Pagina principale Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance

Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance

In this must-read book for anyone striving to succeed, pioneering psychologist Angela Duckworth shows parents, students, educators, athletes, and business people—both seasoned and new—that the secret to outstanding achievement is not talent but a special blend of passion and persistence she calls “grit.”

Drawing on her own powerful story as the daughter of a scientist who frequently noted her lack of “genius,” Duckworth, now a celebrated researcher and professor, describes her early eye-opening stints in teaching, business consulting, and neuroscience, which led to the hypothesis that what really drives success is not “genius” but a unique combination of passion and long-term perseverance.

In Grit, she takes readers into the field to visit cadets struggling through their first days at West Point, teachers working in some of the toughest schools, and young finalists in the National Spelling Bee. She also mines fascinating insights from history and shows what can be gleaned from modern experiments in peak performance. Finally, she shares what she’s learned from interviewing dozens of high achievers—from JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon to New Yorker cartoon editor Bob Mankoff to Seattle Seahawks Coach Pete Carroll.

Among Grit’s most valuable insights:

*Why any effort you make ultimately counts twice toward your goal
*How grit can be learned, regardless of I.Q. or circumstances
*How lifelong interest is triggered
*How much of optimal practice is suffering and how much ecstasy
*Which is better for your child—a warm embrace or high standards
*The magic of the Hard Thing Rule

Winningly personal, insightful, and even life-changing, Grit is a book about what goes through your head when you fall down, and how that—not talent or luck—makes all the difference.
Anno: 2016
Editore: Scribner
Lingua: english
Pagine: 352
ISBN 10: 1501111108
ISBN 13: 9781501111105
File: EPUB, 1.39 MB

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Praise for Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance

“Profoundly important. For eons, we’ve been trapped inside the myth of innate talent. Angela Duckworth shines a bright light into a truer understanding of how we achieve. We owe her a great debt.”

—David Shenk, author of The Genius in All of Us: New Insights into Genetics, Talent, and IQ

“Enlightening . . . Grit teaches that life’s high peaks aren’t necessarily conquered by the naturally nimble but, rather, by those willing to endure, wait out the storm, and try again.”

—Ed Viesturs, seven-time climber of Mount Everest and author of No Shortcuts to the Top

“Masterful . . . Grit offers a truly sane perspective: that true success comes when we devote ourselves to endeavors that give us joy and purpose.”

—Arianna Huffington, author of Thrive

“Readable, compelling, and totally persuasive. The ideas in this book have the potential to transform education, management, and the way its readers live. Angela Duckworth’s Grit is a national treasure.”

—Lawrence H. Summers, former secretary of the treasury and President Emeritus at Harvard University

“Fascinating. Angela Duckworth pulls together decades of psychological research, inspiring success stories from business and sports, and her own unique personal experience and distills it all into a set of practical strategies to make yourself and your children more motivated, more passionate, and more persistent at work and at school.”

—Paul Tough, author of How Children Succeed

“A thoughtful and engaging exploration of what predicts success. Grit takes on widespread misconceptions and predictors of what makes us strive harder and push further . . . Duckworth’s own story, wound throughout her research, ends up demonstrating her theory best: passion and perseverance make up grit.”

—Tory Burch, chairman, CEO and designer of Tory Burch

“An important book . . . In these pages, the leading scholarly expert on the power of grit (what my mom called ‘stick-to-it-iveness’) carries her message to a wider audience, using apt anecdotes and aphorisms to illustrate how we can usefully apply her insights to our own lives and those of our kids.”

—Robert D. Putnam, professor of public policy at Harvard University and author of Bowling Alone and Our Kids

“Empowering . . . Angela Duckworth compels attention with her idea that regular individuals who exercise self-control and perseverance can reach as high as those who are naturally talented—that your mindset is as important as your mind.”

—Soledad O’Brien, chairman of Starfish Media Group and former coanchor of CNN’s American Morning

“Invaluable . . . In a world where access to knowledge is unprecedented, this book describes the key trait of those who will optimally take advantage of it. Grit will inspire everyone who reads it to stick to something hard that they have a passion for.”

—Sal Khan, founder of Khan Academy

“I love an idea that challenges our conventional wisdom and Grit does just that! Put aside what you think you know about getting ahead and outlasting your competition, even if they are more talented. Getting smarter won’t help you—sticking with it will!”

—Simon Sinek, author of Start With Why and Leaders Eat Last

“Incredibly important . . . There is deeply embodied grit, which is born of love, purpose, truth to one’s core under ferocious heat, and a relentless passion for what can only be revealed on the razor’s edge; and there is the cool, patient, disciplined cultivation and study of resilience that can teach us all how to get there. Angela Duckworth’s masterpiece straddles both worlds, offering a level of nuance that I haven’t read before.”

—Josh Waitzkin, international chess master, Tai Chi Push Hands world champion, and author of The Art of Learning

“A combination of rich science, compelling stories, crisp graceful prose, and appealingly personal examples . . . Without a doubt, this is the most transformative, eye-opening book I’ve read this year.”

—Sonja Lyubomirsky, professor, University of California, Riverside and author of The How of Happiness

“This book gets into your head, which is where it belongs . . . For educators who want our kids to succeed, this is an indispensable read.”

—Joel Klein, former chancellor, New York City public schools

“Grit delivers! Angela Duckworth shares the stories, the science, and the positivity behind sustained success . . . A must-read.”

—Barbara Fredrickson, author of Positivity and Love 2.0 and president of the International Positive Psychology Association





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CONTENTS


PREFACE

PART I: WHAT GRIT IS AND WHY IT MATTERS

CHAPTER 1: SHOWING UP

CHAPTER 2: DISTRACTED BY TALENT

CHAPTER 3: EFFORT COUNTS TWICE

CHAPTER 4: HOW GRITTY ARE YOU?

CHAPTER 5: GRIT GROWS

PART II: GROWING GRIT FROM THE INSIDE OUT

CHAPTER 6: INTEREST

CHAPTER 7: PRACTICE

CHAPTER 8: PURPOSE

CHAPTER 9: HOPE

PART III: GROWING GRIT FROM THE OUTSIDE IN

CHAPTER 10: PARENTING FOR GRIT

CHAPTER 11: THE PLAYING FIELDS OF GRIT

CHAPTER 12: A CULTURE OF GRIT

CHAPTER 13: CONCLUSION

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

RECOMMENDED READING

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

NOTES

INDEX





For Jason





PREFACE


Growing up, I heard the word genius a lot.

It was always my dad who brought it up. He liked to say, apropos of nothing at all, “You know, you’re no genius!” This pronouncement might come in the middle of dinner, during a commercial break for The Love Boat, or after he flopped down on the couch with the Wall Street Journal.

I don’t remember how I responded. Maybe I pretended not to hear.

My dad’s thoughts turned frequently to genius, talent, and who had more than whom. He was deeply concerned with how smart he was. He was deeply concerned with how smart his family was.

I wasn’t the only problem. My dad didn’t think my brother and sister were geniuses, either. By his yardstick, none of us measured up to Einstein. Apparently, this was a great disappointment. Dad worried that this intellectual handicap would limit what we’d eventually achieve in life.

Two years ago, I was fortunate enough to be awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, sometimes called the “genius grant.” You don’t apply for the MacArthur. You don’t ask your friends or colleagues to nominate you. Instead, a secret committee that includes the top people in your field decides you’re doing important and creative work.

When I received the unexpected call telling me the news, my first reaction was one of gratitude and amazement. Then my thoughts turned to my dad and his offhand diagnoses of my intellectual potential. He wasn’t wrong; I didn’t win the MacArthur because I’m leagues smarter than my fellow psychologists. Instead, he had the right answer (“No, she’s not”) to the wrong question (“Is she a genius?”).

There was about a month between the MacArthur call and its official announcement. Apart from my husband, I wasn’t permitted to tell anyone. That gave me time to ponder the irony of the situation. A girl who is told repeatedly that she’s no genius ends up winning an award for being one. The award goes to her because she has discovered that what we eventually accomplish may depend more on our passion and perseverance than on our innate talent. She has by then amassed degrees from some pretty tough schools, but in the third grade, she didn’t test high enough for the gifted and talented program. Her parents are Chinese immigrants, but she didn’t get lectured on the salvation of hard work. Against stereotype, she can’t play a note of piano or violin.

The morning the MacArthur was announced, I walked over to my parents’ apartment. My mom and dad had already heard the news, and so had several “aunties,” who were calling in rapid succession to offer congratulations. Finally, when the phone stopped ringing, my dad turned to me and said, “I’m proud of you.”

I had so much to say in response, but instead I just said, “Thanks, Dad.”

There was no sense rehashing the past. I knew that, in fact, he was proud of me.

Still, part of me wanted to travel back in time to when I was a young girl. I’d tell him what I know now.

I would say, “Dad, you say I’m no genius. I won’t argue with that. You know plenty of people who are smarter than I am.” I can imagine his head nodding in sober agreement.

“But let me tell you something. I’m going to grow up to love my work as much as you love yours. I won’t just have a job; I’ll have a calling. I’ll challenge myself every day. When I get knocked down, I’ll get back up. I may not be the smartest person in the room, but I’ll strive to be the grittiest.”

And if he was still listening: “In the long run, Dad, grit may matter more than talent.”

All these years later, I have the scientific evidence to prove my point. What’s more, I know that grit is mutable, not fixed, and I have insights from research about how to grow it.

This book summarizes everything I’ve learned about grit.

When I finished writing it, I went to visit my dad. Chapter by chapter, over the course of days, I read him every line. He’s been battling Parkinson’s disease for the last decade or so, and I’m not entirely sure how much he understood. Still, he seemed to be listening intently, and when I was done, he looked at me. After what felt like an eternity, he nodded once. And then he smiled.





Part I


WHAT GRIT IS AND WHY IT MATTERS





Chapter 1


SHOWING UP


By the time you set foot on the campus of the United States Military Academy at West Point, you’ve earned it.

