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Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth

Life Blog

Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth

Hannah Murray

by Hannah Murray, May 22, 2019



grit-cover.jpg

I recently read the book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth and dog-eared so many pages and underlined so many lessons that I thought it deserved a review. Firstly, I cannot recommend this book enough; It is vast and full of interesting anecdotes, stories, studies, data, and information. I read, and reread this book and felt motivated to keep working towards my goals and challenge how I work towards my ambitions. Just reading this book made me feel more gritty.  And while I think everyone should read this book cover to cover multiple times, and then submit a book report, here is a summary of my biggest takeaways from the book sprinkled.  I have also included a few insights from music teachers interviewed by Esther Fellows for her article "Develop Grit: How do you develop grit in the student who folds under pressure?" published in AMT Volume 62, No. 4, February/March 2019.

The premise of Duckworth’s book is that hard work over time leads to more success than just talent alone and that often; we are testing and training the wrong skills in life. She emphasizes that grit is a learned skill or trait that anyone has, can improve, and can encourage in others (if you’re curious where you fall on the grit scale, you can take the quiz here.

As a teacher and performer, I read this book for two main reasons: “how can I be grittier and achieve more?" and “how can I foster grit in my students?” Duckworth applauds sports, the performing arts, and most extracurricular activities as essential grit building endeavors (I’ll get to that later). You can watch Duckworth’s Ted Talk below:

 Grit

Duckworth defines grit as a combination of passion and perseverance. But passion, in this case, is not the infatuation and obsession we typically associate with the word. In this case, Duckworth recommends that we should reframe passion as "the idea of consistency over time…Enthusiasm is common. Endurance is rare." [1] Jeff Gettleman, the East African bureau chief for the New York Times, thinks of passion more as a compass, “the thing that takes you some time to build, tinker with, and finally get right, and that then guides you on your long and winding road to where, ultimately, you want to be.” [2]

Thomas Lanners, professor of piano at Oklahoma State University, defines grit as “…synonymous with perseverance. Because there are psychological elements involved, its development must typically be charted over a broad time period.” He also notes that "the fear of Failure…is the greatest obstacle to the development of gritty determination.” [3]

Developing Grit

But how do you build grit? How do you enhance your own levels of grit?

An essential element of grit is having a hierarchy of goals: top level, mid-level, and low-level. Pete Carroll, the head coach of the Seattle Seahawks, sums this up by saying that you have to have a philosophy that drives all of your actions. Low-level goals are concrete and specific and are tasks that must be completed in the short term. We want to accomplish them because they get us something else that we want. The higher the goal on the hierarchy, the more abstract, general, and important it is. “Grit is about holding the same top-level goal for a very long time…a lack of grit can come from having less coherent goal structures.” [4]

Dr. Meredith Blecha-Wells, associate professor of cello at Oklahoma State University, agrees with this statement in her contribution to Fellows’ article by saying, "Anyone can develop grit through understanding goals and daily habits…Human beings are extremely goal-driven, and it is important for students to delineate their goals in a hierarchy with a clear life-long goal…being in touch with one's life-defining goal can help ease anxiety when a student is feeling under pressure.” Blecha-Wells also emphasizes seeing setbacks as learning tools, or poor auditions as a way to improve is the real motivator of all of the practice tips listed in this article. This perseverance through the hard times and short-term setbacks is essential to learning how to be gritty. [5]

When Carroll talks about having a philosophy that drives all of your actions, he is referring to a top-level goal that motivates all of the more straightforward or smaller tasks that you need to do. Example: I want to be a professional musician is my philosophy or top tier goal. Therefore one of my low-level goals might be to practice scales every day.)

What if you can’t figure out your top-tier goals? What if it all seems a little hazy and unsure? Warren Buffett recommends the following 3-step process to prioritizing your goals.

