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.

If you’re not familiar with the story, True Grit is set in Arkansas in the late 19th century. The heroine is a 14-year old girl named Mattie Ross who sets out to avenge her father’s murder.  Arriving in Fort Smith, she identifies Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn as a man of “true grit” — largely because of the twenty-three outlaws he has reportedly shot dead during his four-year employment as a U.S. Marshall — and hires him to track down the killer.

While Cogburn is no doubt a man of grit under the conventional definition, people reading the story commonly apply the label “true grit” to 14-year old Mattie.  Her boldness, decisiveness, and toughness are remarkable for a young girl on the western frontier.  She impresses and irritates the adults in the novel with her “saucy” and demanding behavior, threatening lawsuits left and right, and refusing to be bullied when she is in the right.  Mattie insists on accompanying Cogburn into outlaw territory, keeps up with him during rough travels, and survives shoot-outs unfazed.  In the novel’s climatic scene, she fires her father’s ancient pistol, sending “a lead ball of justice, too long delayed, into the criminal head” of her father’s killer.

Mattie Ross
Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross in 2010’s True Grit

Mattie Ross is a remarkable character, but she’s not necessarily a nice person.  She drives hard bargains, is quick to call people “trash,” and acknowledges a “mean streak.”  She is driven by a powerful sense of accountability, but her motive in the pursuit of her father’s killer is nothing more noble than personal vengeance:  “I would not rest easy until that Louisiana cur was roasting and screaming in hell!”  In “hotheaded” pursuit of vengeance, she doesn’t pause to assess the risk to herself or the implications for her family, and but for luck, she would have been killed, leaving her ailing mother in the lurch.  As it is, she suffers a snake bite, loses an arm, and nearly dies.  The novel ends twenty-five years later, with Mattie running a profitable bank and caring for her invalid mother.  She’s intelligent, blunt, and hard-hearted.  Uninterested in marriage, she admits she loves the Church and her bank and little else.  I think most readers would respect her toughness and acuity but find Mattie an unsympathetic character and someone difficult to like.

In contrast, Rooster Cogburn is overweight, drunk, and a drifter.  His stint as U.S. Marshall is only a brief interlude in a life without lasting accomplishment that finally comes to an end as a performer in a western circus.  Lack of singular focus on long-term goals would disqualify him for grit status under Duckworth’s definition.  Yet at the decisive moment, he risks his life to rescue Mattie, standing up against overwhelming odds, then riding his horse to death and running with her in his arms, to get her to a doctor before it’s too late.  He is revealed as a man of great heart, and in the reader’s eyes a single decisive action redeems a dissolute life.

John Wayne
John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn in the 1969 film adaption of True Grit

(You can take your choice which character is supposed to represent “true” grit, but regardless what’s interesting is that Duckworth appears to share some of Mattie Ross’ passion for accountability, a possible attribute of the gritty personality.  In the preface to her book, Duckworth calls out her father for belittling her as a child.  “You’re no genius,” he would comment, a stinging rebuke from a father who was a successful scientist.  But Duckworth lets us know that she got the last word:  she wins a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship “Genius Grant,” while he now struggles with Parkinsons.)

Mattie’s character sparks the question whether you can have too much grit.  Duckworth uses the words “passion” and “perseverance” to define grit, but we could think of it more simply as having a high threshold for changing strategy, as in Winston Churchill’s famous speech, “Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never–in nothing, great or small, large or petty—never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense.”

The opposite of grit might be “sensitivity,” i.e., having a low threshold for change, which could be thought of not only as being quick to give up, but also as being quick to react to changing circumstances or having a taste for novelty.  In the last chapter of the book, Duckworth acknowledges that:

It isn’t hard to think of situations in which giving up is the best course of action. You may recall times you stuck with an idea, sport, job, or romantic partner longer than you should have.

— Angela Duckworth

Unfortunately, this acknowledgement tends to pull the rug out from under the thesis that grit is key to success.  “You should never give up — unless it’s the best course of action” — this advice seems rather difficult to operationalize.

Indeed, there are lots of times when giving up is smart.  Consider the gritty investor who’s willing to bear the cognitive stress of owning unpopular but cheap stocks.  Investors who persevered in this strategy during the financial crash of 2007-9 were in many cases wiped out.  More broadly, in business you can only persevere as long as your capital holds out.  Athletes who are too gritty risk getting sidelined by injury.

In the 2007 paper, Duckworth and her co-authors found that people who scored a standard deviation above average on grit were 35% less likely to change jobs. But if a company is foundering or badly managed, jumping ship might be smart.  Who is grittier, the emigrants who strike out for new opportunities, or their peers who stick it out in the home country?

No doubt grit plays a role in success, but sensitivity is an important quality, too.  Consider Henry David Thoreau, a man whose “life showed a devotion to principle such as one life in millions does not show,” according to the naturalist John Burroughs.  But Thoreau was by his own admission, “a dry fellow” who disliked manners and rarely looked people in their faces — and his contemporaries found him argumentative and difficult to like.  Thoreau would not have made a good salesman, negotiator, politician, diplomat, or trader — when working with other people, it’s important to sense change, respect other opinions, and compromise.

There’s something to be said for a “taste for novelty.”  Spartans showed a lot of grit, but it is the other regions of ancient Greece, like free-wheeling Athens, that are responsible for the art, literature, and philosophy that we treasure today.  Gritty people might be less innovative.

Like any evolutionary strategy, grit has both positives and negatives, and this is the reason why, I’d guess, that grit has not played out as an important predictive variable in statistical studies.  In the 2007 study noted above, grit explained only 4% of the variance in successful outcomes.  In a 2014 study, the authors concluded that grit adds no meaningful explanatory power to the prediction of academic achievement beyond traditional personality factors such as conscientiousness.  On an anecdotal basis, while the success stories Duckworth relates in her book are interesting and in some cases compelling, the sample suffers from survivorship bias:  she didn’t interview gritty people who failed.

On a personal note, as a marathon runner and someone who scores at the 95th percentile on Duckworth’s grit scale, I agree that passion and perseverance are important.  But when Duckworth calls for more grit in school, at work, and in our culture, the image of Mattie Ross pops into my mind, and I hesitate to endorse the recommendation.  Nature has sprinkled grit and sensitivity in different amounts across the human population, because different strategies work better in different environments.  If you feel you need more grit, you can go for a run — but if your kids, friends, or colleagues would rather just hang out, that’s OK, too.

(On the subject of grit and running, here is an interesting podcast from the Science of Running series, where track coaches Steve Magness and Jon Marcus discuss “grit” as a quality of successful athletes)

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

3 thoughts on “There’s Grit, and Then There’s True Grit

  1. Dan Rosenthal says:

    Ken, I just heard about this on NPR. As a teacher I think grit is at least as important for student success as ability or specific skills. I guess I could have used some more grit this weekend in my Allegheny 100 challenge.


  2. Dan, your experience reminds me of DNFing a 100-mile race which was harder than I realized. I had bit off more than I could chew! But it sounds to me like you made a very sensible decision, weighing your desire to complete the event against the risk of driving home in a sleep-deprived state, which could be dangerous. Too much grit is not necessarily a good thing, which was one of the points I was making in the blog post. In True Grit, Mattie Ross took huge risks in pursuing her father’s killer and if it hadn’t been for luck, she would’ve been dead! As it was, she lost an arm. Be glad you have both arms and legs!

    (and maybe you want to give the SRT a try sometime?)


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