The admissions process for West Point is at least as rigorous as for the most selective universities. Top scores on the SAT or ACT and outstanding high school grades are a must. But when you apply to Harvard, you don’t need to start your application in the eleventh grade, and you don’t need to secure a nomination from a member of Congress, a senator, or the vice president of the United States. You don’t, for that matter, have to get superlative marks in a fitness assessment that includes running, push-ups, sit-ups, and pull-ups.

Each year, in their junior year of high school, more than 14,000 applicants begin the admissions process. This pool is winnowed to just 4,000 who succeed in getting the required nomination. Slightly more than half of those applicants—about 2,500—meet West Point’s rigorous academic and physical standards, and from that select group just 1,200 are admitted and enrolled. Nearly all the men and women who come to West Point were varsity athletes; most were team captains.

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 an intensive seven-week training program named, even in official literature, Beast Barracks. Or, for short, just Beast.

Who spends two years trying to get into a place and then drops out in the first two months?

Then again, these are no ordinary months. Beast is described in the West Point handbook for new cadets as “the most physically and emotionally demanding part of your four years at West Point . . . designed to help you make the transition from new cadet to Soldier.”

A Typical Day at Beast Barracks

5:00 a.m.

Wake-up



5:30 a.m.

Reveille Formation



5:30 to 6:55 a.m.

Physical Training



6:55 to 7:25 a.m.

Personal Maintenance



7:30 to 8:15 a.m.

Breakfast



8:30 to 12:45 p.m.

Training/Classes



1:00 to 1:45 p.m.

Lunch



2:00 to 3:45 p.m.

Training/Classes



4:00 to 5:30 p.m.

Organized Athletics



5:30 to 5:55 p.m.

Personal Maintenance



6:00 to 6:45 p.m.

Dinner



7:00 to 9:00 p.m.

Training/Classes



9:00 to 10:00 p.m.

Commander’s Time



10:00 p.m.

Taps



The day begins at 5:00 a.m. By 5:30, cadets are in formation, standing at attention, honoring the raising of the United States flag. Then follows a hard workout—running or calisthenics—followed by a nonstop rotation of marching in formation, classroom instruction, weapons training, and athletics. Lights out, to a melancholy bugle song called “Taps,” occurs at 10:00 p.m. And on the next day the routine starts over again. Oh, and there are no weekends, no breaks other than meals, and virtually no contact with family and friends outside of West Point.

One cadet’s description of Beast: “You are challenged in a variety of ways in every developmental area—mentally, physically, militarily, and socially. The system will find your weaknesses, but that’s the point—West Point toughens you.”



* * *



So, who makes it through Beast?

It was 2004 and my second year of graduate school in psychology when I set about answering that question, but for decades, the U.S. Army has been asking the same thing. In fact, it was in 1955—almost fifty years before I began working on this puzzle—that a young psychologist named Jerry Kagan was drafted into the army, ordered to report to West Point, and assigned to test new cadets for the purpose of identifying who would stay and who would leave. As fate would have it, Jerry was not only the first psychologist to study dropping out at West Point, he was also the first psychologist I met in college. I ended up working part-time in his lab for two years.

Jerry described early efforts to separate the wheat from the chaff at West Point as dramatically unsuccessful. He recalled in particular spending hundreds of hours showing cadets cards printed with pictures and asking the young men to make up stories to fit them. This test was meant to unearth deep-seated, unconscious motives, and the general idea was that cadets who visualized noble deeds and courageous accomplishments should be the ones who would graduate instead of dropping out. Like a lot of ideas that sound good in principle, this one didn’t work so well in practice. The stories the cadets told were colorful and fun to listen to, but they had absolutely nothing to do with decisions the cadets made in their actual lives.

Since then, several more generations of psychologists devoted themselves to the attrition issue, but not one researcher could say with much certainty why some of the most promising cadets routinely quit when their training had just begun.

Soon after learning about Beast, I found my way to the office of Mike Matthews, a military psychologist who’s been a West Point faculty member for years. Mike explained that the West Point admissions process successfully identified men and women who had the potential to thrive there. In particular, admissions staff calculate for each applicant something called the Whole Candidate Score, a weighted average of SAT or ACT exam scores, high school rank adjusted for the number of students in the applicant’s graduating class, expert appraisals of leadership potential, and performance on objective measures of physical fitness.

You can think of the Whole Candidate Score as West Point’s best guess at how much talent applicants have for the diverse rigors of its four-year program. In other words, it’s an estimate of how easily cadets will master the many skills required of a military leader.

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. In fact, cadets with the highest Whole Candidate Scores were just as likely to drop out as those with the lowest. And this was why Mike’s door was open to me.

From his own experience joining the air force as a young man, Mike had a clue to the riddle. While the rigors of his induction weren’t quite as harrowing as those of West Point, there were notable similarities. The most important were challenges that exceeded current skills. For the first time in their lives, Mike and the other recruits were being asked, on an hourly basis, to do things they couldn’t yet do. “Within two weeks,” Mike recalls, “I was tired, lonely, frustrated, and ready to quit—as were all of my classmates.”

Some did quit, but Mike did not.

What struck Mike was that rising to the occasion had almost nothing to do with talent. Those who dropped out of training rarely did so from lack of ability. Rather, what mattered, Mike said, was a “never give up” attitude.



* * *



Around that time, it wasn’t just Mike Matthews who was talking to me about this kind of hang-in-there posture toward challenge. As a graduate student just beginning to probe the psychology of success, I was interviewing leaders in business, art, athletics, journalism, academia, medicine, and law: Who are the people at the very top of your field? What are they like? What do you think makes them special?

Some of the characteristics that emerged in these interviews were very field-specific. For instance, more than one businessperson mentioned an appetite for taking financial risks: “You’ve got to be able to make calculated decisions about millions of dollars and still go to sleep at night.” But this seemed entirely beside the point for artists, who instead mentioned a drive to create: “I like making stuff. I don’t know why, but I do.” In contrast, athletes mentioned a different kind of motivation, one driven by the thrill of victory: “Winners love to go head-to-head with other people. Winners hate losing.”

In addition to these particulars, there emerged certain commonalities, and they were what interested me most. No matter the field, the most successful people were lucky and talented. I’d heard that before, and I didn’t doubt it.

But the story of success didn’t end there. Many of the people I talked to could also recount tales of rising stars who, to everyone’s surprise, dropped out or lost interest before they could realize their potential.

Apparently, it was critically important—and not at all easy—to keep going after failure: “Some people are great when things are going well, but they fall apart when things aren’t.” High achievers described in these interviews really stuck it out: “This one guy, he wasn’t actually the best writer at the beginning. I mean, we used to read his stories and have a laugh because the writing was so, you know, clumsy and melodramatic. But he got better and better, and last year he won a Guggenheim.” And they were constantly driven to improve: “She’s never satisfied. You’d think she would be, by now, but she’s her own harshest critic.” The highly accomplished were paragons of perseverance.

Why were the highly accomplished so dogged in their pursuits? For most, there was no realistic expectation of ever catching up to their ambitions. In their own eyes, they were never good enough. They were the opposite of complacent. And yet, in a very real sense, they were satisfied being unsatisfied. Each was chasing something of unparalleled interest and importance, and it was the chase—as much as the capture—that was gratifying. Even if some of the things they had to do were boring, or frustrating, or even painful, they wouldn’t dream of giving up. Their passion was enduring.

In sum, no matter the domain, the highly successful had a kind of ferocious determination that played out in two ways. First, these exemplars were unusually resilient and hardworking. Second, they knew in a very, very deep way what it was they wanted. They not only had determination, they had direction.

It was this combination of passion and perseverance that made high achievers special. In a word, they had grit.



* * *



For me, the question became: How do you measure something so intangible? Something that decades of military psychologists hadn’t been able to quantify? Something those very successful people I’d interviewed said they could recognize on sight, but couldn’t think of how to directly test for?

I sat down and looked over my interview notes. And I started writing questions that captured, sometimes verbatim, descriptions of what it means to have grit.

Half of the questions were about perseverance. They asked how much you agree with statements like “I have overcome setbacks to conquer an important challenge” and “I finish whatever I begin.”

The other half of the questions were about passion. They asked whether your “interests change from year to year” and the extent to which you “have been obsessed with a certain idea or project for a short time but later lost interest.”

What emerged was the Grit Scale—a test that, when taken honestly, measures the extent to which you approach life with grit.



* * *



In July 2004, on the second day of Beast, 1,218 West Point cadets sat down to take the Grit Scale.

The day before, cadets had said good-bye to their moms and dads (a farewell for which West Point allocates exactly ninety seconds), gotten their heads shaved (just the men), changed out of civilian clothing and into the famous gray and white West Point uniform, and received their footlockers, helmets, and other gear. Though they may have mistakenly thought they already knew how, they were instructed by a fourth-year cadet in the proper way to stand in line (“Step up to my line! Not on my line, not over my line, not behind my line. Step up to my line!”).

Initially, I looked to see how grit scores lined up with aptitude. Guess what? Grit scores bore absolutely no relationship to the Whole Candidate Scores that had been so painstakingly calculated during the admissions process. In other words, how talented a cadet was said nothing about their grit, and vice versa.

The separation of grit from talent was consistent with Mike’s observations of air force training, but when I first stumbled onto this finding it came as a real surprise. After all, why shouldn’t the talented endure? Logically, the talented should stick around and try hard, because when they do, they do phenomenally well. At West Point, for example, among cadets who ultimately make it through Beast, the Whole Candidate Score is a marvelous predictor of every metric West Point tracks. It not only predicts academic grades, but military and physical fitness marks as well.

So it’s surprising, really, that talent is no guarantee of grit. In this book, we’ll explore the reasons why.



* * *



By the last day of Beast, seventy-one cadets had dropped out.

Grit turned out to be an astoundingly reliable predictor of who made it through and who did not.

The next year, I returned to West Point to run the same study. This time, sixty-two cadets dropped out of Beast, and again grit predicted who would stay.

In contrast, stayers and leavers had indistinguishable Whole Candidate Scores. I looked a little closer at the individual components that make up the score. Again, no differences.

So, what matters for making it through Beast?