1.    Write down a list of 25 career goals

2.    Do some soul searching

3.    Circle ONLY the 5 highest priority goals

4.    Take a good hard look at the 20 goals you didn’t circle and avoid them at all costs. 

Okay, that was four, but you get the idea. Writing all these things down and then selecting your top five is an easy way to visualize some of the possibilities and then finding the ones that resonate with you. “High-level goals get written in ink, once you’ve done enough living and reflecting to know what that goal is, and the lower-level goals get written in pencil, so you can revise them and sometimes erase them all together, and then figure out new ones to take their place.” [6] In that way, you are organizing your goals and priorities in a structure that has purpose.

 

How do you grow grit?

This one is fascinating. Growing grit is essential to success later on in life. Naturally, we all want to know how to develop grit. Duckworth boils it down to the following basic components:

-      Interest. Passion begins with intrinsically, enjoying what you do.

-      Practice. The daily discipline of trying to do things better than we did yesterday

-      Purpose. The conviction that your work matters.

-      Hope. Hope is a rise-to-the-occasion kind of perseverance. It defines every stage of grit. [7]

“What follows the initial discovery of an interest is a much lengthier and increasingly proactive period of interest development. Additionally, interests thrive when there is a support system including parents, teachers, coaches, and peers.” [8]

Dr. Laura Talbot, the violin and viola professor at Oklahoma State University, states:

 “To build grit, we have to meet the student where they are, as well as offer opportunities to build new habits…Research proves that educational environments designed to support the students' development of autonomy, competence, and relatedness inspire intrinsic motivation. Actively listening to students' needs creates connection. Engaging them in finding solutions encourages them to develop their creative thinking and problem-solving skills. Empowering them to set goals based on their values and aspirations transforms them from a state of passive learning to active making." [9]

According to Benjamin Bloom, who interviewed 120 world-class athletes, artists, and scientists, plus their parents, coaches, and teachers, the development of skill progresses through three different stages; Interests are discovered and developed in the "early years." Encouragement is crucial because beginners are still figuring out if they want to commit or not. The best mentors at this stage are warm and supportive and make the initial learning very pleasant and rewarding. Much of the introduction to the field was a playful activity, and the learning was like a game. Warning: Overbearing teachers and parents at this stage erode intrinsic motivation.

As beginners, we need:

  • Encouragement and freedom to figure out what we enjoy.

  • Small Wins

  • Applause

  • A little bit of criticism and corrective feedback

  • Practice (but not too much or too soon) [10]

 

Practice

Experts log thousands of hours of practice (think about Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule) but what is crucial is NOT that experts log more hours, it’s that experts practice differently, they log what cognitive psychologist Anders Ericsson calls deliberate practice. [11] It is important to adopt these practice tools and methods as early as possible to achieve high levels of success. Deliberate practice is the process of breaking down an ability into its component skills, each of which can be practiced exhaustively. According to the finalists of the National Spelling Bee (who Duckworth interviewed), deliberate practice predicted advancing to further rounds in final competition far better than any other kind of preparation. [12] Deliberate practice is more effortfuland significantly less enjoyable. “…working at the far edge of our skills with complete concentration is exhausting…even work class performers at the PEAK of their careers can only handle a maximum of one hour of deliberate practice before needing a break, and in total, can only do about three to five hours of deliberate practice per day.” [13]

As a teacher or parent with a very young student/child enforcing these habits and not just emphasizing time practicing could be the difference between progress and significant progress.

How experts practice:

1.    They set a stretch goal. Experts strive to improve specific weaknesses and don’t focus on what they already do well. They seek out challenges they can’t meet. Then they (with undivided attention) strive to reach their stretch goal.

2.    As soon as possible, experts seek feedback. Necessarily, most of it is negative. Experts are more interested in what they're doing wrong so they can fix it.

3.    Repeat steps 1 and 2 over and over again until what was a struggle is now fluent and flawless.

4.    Start the entire process over again with a new stretch goal. [14]

The basic requirements of deliberate practice:

-      A clearly defined stretch goal

-      Full concentration and effort

-      Immediate and informative feedback

-      Repetition with Reflection and refinement

Lastly, deliberate practice must become a habit. Just doing these things once in a while will not yield the results one wants without consistent work.

 

“What can I do to encourage grit in the people I care for?”

