Why “Grit” is a Phony Term that is Irrelevant to Achievement

Note: I wrote this two years ago but never posted it for some reason. Having recently been exposed to additional discussion on the topic I have made minor updates and now post the piece here.

One sits astounded in the realization that someone has made-up a term, built a career upon this made-up term, writes a best-selling book on the pseudo-subject, and creates an entire field of pseudo-study- all without adding anything resembling a basic, reliable understanding of the (pseudo-) “thing”. Well, such is very much the case in the “work” of Angela Duckworth and her associates on the subject of the phony concept of “grit”.  After reading her recent book on “Grit” twice and delving into published “peer-reviewed” papers, I can find very little of value in pushing the concept of “grit” in any school, workplace, or sports setting.

Like the many diet cults that come and go with the seasons, “grit” has limited statistical relevance and, when critically tested, a durability on par with paint on a west facing wall in the US desert southwest. Similarly with diet cults, measurements of “grit” rely on individual self-perception and not quantitative, objective measurements (or even repeatable, testable observations). Such is the plight of the very difficult endeavor of research into the human body and mind. But these realities, just because they present significant limitations on conclusive observations, does not allow license for dissemination of unsupported assertions.

Most recently Duckworth is back-treading on the singular importance of “grit” in high achievement, claiming that others have misunderstood her and that there are character traits that are as, or more, important. Remember that traits cannot be learned and that the whole idea behind grit as a concept in teaching and achievement is that it can be learned- it is a skill. Sounds like a good deal of contradiction there, something that often happens when one overstates the importance of some variable or that such importance actually has no foundation- something that I think is the case for “grit”.

criticisims of “grit”

There is a growing body of criticism of “grit” as an identifiable, singular, so-called non-cognitive skill that is correlated with success and other positive outcomes. One of the more complete critical reviews is here and available free here. A summary of Duckworth’s response to the article is here.

The criticisms are many but the primary one (in addition to the obvious over-statements by Duckworth et al. of the effect of “grit” on success (which is particularly egregious in the popular book on the subject)) is a clear concern over the entire concept of “grit” being just the overblown hype of a research group falling into a “jangle fallacy” black hole- in part by not being fully cognizant of, and fluent in, the literature.

The “jangle fallacy” concern is based on the assertion that what one might refer to as “grit” is actually just another name for the well-developed concept of the personality trait know as “conscientiousness”, something intimately entangled with the even more fundamental notion of motivation. The important point here is that a trait is not a skill and much of what has been trumped-up about the importance of so-called “grit” is that it is a skill that can be learned. “Conscientiousness” or motivation are not things that have been found to be “learnable”. Rather, they are most likely a result of some combination of genetics and environment.

But Duckworth and her co-workers do not let any of this contain their zeal for spreading the concept of “grit” as a skill and their imperatives for blanketing the unknowing (and seemingly critical thinking-deficient) education profession with false hopes for fundamental, positive change to education paradigms (such as KIPP programs). I find the whole situation to be very lamentable. A similar situation is extant for the allied concept of the “growth mindset”, but I will not elaborate on that here.

I have always taken great exception to the efficacy of self-reported data of any type. Such data are unreliable, subject to significant bias, and represent data of the lowest quality- data that probably should not be collected in the first place, let alone be the basis for conclusive remarks. Recent extensive reviews of the validity of published research in Psychology found very low replication, something that I find to be self evident given the low reliability of much of the source data for many studies in this field.