Not your SAT scores, not your high school rank, not your leadership experience, not your athletic ability.

Not your Whole Candidate Score.

What matters is grit.



* * *



Does grit matter beyond West Point? To find out, I looked for other situations so challenging that a lot of people drop out. I wanted to know whether it was just the rigors of Beast that demanded grit, or whether, in general, grit helped people stick to their commitments.

The next arena where I tested grit’s power was sales, a profession in which daily, if not hourly, rejection is par for the course. I asked hundreds of men and women employed at the same vacation time-share company to answer a battery of personality questionnaires, including the Grit Scale. Six months later, I revisited the company, by which time 55 percent of the salespeople were gone. Grit predicted who stayed and who left. Moreover, no other commonly measured personality trait—including extroversion, emotional stability, and conscientiousness—was as effective as grit in predicting job retention.

Around the same time, I received a call from the Chicago Public Schools. Like the psychologists at West Point, researchers there were eager to learn more about the students who would successfully earn their high school diplomas. That spring, thousands of high school juniors completed an abbreviated Grit Scale, along with a battery of other questionnaires. More than a year later, 12 percent of those students failed to graduate. Students who graduated on schedule were grittier, and grit was a more powerful predictor of graduation than how much students cared about school, how conscientious they were about their studies, and even how safe they felt at school.

Likewise, in two large American samples, I found that grittier adults were more likely to get further in their formal schooling. Adults who’d earned an MBA, PhD, MD, JD, or another graduate degree were grittier than those who’d only graduated from four-year colleges, who were in turn grittier than those who’d accumulated some college credits but no degree. Interestingly, adults who’d successfully earned degrees from two-year colleges scored slightly higher than graduates of four-year colleges. This puzzled me at first, but I soon learned that the dropout rates at community colleges can be as high as 80 percent. Those who defy the odds are especially gritty.

In parallel, I started a partnership with the Army Special Operations Forces, better known as the Green Berets. These are among the army’s best-trained soldiers, assigned some of the toughest and most dangerous missions. Training for the Green Berets is a grueling, multistage affair. The stage I studied comes after nine weeks of boot camp, four weeks of infantry training, three weeks of airborne school, and four weeks of a preparation course focused on land navigation. All these preliminary training experiences are very, very hard, and at every stage there are men who don’t make it through. But the Special Forces Selection Course is even harder. In the words of its commanding general, James Parker, this is “where we decide who will and who will not” enter the final stages of Green Beret training.

The Selection Course makes Beast Barracks look like summer vacation. Starting before dawn, trainees go full-throttle until nine in the evening. In addition to daytime and nighttime navigation exercises, there are four- and six-mile runs and marches, sometimes under a sixty-five-pound load, and attempts at an obstacle course informally known as “Nasty Nick,” which includes crawling through water under barbed wire, walking on elevated logs, negotiating cargo nets, and swinging from horizontal ladders.

Just getting to the Selection Course is an accomplishment, but even so, 42 percent of the candidates I studied voluntarily withdrew before it was over. So what distinguished the men who made it through? Grit.

What else, other than grit, predicts success in the military, education, and business? In sales, I found that prior experience helps—novices are less likely to keep their jobs than those with experience. In the Chicago public school system, a supportive teacher made it more likely that students would graduate. And for aspiring Green Berets, baseline physical fitness at the start of training is essential.

But in each of these domains, when you compare people matched on these characteristics, grit still predicts success. Regardless of specific attributes and advantages that help someone succeed in each of these diverse domains of challenge, grit matters in all of them.



* * *



The year I started graduate school, the documentary Spellbound was released. The film follows three boys and five girls as they prepare for and compete in the finals of the Scripps National Spelling Bee. To get to the finals—an adrenaline-filled three-day affair staged annually in Washington, DC, and broadcast live on ESPN, which normally focuses its programming on high-stakes sports matchups—these kids must first “outspell” thousands of other students from hundreds of schools across the country. This means spelling increasingly obscure words without a single error, in round after round, first besting all the other students in the contestant’s classroom, then in their grade, school, district, and region.

Spellbound got me wondering: To what extent is flawlessly spelling words like schottische and cymotrichous a matter of precocious verbal talent, and to what extent is grit at play?

I called the Bee’s executive director, a dynamic woman (and former champion speller herself) named Paige Kimble. Kimble was as curious as I was to learn more about the psychological makeup of winners. She agreed to send out questionnaires to all 273 spellers just as soon as they qualified for the finals, which would take place several months later. In return for the princely reward of a $25 gift card, about two-thirds of the spellers returned the questionnaires to my lab. The oldest respondent was fifteen years old, the absolute age limit according to competition rules, and the youngest was just seven.

In addition to completing the Grit Scale, spellers reported how much time they devoted to spelling practice. On average, they practiced more than an hour a day on weekdays and more than two hours a day on weekends. But there was a lot of variation around these averages: some spellers were hardly studying at all, and some were studying as much as nine hours on a given Saturday!

Separately, I contacted a subsample of spellers and administered a verbal intelligence test. As a group, the spellers demonstrated unusual verbal ability. But there was a fairly wide range of scores, with some kids scoring at the verbal prodigy level and others “average” for their age.

When ESPN aired the final rounds of the competition, I watched all the way through to the concluding suspenseful moments when, at last, thirteen-year-old Anurag Kashyap correctly spelled A-P-P-O-G-G-I-A-T-U-R-A (a musical term for a kind of grace note) to win the championship.

Then, with the final rankings in hand, I analyzed my data.

Here’s what I found: measurements of grit taken months before the final competition predicted how well spellers would eventually perform. Put simply, grittier kids went further in competition. How did they do it? By studying many more hours and, also, by competing in more spelling bees.

What about talent? Verbal intelligence also predicted getting further in competition. But there was no relationship at all between verbal IQ and grit. What’s more, verbally talented spellers did not study any more than less able spellers, nor did they have a longer track record of competition.

The separation of grit and talent emerged again in a separate study I ran on Ivy League undergraduates. There, SAT scores and grit were, in fact, inversely correlated. Students in that select sample who had higher SAT scores were, on average, just slightly less gritty than their peers. Putting together this finding with the other data I’d collected, I came to a fundamental insight that would guide my future work: Our potential is one thing. What we do with it is quite another.





Chapter 2


DISTRACTED BY TALENT


Before I was a psychologist, I was a teacher. It was in the classroom—years before I’d even heard of Beast—that I began to see that talent is not all there is to achievement.

I was twenty-seven when I started teaching full-time. The month before, I’d quit my job at McKinsey, a global management consulting firm whose New York City office occupied several floors of a blue-glass skyscraper in midtown. My colleagues were a bit bewildered by my decision. Why leave a company that most of my peers were dying to join—one regularly singled out as one of the world’s smartest and most influential?

Acquaintances assumed I was trading eighty-hour workweeks for a more relaxed lifestyle, but of course, anyone who’s been a teacher knows that there’s no harder job in the world. So why leave? In some ways, it was consulting, not teaching, that was the detour. Throughout college, I’d tutored and mentored kids from the local public schools. After graduation, I started a tuition-free academic enrichment program and ran it for two years. Then I went to Oxford and completed a degree in neuroscience, studying the neural mechanisms of dyslexia. So when I started teaching, I felt like I was back on track.

Even so, the transition was abrupt. In a single week, my salary went from Seriously? I actually get paid this much? to Wow! How the heck do teachers in this city make ends meet? Dinner was now a sandwich eaten hurriedly while grading papers, not sushi ordered in at the client’s expense. I commuted to work on the same subway line but stayed on the train past midtown, getting off six stops farther south: the Lower East Side. Instead of pumps, pearls, and a tailored suit, I wore sensible shoes I could stand in all day and dresses I wouldn’t mind getting covered in chalk.

My students were twelve and thirteen years old. Most lived in the housing projects clustered between Avenues A and D. This was before the neighborhood sprouted hip cafés on every corner. The fall I started teaching there, our school was picked for the set of a movie about a rough-and-tumble school in a distressed urban neighborhood. My job was to help my students learn seventh-grade math: fractions and decimals and the rudimentary building blocks of algebra and geometry.

Even that first week, it was obvious that some of my students picked up mathematical concepts more easily than their classmates. Teaching the most talented students in the class was a joy. They were, quite literally, “quick studies.” Without much prompting, they saw the underlying pattern in a series of math problems that less able students struggled to grasp. They’d watch me do a problem once on the board and say, “I get it!” and then work out the next one correctly on their own.

And yet, at the end of the first marking period, I was surprised to find that some of these very able students weren’t doing as well as I’d expected. Some did very well, of course. But more than a few of my most talented students were earning lackluster grades or worse.

In contrast, several of the students who initially struggled were faring better than I’d expected. These “overachievers” would reliably come to class every day with everything they needed. Instead of playing around and looking out the window, they took notes and asked questions. When they didn’t get something the first time around, they tried again and again, sometimes coming for extra help during their lunch period or during afternoon electives. Their hard work showed in their grades.

Apparently, aptitude did not guarantee achievement. Talent for math was different from excelling in math class.

This came as a surprise. After all, conventional wisdom says that math is a subject in which the more talented students are expected to excel, leaving classmates who are simply “not math people” behind. To be honest, I began the school year with that very assumption. It seemed a sure bet that those for whom things came easily would continue to outpace their classmates. In fact, I expected that the achievement gap separating the naturals from the rest of the class would only widen over time.

I’d been distracted by talent.

Gradually, I began to ask myself hard questions. When I taught a lesson and the concept failed to gel, could it be that the struggling student needed to struggle just a bit longer? Could it be that I needed to find a different way to explain what I was trying to get across? Before jumping to the conclusion that talent was destiny, should I be considering the importance of effort? And, as a teacher, wasn’t it my responsibility to figure out how to sustain effort—both the students’ and my own—just a bit longer?

At the same time, I began to reflect on how smart even my weakest students sounded when they talked about things that genuinely interested them. These were conversations I found almost impossible to follow: discourses on basketball statistics, the lyrics to songs they really liked, and complicated plotlines about who was no longer speaking to whom and why. When I got to know my students better, I discovered that all of them had mastered any number of complicated ideas in their very complicated daily lives. Honestly, was getting x all by itself in an algebraic equation all that much harder?

