Book Review: Grit

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This book was a huge disappointment.

I saw Angela Duckworth’s TED talk. I read articles and interviews with her about her work. I expected her book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, to go beyond what I already knew. I was looking forward to a better definition of “grit” and some solid research to help me understand how to develop it. I didn’t get either one.

What is “grit” really?

From her TED talk, I expected that grit would be a characteristic of a person. When Strategy + Business interviewed her, she referred to “people who are gritty.” Her Grit Scale asks you to agree (or not) with statements like “I am a hard worker” and “I finish whatever I begin.” Those sound like things that are characteristics of a person. But that’s not all there is to grit.

About a quarter of the way into the book, Duckworth says “Grit has two components: passion and perseverance.” So, if you don’t have passion, you don’t have grit.

I hate exercise. I do it because I feel better when I exercise, but every day it’s a challenge. I may be disciplined or persistent but exercising every day isn’t proof that I have grit. Grit, says Duckworth, is something else.

I never did figure out exactly what was grit and what wasn’t, but I have other problems with the book. They start with Dr. Duckworth’s favorite bit of research to prove her theory.

The West Point Example

The research at West Point’s Beast Barracks seems to be Duckworth’s keystone. She mentions it in her TED talk. It pops up in interviews. Roughly 14,000 men and women start the application process for West Point. That gets winnowed down to about 1200 who show up to start their West Point experience with Beast Barracks, seven intensive weeks that turn civilians into cadets.

Dr. Duckworth says that “The Whole Candidate Score is the single most important factor in West Point admissions, and yet it didn’t reliably predict who would make it through Beast.” Rubbish. Ninety-four percent of the incoming class complete Beast Barracks. That seems like a pretty reliable prediction to me.

She also describes the elite quality of the men and women that West Point selects and then says:

“And yet, one in five cadets will drop out before graduation. What’s more remarkable is that, historically, a substantial fraction of dropouts leave in their very first summer, during . . . Beast Barracks.”

If you’re doing the math, that means that 80 percent of the cadets to start Beast Barracks graduate from West Point. That’s far higher than most US colleges, where less than half the students graduate in four years from the institution where they begin. Seems to me like the cadets are doing pretty good.

And, note the phrase “a substantial fraction of dropouts.” That depends on what you mean by “substantial.” Using numbers from her book, the incoming class was 1218 cadets. Seventy-one, or 5.8 percent left during Beast Barracks. If twenty percent left altogether, that would be 244 total. That makes those who left during Beast Barracks 29 percent of all dropouts. Is that “substantial” or not? You decide.

It seems to me that if there is such a thing as grit, the men and women who show up to begin Beast Barracks have it in abundance. Only five percent of them drop out of a process designed to test them to the limit. Then the vast majority of the remainder complete one of the most demanding educational programs on the planet.

That treatment of the data makes the results of grit (whatever it is) seem more powerful than they actually are. I wonder what else is carefully worded to give an impression that might not stand up to scrutiny of the underlying data. I expect that kind of writing in advertisements or from politicians. I don’t expect it in a book that purports to share the results of academic research.

This book is a branding exercise

If you start to question the basic definition and supporting research of grit, what’s left? Not much that’s new.

It’s not breaking news that our capacity to do things is not fixed at birth. We can get better at almost anything we choose if we’re willing to do the hard work necessary.

It’s also not breaking news that persistence is an important component of success for most people. The following quote, often attributed to Calvin Coolidge, has been around since at least 1933.

“Nothing in the world can take the place of Persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan ‘Press On’ has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.”

Since there’s not much new, why write a book? I think it’s a branding exercise. Fortunately, you can get the same content without the issues from other books.

Bottom Line: Don’t buy Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance

If you want to find out more about neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to change as we develop skills, or more about developing persistence, skip this book. Here are three to consider instead.

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck

Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg

Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool

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