There’s Grit, and Then There’s True Grit

(An updated version of this blog post was published in The New Rambler)

In her recent book, Grit:  The Power of Passion and Perseverance, psychologist Angela Duckworth argues that the secret to success — whether for parents, students, educators, athletes, or business people — is not talent, but a combination of passion and perseverance she calls “grit.”

The dictionary definition of “grit” is “mental toughness or courage.” The term calls to mind gritting or clenching the teeth when facing up to an unpleasant task, or it makes us think of small particles of sand or stone that irritate skin, get in the eyes, clog machinery — the idea being that an individual with grit perseveres in the face of these frictions.

The gritty individual approaches achievement as a marathon; his or her advantage is stamina. Whereas disappointment or boredom signals to others that it is time to change trajectory and cut losses, the gritty individual stays the course.

Duckworth, Peterson, Matthews, Kelly, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2007

Packaged for a self-help audience, the book is filled with stories about how grit contributed to the achievements of celebrities and other successful individuals, and it makes for fun and informative reading.  However, many of us understand the point already, if for no other reason than we’ve seen the movie, True Grit (either the 1969 version starring John Wayne or the 2010 version with Jeff Bridges) or read the 1968 novel by Charles Portis on which the films were based.

While Duckworth does a nice job, her thesis falls short in that it fails to consider grit in the context of alternative mental strategies or consider the drawbacks and risks of grit.  Interestingly, a more balanced assessment comes through in a close reading of True Grit.

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There’s Grit, and Then There’s True Grit