My students weren’t equally talented. Still, when it came to learning seventh-grade math, could it be that if they and I mustered sufficient effort over time, they’d get to where they needed? Surely, I thought, they were all talented enough.



* * *



Toward the end of the school year, my fiancé became my husband. For the sake of his own post-McKinsey career, we packed up and moved from New York to San Francisco. I found a new job teaching math at Lowell High School.

Compared to my Lower East Side classroom, Lowell was an alternate universe.

Tucked away in a perpetually foggy basin near the Pacific Ocean, Lowell is the only public high school in San Francisco that admits students on the basis of academic merit. The largest feeder to the University of California system, Lowell sends many of its graduates to the country’s most selective universities.

If, like me, you were raised on the East Coast, you can think of Lowell as the Stuyvesant of San Francisco. Such imagery might bring to mind whiz kids who are leaps and bounds smarter than those who lack the top-notch test scores and grades to get in.

What I discovered was that Lowell students were distinguished more by their work ethic than by their intelligence. I once asked students in my homeroom how much they studied. The typical answer? Hours and hours. Not in a week, but in a single day.

Still, like at any other school, there was tremendous variation in how hard students worked and how well they performed.

Just as I’d found in New York, some of the students I expected to excel, because math came so easy to them, did worse than their classmates. On the other hand, some of my hardest workers were consistently my highest performers on tests and quizzes.

One of these very hard workers was David Luong.

David was in my freshman algebra class. There were two kinds of algebra classes at Lowell: the accelerated track led to Advanced Placement Calculus by senior year, and the regular track, which I was teaching, didn’t. The students in my class hadn’t scored high enough on Lowell’s math placement exam to get into the accelerated track.

David didn’t stand out at first. He was quiet and sat toward the back of the room. He didn’t raise his hand a lot; he rarely volunteered to come to the board to solve problems.

But I soon noticed that every time I graded an assignment, David had turned in perfect work. He aced my quizzes and tests. When I marked one of his answers as incorrect, it was more often my error than his. And, wow, he was just so hungry to learn. In class, his attention was rapt. After class, he’d stay and ask, politely, for harder assignments.

I began to wonder what the heck this kid was doing in my class.

Once I understood how ridiculous the situation was, I marched David into the office of my department chair. It didn’t take long to explain what was going on. Fortunately, the chair was a wise and wonderful teacher who placed a higher value on kids than on bureaucratic rules. She immediately started the paperwork to switch David out of my class and into the accelerated track.

My loss was the next teacher’s gain. Of course, there were ups and downs, and not all of David’s math grades were A’s. “After I left your class, and switched into the more advanced one, I was a little behind,” David later told me. “And the next year, math—it was geometry—continued to be hard. I didn’t get an A. I got a B.” In the next class, his first math test came back with a D.

“How did you deal with that?” I asked.

“I did feel bad—I did—but I didn’t dwell on it. I knew it was done. I knew I had to focus on what to do next. So I went to my teacher and asked for help. I basically tried to figure out, you know, what I did wrong. What I needed to do differently.”

By senior year, David was taking the harder of Lowell’s two honors calculus courses. That spring, he earned a perfect 5 out of 5 on the Advanced Placement exam.

After Lowell, David attended Swarthmore College, graduating with dual degrees in engineering and economics. I sat with his parents at his graduation, remembering the quiet student in the back of my classroom who ended up proving that aptitude tests can get a lot of things wrong.

Two years ago, David earned a PhD in mechanical engineering from UCLA. His dissertation was on optimal performance algorithms for the thermodynamic processes in truck engines. In English: David used math to help make engines more efficient. Today, he is an engineer at the Aerospace Corporation. Quite literally, the boy who was deemed “not ready” for harder, faster math classes is now a “rocket scientist.”

During the next several years of teaching, I grew less and less convinced that talent was destiny and more and more intrigued by the returns generated by effort. Intent on plumbing the depths of that mystery, I eventually left teaching to become a psychologist.



* * *



When I got to graduate school, I learned that psychologists have long wondered why some people succeed and others fail. Among the earliest was Francis Galton, who debated the topic with his half cousin, Charles Darwin.

By all accounts, Galton was a child prodigy. By four, he could read and write. By six, he knew Latin and long division and could recite passages from Shakespeare by heart. Learning came easy.

In 1869, Galton published his first scientific study on the origins of high achievement. After assembling lists of well-known figures in science, athletics, music, poetry, and law—among other domains—he gathered whatever biographical information he could. Outliers, Galton concluded, are remarkable in three ways: they demonstrate unusual “ability” in combination with exceptional “zeal” and “the capacity for hard labor.”

After reading the first fifty pages of Galton’s book, Darwin wrote a letter to his cousin, expressing surprise that talent made the short list of essential qualities. “You have made a convert of an opponent in one sense,” wrote Darwin. “For I have always maintained that, excepting fools, men did not differ much in intellect, only in zeal and hard work; and I still think this is an eminently important difference.”

Of course, Darwin himself was the sort of high achiever Galton was trying to understand. Widely acknowledged as one of the most influential scientists in history, Darwin was the first to explain diversity in plant and animal species as a consequence of natural selection. Relatedly, Darwin was an astute observer, not only of flora and fauna, but also of people. In a sense, his vocation was to observe slight differences that lead, ultimately, to survival.

So it’s worth pausing to consider Darwin’s opinion on the determinants of achievement—that is, his belief that zeal and hard work are ultimately more important than intellectual ability.

On the whole, Darwin’s biographers don’t claim he possessed supernatural intelligence. He was certainly intelligent, but insights didn’t come to him in lightning flashes. He was, in a sense, a plodder. Darwin’s own autobiography corroborates this view: “I have no great quickness of apprehension [that] is so remarkable in some clever men,” he admits. “My power to follow a long and purely abstract train of thought is very limited.” He would not have made a very good mathematician, he thinks, nor a philosopher, and his memory was subpar, too: “So poor in one sense is my memory that I have never been able to remember for more than a few days a single date or a line of poetry.”

Perhaps Darwin was too humble. But he had no problem praising his power of observation and the assiduousness with which he applied it to understanding the laws of nature: “I think I am superior to the common run of men in noticing things which easily escape attention, and in observing them carefully. My industry has been nearly as great as it could have been in the observation and collection of facts. What is far more important, my love of natural science has been steady and ardent.”

One biographer describes Darwin as someone who kept thinking about the same questions long after others would move on to different—and no doubt easier—problems:

The normal response to being puzzled about something is to say,“I’ll think about this later,” and then, in effect, forget about it. With Darwin, one feels that he deliberately did not engage in this kind of semi-willful forgetting. He kept all the questions alive at the back of his mind, ready to be retrieved when a relevant bit of data presented itself.



* * *



Forty years later, on the other side of the Atlantic, a Harvard psychologist named William James took up the question of how people differ in their pursuit of goals. Toward the end of his long and distinguished career, James wrote an essay on the topic for Science (then and now the premier academic journal, not just for psychology but for all of the natural and social sciences). It was titled “The Energies of Men.”

Reflecting on the achievements and failures of close friends and colleagues, and how the quality of his own efforts varied on his good and bad days, James observed:

Compared with what we ought to be, we are only half awake. Our fires are damped, our drafts are checked. We are making use of only a small part of our possible mental and physical resources.

There is a gap, James declared, between potential and its actualization. Without denying that our talents vary—one might be more musical than athletic or more entrepreneurial than artistic—James asserted that “the human individual lives usually far within his limits; he possesses powers of various sorts which he habitually fails to use. He energizes below his maximum, and he behaves below his optimum.”

“Of course there are limits,” James acknowledged. “The trees don’t grow into the sky.” But these outer boundaries of where we will, eventually, stop improving are simply irrelevant for the vast majority of us: “The plain fact remains that men the world over possess amounts of resource, which only very exceptional individuals push to their extremes of use.”

These words, written in 1907, are as true today as ever. So, why do we place such emphasis on talent? And why fixate on the extreme limits of what we might do when, in fact, most of us are at the very beginning of our journey, so far, far away from those outer bounds? And why do we assume that it is our talent, rather than our effort, that will decide where we end up in the very long run?



* * *



For years, several national surveys have asked: Which is more important to success—talent or effort? Americans are about twice as likely to single out effort. The same is true when you ask Americans about athletic ability. And when asked, “If you were hiring a new employee, which of the following qualities would you think is most important?” Americans endorse “being hardworking” nearly five times as often as they endorse “intelligence.”

The results of these surveys are consistent with questionnaires that psychologist Chia-Jung Tsay has given to musical experts, who, when asked, reliably endorse effortful training as more important than natural talent. But when Chia probes attitudes more indirectly, she exposes a bias that tips in exactly the opposite direction: we love naturals.

In Chia’s experiments, professional musicians learn about two pianists whose biographies are identical in terms of prior achievements. The subjects listen to a short clip of these individuals playing piano; unbeknownst to the listeners, a single pianist is, in fact, playing different parts of the same piece. What varies is that one pianist is described as a “natural” with early evidence of innate talent. The other is described as a “striver” with early evidence of high motivation and perseverance. In direct contradiction to their stated beliefs about the importance of effort versus talent, musicians judge the natural to be more likely to succeed and more hirable.

As a follow-up study, Chia tested whether this same inconsistency would be evident in a very different domain where hard work and striving are celebrated: entrepreneurship. She recruited hundreds of adults with varying levels of experience in business and randomly divided them into two groups. Half of her research subjects read the profile of a “striver” entrepreneur, described as having achieved success through hard work, effort, and experience. The other half read the profile of a “natural” entrepreneur, described as having achieved success through innate ability. All participants listened to the same audio recording of a business proposal and were told the recording was made by the specific entrepreneur they’d read about.

As in her study of musicians, Chia found that naturals were rated higher for likelihood of success and being hirable, and that their business proposals were judged superior in quality. In a related study, Chia found that when people were forced to choose between backing one of two entrepreneurs—one identified as a striver, the other a natural—they tended to favor the natural. In fact, the point of indifference between a striver and a natural was only reached when the striver had four more years of leadership experience and $40,000 more in start-up capital.

