Over the past couple of months I've become very interested in what factors predict success. Traditionally, and according to most public schools today, IQ is the primary predictor of success. If you have a high IQ you should be set up for success later in life, right? It doesn't take too much digging to find a boat load of anecdotal and empirical evidence to refute that, though. How many intellectually powerful people do you know that haven't really achieved any measure of success? Most of us have that one cousin that could do differential calculus in his sleep but fills his days with Cheetos and pot instead of solving complex problems for NASA. There's definitely more to success than being smart. Considering it appears that a large part of our IQ is genetic, the fact that it's not the primary predictor of success should make you pretty happy (unless you're a Cheeto eating pot head).
One of the predictors of success I was introduced to this year is "grit." Grit was developed by a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania named Angela Duckworth. She defined it as "perseverance and passion toward long-term goals." She developed a scale to measure this trait and has administered it to some interesting groups of people with fascinating results. For example, she gave incoming West Point freshmen her grit scale and then observed which of them made it through Beast Barracks (the mentally and physically exhausting summer training before freshman year begins). Obviously, West Point has a lot riding on selecting students that they think will do well in the unique military environment the school provides. Selecting students that end up dropping out of school because they can't handle the environment is a serious pain for the school. Now, back to Duckworth and her grit scale. Those students who scored high on her grit scale before Beast Barracks ended up being much more likely to not drop out during or immediately after the experience. Those who scored low on the scale were much more likely to bow out in the middle of that first summer. The most interesting aspect of this study, however, was that Duckworth's grit scale predicted success much more than any of the tests West Point administers. More than SAT score, more than any IQ test, and more than any proprietary test they've developed.
Interesting, eh? However, I understand you probably aren't going to be doing anything as strenuous as Beast Barracks any time soon. The grit scale has also been given to Ivy League undergraduates and high level spelling bee contestants. In both cases, the grit scale predicted success more than anything else. In the case of the Ivy League undergraduates, scoring high on the grit scale correlated with higher GPAs when they graduated than SAT scores and for the spelling bee contestants scoring high on the grit scale resulted in greater success than even a test of their verbal intelligence. Having a high level of perseverance and passion for long term goals seems to result in some pretty excellent results.
The next obvious question, then, is how do you develop grit? From my research experience, it doesn't look like there has been a lot of scientifically rigorous studies about how to systematically develop grit in a specific population. Logically, however, it seems like having an opportunity to experience failure and then bounce back from it is a good way to learn how to stick to a long-term goal. In fact, the New York Times recently published an article about a prestigious New York private school that has made the development of character strengths like grit a cornerstone of their philosophy. To encourage this, teachers have been encouraged to cut back on the amount of homework they assign and to provide students more experiential learning opportunities with legitimate chances of failure. This can be seriously uncomfortable for highly intelligent kids (and their parents) who are used to flying through homework assignments and dominating standardized tests. More work needs to be done on specific interventions and programs that directly develop grit, but this seems to be a step in the right direction.
Everyday life, however, doesn't necessarily promote the development of grit. One of the major barriers to developing this character strength is information overload. Our attention is under unprecedented siege right now. Considering it is truly our most valuable resource, it's in high demand by advertisers, entertainment outlets, and, hopefully, ourselves. The problem with this information overload is that it's incredibly difficult to keep our attention fixated on one task or project for very long. Nowadays, when things start to get difficult there is always a plethora of other options and activities we can undertake. Particularly in an economy centered on "knowledge work" it is incredibly easy to keep jumping from one project to another. I'm sure you're familiar with the rush of motivation and excitement that accompanies starting something new. While super helpful for getting new projects off the ground, that response isn't very helpful for developing grit.
Overall, grit is a relatively newly defined construct that is still in its formative years. More work needs to be done on learning how to measure it accurately, differentiating it from perseverance, and developing empirically validated ways to nurture it in various populations. If the early research is any marker, though, it appears to be an exciting way to predict success. If future research shows that grit is more a matter of learning and development instead of genetically set, schools, other youth institutions, and organizations committed to developing employees must take note.
For now, I'll keep my nose to the grind stone and keep working on the projects that matter most to me even when things go poorly. With a name like "grit" the name itself precludes any expectation for it to be a smooth ride in development.
Duckworth, A. L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M. D., & Kelly, D. R. (2007). Grit: perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Journal of personality and social psychology, 92(6), 1087-101.