Egalitarianism, the protestant work ethic, and teachings toward a path of success

There has been a general trend in recent decades in both popular literature and the highly defective research in the field of Psychology that describes a path to success that is paved with hard work along with a consistent application of effort toward a defined goal. The folklore goes on to attribute the overwhelming majority of any success to just these two factors, often ignoring, in large part, the environmental factors, timing, talent, and motivation also at play. Perhaps the most well known of these teachings is that summarized by Malcolm Gladwell in his very popular book Outliers. In the book Gladwell leans on the work of Ericsson and others and the uber-popular “10,000 hour rule” that is supposedly supported by Ericsson’s research. As asserted in a previous post on the “10,000 hour rule”:

“… ‘the rule’ provides that the development of an “expert” or “master” level of accomplishment requires a minimum of about 10,000 hours of “deliberate practice” and that this improvement follows a linear growth rate. “Deliberate practice” is focused (perhaps structured) training where one consciously addresses weaknesses whilst maintaining (and possibly improving) strengths. The 10,000 hours works out to about 10 years of focused training before one can attain an “expert” or “master” level in the endeavor. ”

and further:

“The underlying supposition is that “nurture” super-dominates “nature”, i.e. as some would say “talent is over-rated”. The egalitarian basis of ‘the rule’ has resonated with a society that values a hard-work ethos that leads to success, something that is perhaps fundamental to any civil society. But reality is, in this case, something very different.”

The egalitarian hard-work ethos (and it’s direct connection with success that is espoused by Ericsson and others) that has been generally assimilated into US culture, has naturally lead to the growth of a well-documented meritocracy in the US (and elsewhere), and to the associated high societal value placed upon college degrees in general and those from certain institutions in particular (Ivy League institutions, Standford, Chicago, etc.). For many, the inculcation of the Protestant Work Ethic (PWE) in either straightforward (often via religious teachings) or subliminal ways, has played a fundamental role in their individual intellectual development. In my experience, the at-large adherence to the PWE in the US has lead to general acceptance of the concept that work will outdo talent. This is something that I have found to be unsupported in virtually all endeavors but particularly so in those areas of achievement requiring the highest levels of thought and concentration- areas like science and mathematics but also in more creativity-centeric fields like art and writing.

Given the societal importance placed on merit and the substantial parental and academic supporting structures that have come to be, it is no surprise to find a dysfunctional situation at the top of the achievement pyramid. Perhaps Walter Kirn best described this situation in his 2005 essay for The Atlantic Magazine on the subject of the US Meritocracy, where he summarizes his experience upon matriculation at Princeton:

“That’s why we were here; we all showed aptitude. Aptitude for showing aptitude, mainly. That’s what they wanted, so that’s what we delivered. A talent for nothing, but a knack for everything. Nobody told us it wouldn’t be enough.”

And Kirn is right- those “gritty” Baby Boomer graduates found that accruing various merit badges along the way in one’s education and career was not nearly enough. Being one such Baby Boomer Meritiocrat, I have had a front row seat observing my fellow Baby Boomers throughout a 30-year scientific and business career and in endurance sport at the elite levels. It became abundantly clear over the years that although the meritocracy can efficiently produce hard workers and that businesses, academic institutions, and sports development organizations can produce environments where hard work can flourish, there remains a paucity of true achievement- achievement that pushes for new knowledge, new products, and sports performances- work products that are of value, utility, and produce victory, respectively.

motivation- the fundamental basis for achievement

If there is one glaring and very consistent observation that I have made in elite-level endurance sport, world-recognized scientific research, and US business success, it is the dominating importance motivation, timing, and, in the case of sport and science, talent. In fact, that which many define as “hard work” oftentimes plays a minor role in the definition of the success being described. The “minor role” of hard work is not minor in terms of time or effort, but in terms of what has made the difference in attaining the success. I have have observed (and I expect that many who are reading this have as well) an overwhelming  majority of such successes to be a result of innate talent, timing (particularly in US business success), and intrinsic motivation on the part of the individual(s) associated with the success. The “hard work along with a consistent application of effort toward a defined goal” is necessary but significantly insufficient for any durable success. This has been recently documented in endurance, power, and combat sports by Issurin in a meta-analysis in the journal Sports Medicine the subject of which is defining prerequisites for demonstration of athletic achievement. Issurin, in his summary article, reviews available data that show (as quoted from the abstract of the article):

“Data pertaining to Olympic champions indicate that their superiority compared with other elite athletes is determined by high intrinsic motivation, determination, dedication, persistence, and creativity.”