Chia’s research pulls back the curtain on our ambivalence toward talent and effort. What we say we care about may not correspond with what—deep down—we actually believe to be more valuable. It’s a little like saying we don’t care at all about physical attractiveness in a romantic partner and then, when it comes to actually choosing whom to date, picking the cute guy over the nice one.

The “naturalness bias” is a hidden prejudice against those who’ve achieved what they have because they worked for it, and a hidden preference for those whom we think arrived at their place in life because they’re naturally talented. We may not admit to others this bias for naturals; we may not even admit it to ourselves. But the bias is evident in the choices we make.



* * *



Chia’s own life is an interesting example of the natural versus striver phenomenon. Now a professor at University College London, she publishes her scholarly work in the most prestigious of academic journals. As a child, she attended classes at Juilliard, whose pre-college program invites students “who exhibit the talent, potential, and accomplishment to pursue a career in music” to experience “an atmosphere where artistic gifts and technical skills can flourish.”

Chia holds several degrees from Harvard. Her first was a bachelor’s degree in psychology; she graduated magna cum laude with highest honors. She also has two master’s degrees: one in the history of science and the other in social psychology. And, finally, while completing her PhD in organizational behavior and psychology at Harvard, she also picked up a secondary PhD in music.

Impressed? If not, let me add that Chia also has degrees from the Peabody Conservatory in piano performance and pedagogy—and yes, she’s performed at Carnegie Hall, not to mention Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center, and at the palace recital commemorating the presidency of the European Union.

If you only saw her credentials, you might leap to the conclusion that Chia was born more gifted than anyone you know: “My god! What an extraordinarily talented young woman!” And, if Chia’s research is right, that explanation would embellish her accomplishments with more luster, more mystery, and more awe than the alternative: “My god! What an extraordinarily dedicated, hardworking young woman!”

And then what would happen? There’s a vast amount of research on what happens when we believe a student is especially talented. We begin to lavish extra attention on them and hold them to higher expectations. We expect them to excel, and that expectation becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I’ve asked Chia what she makes of her own musical accomplishments. “Well, I guess I may have some talent,” Chia said. “But I think, more than that, I loved music so much I practiced four to six hours a day all throughout childhood.” And in college, despite a punishing schedule of classes and activities, she made time to practice almost as much. So, yes, she has some talent—but she’s a striver, too.

Why did Chia practice so much? I wondered. Was it forced on her? Did she have any choice in the matter?

“Oh, it was me. It was what I wanted. I wanted to get better and better and better. When I practiced piano, I pictured myself onstage in front of a crowded audience. I imagined them clapping.”



* * *



The year I left McKinsey for teaching, three of the firm’s partners published a report called “The War for Talent.” The report was widely read and eventually became a best-selling book. The basic argument was that companies in the modern economy rise and fall depending on their ability to attract and retain “A players.”

“What do we mean by talent?” the McKinsey authors ask in the book’s opening pages. Answering their own question: “In the most general sense, talent is the sum of a person’s abilities—his or her intrinsic gifts, skills, knowledge, experience, intelligence, judgment, attitude, character, and drive. It also includes his or her ability to learn and grow.” That’s a long list, and it reveals the struggle most of us have when we try to define talent with any precision. But it doesn’t surprise me that “intrinsic gifts” are mentioned first.

When Fortune magazine put McKinsey on its cover, the lead article began: “When in the presence of a young McKinsey partner, one gets the distinct impression that if plied with a cocktail or two, he might well lean across the table and suggest something awkward, like comparing SAT scores.” It’s almost impossible, the journalist observed, to overestimate “the premium placed within the McKinsey culture on analytic ability, or as its denizens say, on being ‘bright.’ ”

McKinsey is famous for recruiting and rewarding smart men and women—some with MBAs from places like Harvard and Stanford, and the rest, like me, who possess some other credential that suggests we must have very big brains.

My interviews with McKinsey unfolded as most do, with a series of brainteasers designed to test my analytic mettle. One interviewer sat me down and introduced himself, then asked: “How many tennis balls are manufactured in the United States per year?”

“I guess there are two ways to approach that question,” I responded. “The first way is to find the right person, or maybe trade organization, to tell you.” My interviewer nodded, but gave me a look that said he wanted the other kind of answer.

“Or you could take some basic assumptions and do some multiplying to figure it out.”

My interviewer smiled broadly. So I gave him what he wanted.

“Okay, assume there are about two hundred fifty million people in the United States. Let’s say the most active tennis players are between the age of ten and thirty. That’s got to be, roughly speaking, one-fourth of the population. I guess that gives you a little over sixty million potential tennis players.”

Now my interviewer was really excited. I continued the logic game, multiplying and dividing by numbers according to my completely uninformed estimates of how many people actually play tennis, and how often they play on average, and how many balls they would use in a game, and then how often they would need to replace dead or lost ones.

I got to some number, which was probably wildly off, because at every step I was making another uninformed assumption that was, to some degree or another, incorrect. Finally, I said: “The math here isn’t that hard for me. I’m tutoring a little girl who is practicing her fractions right now, and we do a lot of mental math together. But if you want to know what I’d really do if I needed to know the answer to that question, I’ll tell you: I’d just call someone who actually knows.”

More smiling, and then an assurance that he’d learned all he needed to from our interaction. And also from my application—including my SAT scores, which McKinsey heavily relies on to do their early sorting of candidates. In other words, if the advice to corporate America is to create a culture that values talent above all else, McKinsey practices what it preaches.



* * *



Once I accepted the offer to join the New York City office, I was told that my first month would be spent in a fancy hotel in Clearwater, Florida. There I joined about three dozen other new hires who, like me, lacked any training in business. Instead, each of us had earned some other academic badge of honor. I sat next to a guy with a PhD in physics, for example. On my other side was a surgeon, and behind me were two lawyers.

None of us knew much about management in general, or about any industry in particular. But that was about to change: in a single month, we would complete a crash course called the “mini-MBA.” Since we were all vetted to be superfast learners, there was no question that we would successfully master a massive amount of information in a very short amount of time.

Newly equipped with a casual acquaintance with cash flow, the difference between revenue and profit, and some other rudimentary facts about what I now knew to call “the private sector,” we were shipped off to our designated offices around the world, where we would join teams of other consultants and be matched up with corporate clients to solve whatever problems they threw our way.

I soon learned that McKinsey’s basic business proposition is straightforward. For a very large sum of money per month, companies can hire a McKinsey team to solve problems too thorny to be solved by the folks who are already working on them. At the end of this “engagement,” as it was called in the firm, we were supposed to produce a report that was dramatically more insightful than anything they could have generated in-house.

It occurred to me, as I was putting together slides summarizing bold, sweeping recommendations for a multibillion-dollar medical products conglomerate, that, really, I had no idea what I was talking about. There were senior consultants on the team who may have known more, but there were also more junior consultants who, having just graduated from college, surely knew even less.

Why hire us, then, at such an exorbitant cost? Well, for one thing, we had the advantage of an outsider’s perspective untainted by insider politics. We also had a method for solving business problems that was hypothesis and data driven. There were probably lots of good reasons CEOs brought in McKinsey. But among them, I think, was that we were supposed to be sharper than the people who were already on-site. Hiring McKinsey meant hiring the very “best and brightest”—as if being the brightest also made us the best.



* * *



According to The War for Talent, the companies that excel are those that aggressively promote the most talented employees while just as aggressively culling the least talented. In such companies, huge disparities in salary are not only justified but desirable. Why? Because a competitive, winner-take-all environment encourages the most talented to stick around and the least talented to find alternative employment.

Duff McDonald, the journalist who’s done the most in-depth research on McKinsey to date, has suggested that this particular business philosophy would be more aptly titled The War on Common Sense. McDonald points out that the companies highlighted in the original McKinsey report as exemplars of their endorsed strategy didn’t do so well in the years after that report was published.

Journalist Malcolm Gladwell has also critiqued the The War for Talent. Enron, he points out, epitomized the “talent mindset” approach to management advocated by McKinsey. As we all know, the Enron story doesn’t have a happy ending. Once one of the largest energy trading companies in the world, Enron was named America’s Most Innovative Company by Fortune magazine six years in a row. Yet, by the end of 2001, when the business filed for bankruptcy, it had become clear that the company’s extraordinary profits were attributable to massive and systematic accounting fraud. When Enron collapsed, thousands of its employees, who had no hand at all in the wrongdoing, lost their jobs, health insurance, and retirement savings. At the time, it was the largest corporate bankruptcy in U.S. history.

You can’t blame the Enron debacle on a surfeit of IQ points. You can’t blame it on a lack of grit, either. But Gladwell argues convincingly that demanding Enron employees prove that they were smarter than everyone else inadvertently contributed to a narcissistic culture, with an overrepresentation of employees who were both incredibly smug and driven by deep insecurity to keep showing off. It was a culture that encouraged short-term performance but discouraged long-term learning and growth.

The same point comes through in the postmortem documentary on Enron called, appropriately enough, The Smartest Guys in the Room. During the company’s ascendency, it was a brash and brilliant former McKinsey consultant named Jeff Skilling who was Enron’s CEO. Skilling developed a performance review system for Enron that consisted of grading employees annually and summarily firing the bottom 15 percent. In other words, no matter what your absolute level of performance, if you were weak, relative to others, you got fired. Inside Enron, this practice was known as “rank-and-yank.” Skilling considered it one of the most important strategies his company had. But ultimately, it may have contributed to a work environment that rewarded deception and discouraged integrity.



* * *



Is talent a bad thing? Are we all equally talented? No and no. The ability to quickly climb the learning curve of any skill is obviously a very good thing, and, like it or not, some of us are better at it than others.

So why, then, is it such a bad thing to favor “naturals” over “strivers”? What’s the downside of television shows like America’s Got Talent, The X Factor, and Child Genius? Why shouldn’t we separate children as young as seven or eight into two groups: those few children who are “gifted and talented” and the many, many more who aren’t? What harm is there, really, in a talent show being named a “talent show”?