The following are Duckworth’s suggestions for helping others grow their grit:

-      Learn discipline and go at things hard – whatever they signed up for they had to see it through (tough love)

-      Unconditional support

-      No either/or trade-off between supportive parenting and demanding parenting. [15] "Almost without exception, the supportive and demanding parents were models of the work ethic in that they were regarded as hard workers, they did their best in whatever they tried, they believed that work should come before play and that one should work towards distant goals. [16]

-      Growing up with support, respect, and high standards. Wise parenting encourages children to emulate their parents

-      “If you want to bring forth grit in your child, first ask how much passion and perseverance you have for your own life goals. Then ask yourself how likely it is that your approach to parenting encourages your child to emulate you.” [17]

-      Psychologically wise teachers can make a huge difference in the lives of their students. [18] It is the wise teachers who seem to promote competence in addition to well-being, engagement, and high hopes for the future.

-      Stay positive. “go past those negative beliefs in what’s possible and impossible and just give it a try.”

-      “You don’t need to be a parent to make a difference in someone’s life. If you just care about them and get to know what’s going on, you can make an impact. Try to understand what’s going on in their life and help them through that.” [19]

 

The Playing Fields of Grit

Duckworth recommends that as soon as your child is old enough, you find something they might enjoy doing OUTSIDE OF CLASS and sign them up; “Kids who spend more than a year in extracurriculars are significantly more likely to graduate from college and, as young adults, to volunteer in their communities. The hours per week, kids devote to extracurriculars also predict having a job and earning more money, but ONLY for kids who participate in activities for two years rather than one.” [20]

Follow-Through is the most important factor for success in life. It doesn't matter what extracurricular they chose. The key is that students had signed up for SOMETHING, signed up AGAIN the following year, and during that time had made some PROGRESS. "Following through on our commitments while we grow up both REQUIRES grit, at the same time, BUILDS it." [21]

Conclusion

What we accomplish in life depends tremendously on our grit – our passion and perseverance for long-term goals. Yes, there are of course other factors at play in our lives, but as Duckworth says, "We all face limits – not just in talent, but in opportunity. But more often than we think, our limits are self-imposed. We try, fail, and conclude we've bumped our heads against the ceiling of possibility." [22] I am not in any way trying to diminish the hurdles in any person's life, but I agree that grit is a significant component to success. I see it all the time with my private students and group students that I teach all over the country. "To be gritty is to keep putting one foot in front of the other. To be gritty is to hold fast to an interesting and purposeful goal. To be gritty is to fall down seven times, and rise eight." [23] The will to persevere, and to keep trying is more indicative to me of a good student than one who shows promise, fails once, and then gives up soon after or stops trying (I could write a book about this last part). The good news for all of us is that anyone and everyone can improve their grit.

You can grow your grit from the inside out by cultivating your interests and developing a daily habit of challenge-exceeding skill practice.  You can also grow your grit from the outside in by surrounding yourself with parents, coaches, teachers, bosses, mentors, friends, etc. who support you and guide you on your journey in whatever endeavor you pursue. Developing your personal grit depends critically on other people. [24]

Sources

[1] Duckworth, Angela. Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, Scribner. 2016. (57-58).

[2] Duckworth. Grit, (60).

[3] Fellows, Esther. "Develop Grit: How do you develop grit in the student who folds under pressure?" American Music Teacher, Volume 62, No. 4, February/March 2019 (8-12).

[4] Duckworth. Grit, (64).

[5] Fellows, "Develop Grit," (10).

[6] Duckworth. Grit, (69).

[7] Ibid., (91).

[8] Ibid., (105).

[9] Fellows, "Develop Grit," (8).

[10] Duckworth. Grit, (107-8).

[11] Ibid., (120).

[12] Ibid., (126).

[13] Ibid., (127).

[14] Ibid., (121-123).

[15] Ibid., (211).

[16] Ibid., (215-216).

[17] Ibid., (216).

[18] Ibid., (218).

[19] Ibid., (222).

[20] Ibid., (226).

[21] Ibid., (233).

[22] Ibid., (275).

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid., (269).