The author additionally goes on to dispute the validity of the 10,000 hour rule as it relates to endurance, power, and combat sports. Rather, the data support that 3,000-7,000 hours of specialized training is sufficient to attain world-class standing for those endurance athletes that have high innate talent (e.g. high VO2 max, high lactate metabolism, and well suited biomechanics in the case of endurance athletes). As outlined above I see no difference in intrinsic motivation and the (derivative) terms determination, dedication, and persistence. So, although it is claimed in the article that each of these are separable traits, I propose that determination, dedication, and persistence all follow from the fundamental notion of intrinsic motivation.

Much of these approaches are informed by the egalitarian notion that asserts that hard work, independent of talent, is fundamentally important.

We all bring our own personal experience to the table when thinking about something like “grit” (as defined by Duckworth). Those who have made significant contributions to their fields of study are often viewed by those not internal to the work as being highly focused, dogged, and super-persistent. However, my experience is contrary to this view. In 30 years as a research scientist I have consistently observed the highest achievers of significant work to exhibit superior levels of open mindedness and curiosity- not necessarily a dogged focus on a single thing for many years. In fact numerous significant contributions that I have been witness to have been realized only when the researcher, after vigorous initial work, has put the subject and study aside for some period and pursued something else only to return to the initial area of study with new and different knowledge, mental models, and, in some cases, new tools and new colleagues. This sort of investigative process requires substantial open mindedness, high levels of innate curiosity, and accretion of numerous fundamental platforms for thinking in different ways. These sorts of attributes have, in my experience, a singular underlying driver- motivation.

Motivation has consistently been the differentiator between the high achievers of substance* and the rest. If one chooses to use the word “grit” to describe a trait (not a skill) then “grit” might be best defined as the actualization of motivation. If one is motivated then they will likely appear to be “gritty”. This is particularly the case when work on a given subject reaches a phase where the active work is a matter of following through on gathering and analyzing data once the breakthrough thought process has been achieved. In addition there are data that show how motivation appears to be highly influenced by chemical reactions in the brain, i.e. high motivation is correlated with high production of L-dopamine and a native, large set of dopamine receptors. Perhaps such inherited biochemistry is super-dominant and controls the level of motivation within an individual. It does help to explain why individuals with the same upbringing, environment, and opportunity can have vastly different levels of motivation and therefore achievement.

the fallacy of “grit”

Grit is not a “thing”, a skill, or a “breakthrough”- it is a made-up term that seems to be best utilized in justifying funding for defective research with substandard statistical power, hoodwinking educational institutions into false hopes for increasing achievement, and for selling books full of unsupportable claims. Unfortunately, the faulty concepts of “grit” as a skill are being thrust into an unwitting education community desperately looking for a solution to current issues with achievement. The application of the so-called “concepts” of “grit” do nothing to help individuals develop as substantive thinkers or achievers. “Grit” is irrelevant to achievement and the use of concepts of “grit” may even hinder such development by over-emphasizing “the doing of something” rather than allowing for a focus on critical thinking prior to and during the substantial work involved in making progress. Rather, looking toward a better understanding of the origins of motivation will much better serve mankind than focusing time, energy, and dollars on the falsity that is “grit”.

It is common to see researchers take great effort to produce data that clarifies a poorly-constructed null hypothesis, leading to negative critical review and eventual realization (or perhaps not) that the experiments are misguided due to a lack of critical thinking and discernment at the outset. Unfortunately the field of Psychology is not providing rigorous critical review and therefore allows for the publication of unfounded results, conclusions, and claims. This is how I think the concept of “grit” came about… and why, unfortunately, it has continued to flourish.


*high achievers can be sub-divided into (at least) two categories- those who just achieve something and those who achieve something of substance.


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