In my view, the biggest reason a preoccupation with talent can be harmful is simple: By shining our spotlight on talent, we risk leaving everything else in the shadows. We inadvertently send the message that these other factors—including grit—don’t matter as much as they really do.

Consider, for example, the story of Scott Barry Kaufman. Scott’s office is just two doors down from mine, and he’s a lot like the other academic psychologists I know: He spends most of his waking hours reading, thinking, collecting data, doing statistics, and writing. He publishes his research in scientific journals. He knows a lot of polysyllabic words. He has degrees from Carnegie Mellon, Cambridge University, and Yale. He plays the cello for fun.

But as a child, Scott was considered a slow learner—which was true. “Basically, I got a lot of ear infections as a kid,” Scott explains. “And that led to this problem with processing information from sound in real time. I was always a step or two behind the other kids in my class.” So halting was his academic progress, in fact, that he was placed in special education classes. He repeated third grade. Around the same time, he met with a school psychologist to take an IQ test. In an anxiety-ridden test session he describes as “harrowing,” Scott performed so poorly that he was sent to a special school for children with learning disabilities.

It was not until age fourteen that an observant special education teacher took Scott aside and asked why he wasn’t in more challenging classes. Until then, Scott had never questioned his intellectual status. Instead, he’d assumed that his lack of talent would put a very low ceiling on what he might do with his life.

Meeting a teacher who believed in his potential was a critical turning point: a pivot from This is all you can do to Who knows what you can do? At that moment, Scott started wondering, for the very first time: Who am I? Am I a learning disabled kid with no real future? Or maybe something else?

And then, to find out, Scott signed up for just about every challenge his school had to offer. Latin class. The school musical. Choir. He didn’t necessarily excel in everything, but he learned in all. What Scott learned is that he wasn’t hopeless.

Something that Scott found he did learn fairly easily was the cello. His grandfather had been a cellist in the Philadelphia Orchestra for nearly fifty years, and Scott had the idea that his grandfather could give him lessons. He did, and the summer that Scott first picked up the cello, he began practicing eight or nine hours a day. He was fiercely determined to improve, and not only because he enjoyed the cello: “I was so driven to just show someone, anyone, that I was intellectually capable of anything. At this point I didn’t even care what it was.”

Improve he did, and by the fall, he earned a seat in his high school orchestra. If the story ended there and then, it might not be about grit. But here’s what happened next. Scott kept up—and even increased—his practicing. He skipped lunch to practice. Sometimes he skipped classes to practice. By senior year, he was second chair—he was the second-best cellist in the orchestra—and he was in the choir, too, and winning all kinds of awards from the music department.

He also started doing well in his classes, many of which were now honors classes. Almost all of his friends were in the gifted and talented program, and Scott wanted to join them. He wanted to talk about Plato and do mental puzzles and learn more than he was already learning. Of course, with his IQ scores from childhood, there was no such possibility. He remembers the school psychologist drawing a bell-shaped curve on the back of a napkin and pointing to its peak—“This is average”—then moving to the right—“This is where you’d have to be for gifted and talented classes”—and then moving to the left—“And this is where you are.”

“At what point,” Scott asked, “does achievement trump potential?”

The school psychologist shook his head and showed Scott the door.

That fall, Scott decided he wanted to study this thing called “intelligence” and come to his own conclusions. He applied to the cognitive science program at Carnegie Mellon University. And he was rejected. The rejection letter did not specify why, of course, but given his stellar grades and extracurricular accomplishments, Scott could only conclude that the impediment was his low SAT scores.

“I had this grit,” Scott recalls. “I said, ‘I’m going to do it. I don’t care. I’m going to find a way to study what I want to study.’ ” And then Scott auditioned for Carnegie Mellon’s opera program. Why? Because the opera program didn’t look very hard at SAT scores, focusing instead on musical aptitude and expression. In his first year, Scott took a psychology course as an elective. Soon after, he added psychology as a minor. Next, he transferred his major from opera to psychology. And then he graduated Phi Beta Kappa.



* * *



Like Scott, I took an IQ test early in my schooling and was deemed insufficiently bright to benefit from gifted and talented classes. For whatever reason—maybe a teacher asked that I be retested—I was evaluated again the following year, and I made the cut. I guess you could say I was borderline gifted.

One way to interpret these stories is that talent is great, but tests of talent stink. There’s certainly an argument to be made that tests of talent—and tests of anything else psychologists study, including grit—are highly imperfect.

But another conclusion is that the focus on talent distracts us from something that is at least as important, and that is effort. In the next chapter, I’ll argue that, as much as talent counts, effort counts twice.





Chapter 3


EFFORT COUNTS TWICE


Not a day goes by that I don’t read or hear the word talent. In every section of the newspaper—from the sports page to the business section, from profiles of actors and musicians in the weekend supplement, to front-page stories of rising stars in politics—allusions to talent abound. It seems that when anyone accomplishes a feat worth writing about, we rush to anoint that individual as extraordinarily “talented.”

If we overemphasize talent, we underemphasize everything else. In the extreme, it’s as if, deep down, we hold the following to be true:



For instance, I recently listened to a radio commentator draw a comparison between Hillary and Bill Clinton. He observed that both are unusually good communicators. But while her husband, Bill, is a gifted politician, Hillary has to contort herself into the role. Bill is a natural; Hillary merely a striver. The unsaid but obvious implication is that she’ll never quite be his equal.

I’ve caught myself doing it, too. When someone really, really impresses me, I might reflexively say to myself: What a genius! I should know better. I do. So what’s going on? Why does an unconscious bias toward talent persist?



* * *



A few years ago, I read a study of competitive swimmers titled “The Mundanity of Excellence.” The title of the article encapsulates its major conclusion: the most dazzling human achievements are, in fact, the aggregate of countless individual elements, each of which is, in a sense, ordinary.

Dan Chambliss, the sociologist who completed the study, observed: “Superlative performance is really a confluence of dozens of small skills or activities, each one learned or stumbled upon, which have been carefully drilled into habit and then are fitted together in a synthesized whole. There is nothing extraordinary or superhuman in any one of those actions; only the fact that they are done consistently and correctly, and all together, produce excellence.”

But mundanity is a hard sell. When finishing up his analyses, Dan shared a few chapters with a colleague. “You need to jazz it up,” his friend said. “You need to make these people more interesting. . . .”

When I called Dan to probe a few of his observations, I learned that he’d become fascinated with the idea of talent—and what we really mean by it—as a swimmer himself and, for several years afterward, as a part-time coach. As a young assistant professor, Dan decided to do an in-depth, qualitative study of swimmers. In total, Dan devoted six years to interviewing, watching, and sometimes living and traveling with swimmers and coaches at all levels—from the local swim club to an elite team made up of future Olympians.

“Talent,” he observed, “is perhaps the most pervasive lay explanation we have for athletic success.” It is as if talent were some invisible “substance behind the surface reality of performance, which finally distinguishes the best among our athletes.” And these great athletes seem blessed “with a special gift, almost a ‘thing’ inside of them, denied to the rest of us—perhaps physical, genetic, psychological, or physiological. Some have ‘it,’ and some don’t. Some are ‘natural athletes,’ and some aren’t.”

I think Dan is exactly right. If we can’t explain how an athlete, musician, or anyone else has done something jaw-droppingly amazing, we’re inclined to throw up our hands and say, “It’s a gift! Nobody can teach you that.” In other words, when we can’t easily see how experience and training got someone to a level of excellence that is so clearly beyond the norm, we default to labeling that person a “natural.”

Dan points out that the biographies of great swimmers reveal many, many factors that contribute to their ultimate success. For instance, the most accomplished swimmers almost invariably had parents who were interested in the sport and earned enough money to pay for coaching, travel to swim meets, and not the least important: access to a pool. And, crucially, there were the thousands of hours of practice in the pool over years and years—all spent refining the many individual elements whose sum create a single flawless performance.

Though it seems wrong to assume that talent is a complete explanation for dazzling performance, it’s also understandable. “It’s easy to do,” Dan explained, “especially if one’s only exposure to top athletes comes once every four years while watching the Olympics on television, or if one only sees them in performances rather than in day-to-day training.”

Another point he makes is that the minimal talent needed to succeed in swimming is lower than most of us think.

“I don’t think you mean to say that any of us could be Michael Phelps,” I said. “Do you?”

“No, of course not,” Dan replied. “To begin with, there are certain anatomical advantages that you really can’t train for.”

“And,” I continued, “wouldn’t you say that some swimmers improve more than others, even if they’re trying equally hard and getting the same coaching?”

“Yes, but the main thing is that greatness is doable. Greatness is many, many individual feats, and each of them is doable.”

Dan’s point is that if you had a time-lapse film of the hours and days and weeks and years that produced excellence, you could see what he saw: that a high level of performance is, in fact, an accretion of mundane acts. But does the incremental mastery of mundane individual components explain everything? I wondered. Is that all there is?

“Well, we all love mystery and magic,” he said. “I do, too.”

Then Dan told me about the day he got to watch Rowdy Gaines and Mark Spitz swim laps. “Spitz won seven gold medals in the ’72 Olympics and was the big thing before Michael Phelps,” he explained. “In ’84, twelve years after retirement, Spitz showed up. He’s in his mid-thirties. And he gets into the water with Rowdy Gaines, who at that time held the world record in the one hundred free. They did some fifties—in other words, two lengths of the pool, just sprints, like little races. Gaines won most of them, but by the time they were halfway through, the entire team was standing around the edge of the pool just to watch Spitz swim.”

Everyone on the team had been training with Gaines, and they knew how good he was. They knew he was favored to win Olympic gold. But because of the age gap, nobody had swum with Spitz.

One swimmer turned to Dan and said, pointing to Spitz, “My god. He’s a fish.”

I could hear the wonder in Dan’s voice. Even a student of mundanity, it seems, is easily lulled into talent explanations. I pressed him a bit. Was that sort of majestic performance something divine?

Dan told me to go read Nietzsche.

