until I realized that it wasn’t the book I thought it was.

Compared to Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, Grit: How to Keep Going When You Want to Give Up pales. Not that it doesn’t still have value, just that there’s a richness in Duckworth’s writing that just isn’t there in the other title.

Put Out the Fire

One Leads

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 (see Willpower). 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.

Gritty Stages

Duckworth explains that grit starts with interest. Our reticular activating system (RAS) flags an experience as interesting. (See Change or Die for more.) 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. Ericsson explains in Peak that deliberate practice is essential for becoming the top of your field. It is, and Duckworth agrees, 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.

Hopefully Filled with Grit

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.

Work Ethic

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. Carol Dweck’s work, discussed in Mindset, lays out how even just changing your perspective to one where work matters more than results can have profound impacts in your life.

In Extreme Productivity: Boost Your Results, Reduce Your Hours, Bob Pozen talks about the hard work that he put in – and still puts in. Despite the lack of a grand plan for his life, he’s done well. He has done well because he’s worked at it.

Will Smith said, “I’m not afraid to die on a treadmill. I will not be outworked, period.” It’s not a coincidence that he’s one of the most popular entertainers of all time. It’s that dedication to working hard that pays off over the long term.

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.

Sausage Making

The awareness that it is the work ethic that matters isn’t enough to change our biased desires for talent. We like the idea that someone has it made, that they’re good because they’re good. This belief shields us from a need to work, to do deliberate practice, and to transform ourselves into something better.

We don’t want to see the hard work that goes into the process of greatness. We don’t want to see every swim at 4AM. We don’t want to see all the failed attempts. It takes away the mystery. If you see all the preparation to become great, it makes greatness achievable – and something that we’ve not done. If we see only the end, only the final piece – then we see magic. That’s what we want to see. We want to see the magic of what humans can really do. (See The Rise of Superman for more.)

Peak and Flow

As someone who has read Ericsson’s work in Peak and Csikszentmihalyi’s work in Flow and Finding Flow, I was intrigued by something that is seemingly a contradiction that Duckworth noticed. Ericsson speaks about deliberate practice being the thing that allows people to reach the peak of their professions. He describes it as uncomfortable, deliberate work that those committed to their craft endure to improve.

Csikszentmihalyi speaks of flow as this effortless, highly-productive state where it feels good. How can it be both intentional, repetitive, and time-taking – and thoughtless and free-flowing, where time seems to disappear.

The initial answer that Duckworth comes to – after seeing the two “debate” their differing perspectives – is that Ericsson speaks of what experts do. Csikszentmihalyi speaks of how they feel. However, that is not the complete answer.

The complete answer that she comes to is that peak performers do the hard work of deliberate practice so they can get into flow. Deliberate practice is for preparation and building skills. Flow is for performance – for the act of using those skills. They are not contradictory as they may seem on the surface. They’re actually complementary views of people who are driven to demonstrate what they can do for the world.

Work on Strengths or Work on Weaknesses

One of the areas where there is some disagreement when it comes to self-help psychology books is whether you should work on your strengths or whether you should work on your weaknesses. Sometimes you’ll hear that you should ignore your weaknesses and compensate for them by engaging other people, shifting work, or in other ways minimizing weaknesses’ impact. The reasoning goes that you’ll make more progress working on the things that you’re already good at. You’ll be able to stand out if you do one thing truly greatly. (For some examples, look at books like Strengths Finder, The ONE Thing, and The Innovator’s DNA.)

Conversely, some books speak of your Achilles’ heel. They talk about the things that are holding you back that you must break free from. These things, they argue, are the greatest leverage to improving your life. If you can just fix them, then you won’t be cleaning up so many messes.

So, the question is which one is right? They can’t both be right, can they? The answer may be both yes and no.

If you have the capacity to work on your limitations, you may make your greatest gains there. Moving from deficient to passable may be enough. (See Willpower when considering your capacity.) In truth, you can improve at any aspect of your world if you’re able to work on it. It’s just that it’s sometimes harder (requires more grit) to work on the things that we’re not good at. If we can really work on it rather than practicing cognitive dissonance (see The Largest Gap in the World – Between Saying and Doing for more), then we can make great gains. Conversely, if we can’t, then we should work on our strengths, because we can make those better with the need for less grit.

Goal Hierarchy

Often from the outside looking in, it appears that gritty people become singularly focused on everything they do and they force those things to happen. This obviously can’t be correct, because you can’t focus on everything – that’s a lack of focus. However, you can focus on what matters and become unwavering in your desire to get what really matters done.

We speak of goals, but all goals really aren’t created equal. Some goals are in support of other goals. In fact, some goals are means to an end. For instance, though people speak of a desire for training, people don’t intrinsically want training. Training is always a means to an end. For an employer, it might be greater productivity. For an employee, it might be a better job making more money or doing something that is more intrinsically rewarding. For a person, the reason for training may be learning. In every case, no one really wants training – that’s the means. Employers would be fine if employees were more productive and they didn’t have to pay to send people through training.

Sometimes we set goals to finish homework so that we get a good grade in the course… so that we get our degree… so we can get a good job… so we can get married to someone great… so that we can raise great kids. In these, we’re focused on the means to get to the end that we want. Gritty people don’t get focused on the means. They stay focused on the ends.

It may be that you can’t finish your homework. You might even fail a course. Gritty people decide whether they can take the course again and pass it – or find an alternative course that still allows them to meet their higher-level goals. If one of the lower-level goals that are simply a means to an end fail, they simply shift. They decide to look someplace else.

I look at our highest-level goals as our mission in life. This is the “why” from Start with Why. (How Will You Measure Your Life? may also be helpful in finding this mission.) Under our mission are a set of goals that I call “strategies” – we believe that if these high-level things happen, then our mission will be successful. Under these strategies are goals which I’ll call “tactics.” These tactics lead us to the strategies. For each tactic, there are a set of tasks that need to be done for the tactic to succeed.

Failing at a task, tactic, or strategy causes gritty people to evaluate whether they want to try a different approach – or whether they need to redouble their efforts in this task, tactic, or strategy. Failing at a mission causes gritty people to get up and dust themselves off. They follow the Japanese saying, “fall seven, rise eight.”

Maybe you’ve been knocked down again. Maybe you’re wondering how to be grittier. Or maybe you’re just wondering how gritty you are. Maybe it’s the time to dust yourself off and pick up Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.

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