Nietzsche? The philosopher? What would a nineteenth-century German philosopher have to say that might explain Mark Spitz? As it turns out, Nietzsche, too, had thought long and hard about the same questions.



* * *



“With everything perfect,” Nietzsche wrote, “we do not ask how it came to be.” Instead, “we rejoice in the present fact as though it came out of the ground by magic.”

When I read that passage, I thought of the young swimmers watching their icon Spitz exhibit form that almost didn’t seem human.

“No one can see in the work of the artist how it has become,” Nietzsche said. “That is its advantage, for wherever one can see the act of becoming one grows somewhat cool.” In other words, we want to believe that Mark Spitz was born to swim in a way that none of us were and that none of us could. We don’t want to sit on the pool deck and watch him progress from amateur to expert. We prefer our excellence fully formed. We prefer mystery to mundanity.

But why? What’s the reason for fooling ourselves into thinking Mark Spitz didn’t earn his mastery?

“Our vanity, our self-love, promotes the cult of the genius,” Nietzsche said. “For if we think of genius as something magical, we are not obliged to compare ourselves and find ourselves lacking. . . . To call someone ‘divine’ means: ‘here there is no need to compete.’ ”

In other words, mythologizing natural talent lets us all off the hook. It lets us relax into the status quo. That’s what undoubtedly occurred in my early days of teaching when I mistakenly equated talent and achievement, and by doing so, removed effort—both my students’ and my own—from further consideration.

So what is the reality of greatness? Nietzsche came to the same conclusion Dan Chambliss did. Great things are accomplished by those “people whose thinking is active in one direction, who employ everything as material, who always zealously observe their own inner life and that of others, who perceive everywhere models and incentives, who never tire of combining together the means available to them.”

And what about talent? Nietzsche implored us to consider exemplars to be, above all else, craftsmen: “Do not talk about giftedness, inborn talents! One can name great men of all kinds who were very little gifted. They acquired greatness, became ‘geniuses’ (as we put it). . . . They all possessed that seriousness of the efficient workman which first learns to construct the parts properly before it ventures to fashion a great whole; they allowed themselves time for it, because they took more pleasure in making the little, secondary things well than in the effect of a dazzling whole.”



* * *



In my second year of graduate school, I sat down to a weekly meeting with my advisor, Marty Seligman. I was more than a little nervous. Marty has that effect on people, especially his students.

Then in his sixties, Marty had won just about every accolade psychology has to offer. His early research led to an unprecedented understanding of clinical depression. More recently, as president of the American Psychological Association, he christened the field of Positive Psychology, a discipline that applies the scientific method to questions of human flourishing.

Marty is barrel-chested and baritone-voiced. He may study happiness and well-being, but cheerful is not a word I’d use to describe him.

In the middle of whatever it was I was saying—a report on what I’d done in the past week, I suppose, or the next steps in one of our research studies—Marty interrupted. “You haven’t had a good idea in two years.”

I stared at him, openmouthed, trying to process what he’d just said. Then I blinked. Two years? I hadn’t even been in graduate school for two years!

Silence.

Then he crossed his arms, frowned, and said: “You can do all kinds of fancy statistics. You somehow get every parent in a school to return their consent form. You’ve made a few insightful observations. But you don’t have a theory. You don’t have a theory for the psychology of achievement.”

Silence.

“What’s a theory?” I finally asked, having absolutely no clue as to what he was talking about.

Silence.

“Stop reading so much and go think.”

I left his office, went into mine, and cried. At home with my husband, I cried more. I cursed Marty under my breath—and aloud as well—for being such a jerk. Why was he telling me what I was doing wrong? Why wasn’t he praising me for what I was doing right?

You don’t have a theory. . . .

Those words rattled around in my mind for days. Finally, I dried my tears, stopped my cursing, and sat down at my computer. I opened the word processor and stared at the blinking cursor, realizing I hadn’t gotten far beyond the basic observation that talent was not enough to succeed in life. I hadn’t worked out how, exactly, talent and effort and skill and achievement all fit together.



* * *



A theory is an explanation. A theory takes a blizzard of facts and observations and explains, in the most basic terms, what the heck is going on. By necessity, a theory is incomplete. It oversimplifies. But in doing so, it helps us understand.

If talent falls short of explaining achievement, what’s missing?

I have been working on a theory of the psychology of achievement since Marty scolded me for not having one. I have pages and pages of diagrams, filling more than a dozen lab notebooks. After more than a decade of thinking about it, sometimes alone, and sometimes in partnership with close colleagues, I finally published an article in which I lay down two simple equations that explain how you get from talent to achievement.

Here they are:



Talent is how quickly your skills improve when you invest effort. Achievement is what happens when you take your acquired skills and use them. Of course, your opportunities—for example, having a great coach or teacher—matter tremendously, too, and maybe more than anything about the individual. My theory doesn’t address these outside forces, nor does it include luck. It’s about the psychology of achievement, but because psychology isn’t all that matters, it’s incomplete.

Still, I think it’s useful. What this theory says is that when you consider individuals in identical circumstances, what each achieves depends on just two things, talent and effort. Talent—how fast we improve in skill—absolutely matters. But effort factors into the calculations twice, not once. Effort builds skill. At the very same time, effort makes skill productive. Let me give you a few examples.



* * *



There’s a celebrated potter named Warren MacKenzie who lives in Minnesota. Now ninety-two years old, he has been at his craft, without interruption, for nearly his entire adult life. Early on, he and his late wife, also an artist, tried a lot of different things: “You know, when you’re young, you think you can do anything, and we thought, oh, we’ll be potters, we’ll be painters, we’ll be textile designers, we’ll be jewelers, we’ll be a little of this, a little of that. We were going to be the renaissance people.”

It soon became clear that doing one thing better and better might be more satisfying than staying an amateur at many different things: “Eventually both of us gave up the drawing and painting, gave up the silk-screening, gave up the textile design, and concentrated on ceramic work, because that was where we felt our true interest lay.”

MacKenzie told me “a good potter can make forty or fifty pots in a day.” Out of these, “some of them are good and some of them are mediocre and some of them are bad.” Only a few will be worth selling, and of those, even fewer “will continue to engage the senses after daily use.”

Of course, it’s not just the number of good pots MacKenzie makes that has brought the art world to his door. It’s the beauty and form of the pots: “I’m striving to make things which are the most exciting things I can make that will fit in people’s homes.” Still, as a simplification, you might say that the number of enduringly beautiful, exquisitely useful pots MacKenzie is able to produce, in total, will be what he accomplishes as an artist. It would not satisfy him to be among the most masterful potters but only produce, say, one or two pieces in his lifetime.

MacKenzie still throws clay on the wheel every day, and with effort his skill has improved: “I think back to some of the pots we made when we first started our pottery, and they were pretty awful pots. We thought at the time they were good; they were the best we could make, but our thinking was so elemental that the pots had that quality also, and so they don’t have a richness about them which I look for in my work today.”

“The first 10,000 pots are difficult,” he has said, “and then it gets a little bit easier.”

As things got easier, and as MacKenzie improved, he produced more good pots a day:

talent x effort = skill

At the same time, the number of good pots he’s brought into the world increased:

skill x effort = achievement

With effort, MacKenzie has gotten better and better at making “the most exciting things I can make that will fit in people’s homes.” At the same time, with the same invested effort, he has become more accomplished.



* * *



“Garp was a natural storyteller.”

This is a line from John Irving’s fourth novel, The World According to Garp. Like that novel’s fictional protagonist, Irving tells a great story. He has been lauded as “the great storyteller of American literature today.” To date, he’s written more than a dozen novels, most of which have been best sellers and half of which have been made into movies. The World According to Garp won the National Book Award, and Irving’s screenplay for The Cider House Rules won an Academy Award.

But unlike Garp, Irving was not a natural. While Garp “could make things up, one right after the other, and they seemed to fit,” Irving rewrites draft after draft of his novels. Of his early attempts at writing, Irving has said, “Most of all, I rewrote everything . . . I began to take my lack of talent seriously.”

Irving recalls earning a C– in high school English. His SAT verbal score was 475 out of 800, which means almost two-thirds of the students who took the SAT did better than him. He needed to stay in high school an extra year to have enough credits to graduate. Irving recalls that his teachers thought he was both “lazy” and “stupid.”

Irving was neither lazy nor stupid. But he was severely dyslexic: “I was an underdog. . . . If my classmates could read our history assignment in an hour, I allowed myself two or three. If I couldn’t learn to spell, I would keep a list of my most frequently misspelled words.” When his own son was diagnosed with dyslexia, Irving finally understood why he, himself, had been such a poor student. Irving’s son read noticeably slower than his classmates, “with his finger following the sentence—as I read, as I still read. Unless I’ve written it, I read whatever ‘it’ is very slowly—and with my finger.”

Since reading and writing didn’t come easily, Irving learned that “to do anything really well, you have to overextend yourself. . . . In my case, I learned that I just had to pay twice as much attention. I came to appreciate that in doing something over and over again, something that was never natural becomes almost second nature. You learn that you have the capacity for that, and that it doesn’t come overnight.”

Do the precociously talented learn that lesson? Do they discover that the capacity to do something over and over again, to struggle, to have patience, can be mastered—but not overnight?

Some might. But those who struggle early may learn it better: “One reason I have confidence in writing the kind of novels I write,” Irving said, “is that I have confidence in my stamina to go over something again and again no matter how difficult it is.” After his tenth novel, Irving observed, “Rewriting is what I do best as a writer. I spend more time revising a novel or screenplay than I take to write the first draft.”

“It’s become an advantage,” Irving has observed of his inability to read and spell as fluently as others. “In writing a novel, it doesn’t hurt anybody to have to go slowly. It doesn’t hurt anyone as a writer to have to go over something again and again.”

With daily effort, Irving became one of the most masterful and prolific writers in history. With effort, he became a master, and with effort, his mastery produced stories that have touched millions of people, including me.



* * *



Grammy Award–winning musician and Oscar-nominated actor Will Smith has thought a lot about talent, effort, skill, and achievement. “I’ve never really viewed myself as particularly talented,” he once observed. “Where I excel is ridiculous, sickening work ethic.”

Accomplishment, in Will’s eyes, is very much about going the distance. Asked to explain his ascendancy to the entertainment elite, Will said:

The only thing that I see that is distinctly different about me is: I’m not afraid to die on a treadmill. I will not be outworked, period. You might have more talent than me, you might be smarter than me, you might be sexier than me. You might be all of those things. You got it on me in nine categories. But if we get on the treadmill together, there’s two things: You’re getting off first, or I’m going to die. It’s really that simple.

In 1940, researchers at Harvard University had the same idea. In a study designed to understand the “characteristics of healthy young men” in order to “help people live happier, more successful lives,” 130 sophomores were asked to run on a treadmill for up to five minutes. The treadmill was set at such a steep angle and cranked up to such a fast speed that the average man held on for only four minutes. Some lasted for only a minute and a half.

By design, the Treadmill Test was exhausting. Not just physically but mentally. By measuring and then adjusting for baseline physical fitness, the researchers designed the Treadmill Test to gauge “stamina and strength of will.” In particular, Harvard researchers knew that running hard was not just a function of aerobic capacity and muscle strength but also the extent to which “a subject is willing to push himself or has a tendency to quit before the punishment becomes too severe.”

Decades later, a psychiatrist named George Vaillant followed up on the young men in the original Treadmill Test. Then in their sixties, these men had been contacted by researchers every two years since graduating from college, and for each there was a corresponding file folder at Harvard literally bursting with questionnaires, correspondence, and notes from in-depth interviews. For instance, researchers noted for each man his income, career advancement, sick days, social activities, self-reported satisfaction with work and marriage, visits to psychiatrists, and use of mood-altering drugs like tranquilizers. All this information went into composite estimates of the men’s overall psychological adjustment in adulthood.

It turns out that run time in the Treadmill Test at age twenty was a surprisingly reliable predictor of psychological adjustment throughout adulthood. George and his team considered that staying on the treadmill was also a function of how physically fit these men were in their youth, and that this finding merely indicated that physical health predicted later psychological well-being. However, they found that adjusting for baseline physical fitness “had little effect on the correlation of running time with mental health.”

In other words, Will Smith is on to something. When it comes to how we fare in the marathon of life, effort counts tremendously.

“How long would you have stayed on the treadmill?” I asked George recently. I wanted to know because, in my eyes, George is himself a paragon of grit. Early in his career, not long after completing his residency in psychiatry, George discovered the treadmill data, along with all the other information on the men collected to that point. Like a baton, the study had been handed from one research team to another, with dwindling interest and energy. Until it got to him.

George revived the study. He reestablished contact with the men by mail and phone and, in addition, interviewed each in person, traveling to all corners of the world to do so. Now in his eighties, George has outlived most of the men in the original study. He is currently writing his fourth book on what is by now the longest continuous study of human development ever undertaken.

In answer to my question about his own treadmill perseverance, George replied, “Oh, I’m not all that persistent. When I do crossword puzzles on the airplane, I always look at the answers when I am a little bit frustrated.”

So, not very gritty when it comes to crossword puzzles.

“And when something is broken in the house, I turn it over to my wife, and she fixes it.”

“So you don’t think you’re gritty?” I asked.

“The reason why the Harvard study works is that I have been doing it constantly and persistently. It’s the one ball I’ve kept my eye on. Because I’m totally fascinated by it. There is nothing more interesting than watching people grow.”

And then, after a short pause, George recalled his days at prep school, where, as a varsity track athlete, he competed in pole vaulting. To improve, he and the other vaulters did pull-ups, which he calls “chins,” because you start by hanging off a bar and then pull yourself up to where your chin hovers just above, then you drop down again, and repeat.

“I could do more chins than anyone. And it wasn’t because I was very athletic—I wasn’t. The reason is that I did a lot of chin-ups. I practiced.”



* * *



The prolific writer and director Woody Allen, when asked about his advice for young artists, once said:

My observation was that once a person actually completed a play or a novel he was well on his way to getting it produced or published, as opposed to a vast majority of people who tell me their ambition is to write, but who strike out on the very first level and indeed never write the play or book.

Or, in Allen’s snappier formulation, “Eighty percent of success in life is showing up.”

Back in the 1980s, both George H. W. Bush and Mario Cuomo frequently repeated this bit of wisdom in speech after speech, turning the saying into something of a meme. So, while these leaders of the Republican and Democratic parties must have disagreed on a great many things, they were in complete consensus on the importance of following through on what one has started.

I told George Vaillant that, if I’d been on the Harvard research team in 1940, I would have made a suggestion. I would have allowed the young men to come back the next day, if they wanted, and try the Treadmill Test again. I suspect that some would have come back to see if they could stay on longer, whereas others would have been content with their first timed effort. Maybe some would ask the researchers whether they knew of any strategies, physical or mental, in order to last longer. And maybe these fellows would even be interested in a third try, and a fourth. . . . Then I would create a grit score based on how many times men voluntarily returned to see if they could improve.

Staying on the treadmill is one thing, and I do think it’s related to staying true to our commitments even when we’re not comfortable. But getting back on the treadmill the next day, eager to try again, is in my view even more reflective of grit. Because when you don’t come back the next day—when you permanently turn your back on a commitment—your effort plummets to zero. As a consequence, your skills stop improving, and at the same time, you stop producing anything with whatever skills you have.

The treadmill is, in fact, an appropriate metaphor. By some estimates, about 40 percent of people who buy home exercise equipment later say they ended up using it less than they’d expected. How hard we push ourselves in a given workout matters, of course, but I think the bigger impediment to progress is that sometimes we stop working out altogether. As any coach or athlete will tell you, consistency of effort over the long run is everything.

How often do people start down a path and then give up on it entirely? How many treadmills, exercise bikes, and weight sets are at this very moment gathering dust in basements across the country? How many kids go out for a sport and then quit even before the season is over? How many of us vow to knit sweaters for all of our friends but only manage half a sleeve before putting down the needles? Ditto for home vegetable gardens, compost bins, and diets. How many of us start something new, full of excitement and good intentions, and then give up—permanently—when we encounter the first real obstacle, the first long plateau in progress?

Many of us, it seems, quit what we start far too early and far too often. Even more than the effort a gritty person puts in on a single day, what matters is that they wake up the next day, and the next, ready to get on that treadmill and keep going.



* * *



If I have the math approximately right, then someone twice as talented but half as hardworking as another person might reach the same level of skill but still produce dramatically less over time. This is because as strivers are improving in skill, they are also employing that skill—to make pots, write books, direct movies, give concerts. If the quality and quantity of those pots, books, movies, and concerts are what count, then the striver who equals the person who is a natural in skill by working harder will, in the long run, accomplish more.

“The separation of talent and skill,” Will Smith points out, “is one of the greatest misunderstood concepts for people who are trying to excel, who have dreams, who want to do things. Talent you have naturally. Skill is only developed by hours and hours and hours of beating on your craft.”

I would add that skill is not the same thing as achievement, either. Without effort, your talent is nothing more than your unmet potential. Without effort, your skill is nothing more than what you could have done but didn’t. With effort, talent becomes skill and, at the very same time, effort makes skill productive.





Chapter 4


HOW GRITTY ARE YOU?


I recently gave a lecture on grit to undergraduates at the Wharton School of Business. Even before I’d cleared my notes from the podium, an aspiring entrepreneur rushed to introduce himself.

He was charming—full of the energy and enthusiasm that makes teaching young people so rewarding. Breathlessly, he told me a story meant to illustrate his own prodigious grit. Earlier that year, he’d raised thousands of dollars for his start-up, going to heroic lengths to do so, and pulling several all-nighters in the process.

I was impressed and said so. But I hastened to add that grit is more about stamina than intensity. “So, if you’re working on that project with the same energy in a year or two, email me. I can say more about your grit then.”

He was puzzled. “Well, I might not be working on the same thing in a few years.”

Good point. Lots of ventures that seem promising at the start turn out badly. Lots of optimistic business plans end up in the discard bin.

“Okay, so maybe this particular start-up won’t be what you’re working on. But if you’re not working in the same industry, if you’re on to some totally unrelated pursuit, then I’m not sure your story illustrates grit.”

“You mean, stay in one company?” he asked.

“Not necessarily. But skipping around from one kind of pursuit to another—from one skill set to an entirely different one—that’s not what gritty people do.”

“But what if I move around a lot and, while I’m doing that, I’m working incredibly hard?”

“Grit isn’t just working incredibly hard. That’s only part of it.”

Pause.

“Why?”

“Well, for one thing, there are no shortcuts to excellence. Developing real expertise, figuring out really hard problems, it all takes time—longer than most people imagine. And then, you know, you’ve got to apply those skills and produce goods or services that are valuable to people. Rome wasn’t built in a day.”

He was listening, so I continued.

“And here’s the really important thing. Grit is about working on something you care about so much that you’re willing to stay loyal to it.”

“It’s doing what you love. I get that.”

“Right, it’s doing what you love, but not just falling in love—staying in love.”



* * *



How gritty are you? Below is a version of the Grit Scale I developed for my study at West Point and which I used in other studies described in this book. Read each sentence and, on the right, check off the box that makes sense. Don’t overthink the questions. Instead, just ask yourself how you compare—not just to your coworkers, friends, or family—but to “most people.”



Not at all like me

Not much like me

Somewhat like me

Mostly like me

Very much like me



1. New ideas and projects sometimes distract me from previous ones.

5

4

3

2

1



2. Setbacks don’t discourage me. I don’t give up easily.

1

2

3

4

5



3. I often set a goal but later choose to pursue a different one.

5

4

3

2

1



4. I am a hard worker.

1

2

3

4

5



5. I have difficulty maintaining my focus on projects that take more than a few months to complete.

5

4

3

2

1



6. I finish whatever I begin.

1

2

3

4

5



7. My interests change from year to year.

5

4

3

2

1



8. I am diligent. I never give up.

1

2

3

4

5



9. I have been obsessed with a certain idea or project for a short time but later lost interest.

5

4

3

2

1