Winners Always Finish: a review of the famous Grit study by Angela Duckworth

Behavioral psychology concepts tend to explode onto the scene like Billboard #1 songs. And then they’re discarded just as quickly. Only a few have staying power: Mikhail C’s description of flow and why it’s so good to get lost in your work. Carol Dweck’s concept of a growth mindset and the value of believing that failure isn’t a permanent condition.

To those two (and some others), I would add Angela Duckworth’s famous grit study. Like all psychology findings that stick around, it has a catchy keyword and it reveals a truth about human behavior that is both intuitive and surprising. Whether you’re gritty or not, you want more of it, and you especially want your kids to have it.

So I finally read the original research paper because I’m a nerd who is obsessed with habits, and I believe grit can be a habit.

The brief summary: “don’t give up and you’ll eventually succeed.” But there’s a lot more to the study and its findings. As academic research papers go, it was a fun one to read. I wanted to share some of the nuances and insights with you.

So what is grit?

Grit is “perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Grit entails working strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity, and plateaus in progress”

Winners always finish

Many people think that grit is about working hard and not quitting. But grit is also about FOLLOWING THROUGH on what you start. Gritty people commit to one pursuit, to the exclusion of others. They finish what they begin. That’s what makes them winners.

Follow-through is “evidence of purposeful continuous commitment to certain types of activities versus sporadic efforts in diverse areas”

“whereas the importance of working harder is easily apprehended, the importance of working longer without switching objectives may be less perceptible […] eg, a prodigy who practices intensively yet moves from piano to saxophone to voice will likely be surpassed by an equally gifted but grittier child”

The concept of follow through seems to be ignored when we talk about grit.

More notes and excerpts

  • if you’re conscientious, chances are you’re also gritty
  • grit is not correlated with general intelligence. in fact there is some evidence that it’s inversely correlated
  • high achievers [are] triply blessed by “ability combined with zeal and with capacity for hard labour”
  • forget 10 years of practice, 20 is even better: “over 10 years of daily deliberate practice set apart expert performers from less proficient peers and that 20 years of dedicated practice was an even more reliable predictor of world-class achievement”
  • grit increases with age and level of education (graduate students had the most grit…)
  • grit isn’t everything, especially when young. the authors specifically state, “a strong desire for novelty and a low threshold for frustration may be adaptive earlier in life: Moving on from dead-end pursuits is essential to the discovery of more promising paths”
  • but grit predicted things like: drop out rates during Westpoint’s summer Beast Barracks; performance at the National Spelling Bee; GPAs at the top universities; graduation rates at inner city schools

and just because it’s interesting:

“Participants (at the National Spelling Bee Finals) studied for the spelling bee an average of 2.25 hours per day on weekends and 1.34 hours per day on weekdays”

Angela gives a TED talk, embedded below. It’s interesting, although it’s not a summary of her research:

If you like these talks here’s my list of TED talks and notes.

More thoughts on grit

I’m reminded of Rule 50 from The Little Book of Talent: “Build grit, love the grind”

I’m reminded of David Brooks who says that love is both transcendent magic and a gritty commitment.

Paul Tough, in a podcast (it might have been an episode of This American Life), says that the ideal stage to start teaching grit is adolescence, when people first become “meta cognitive”. And to build grit, a close attachment to a parental figure is important (I suppose for the sense of safety and security?).

Thanks for reading! What psych studies / research papers are your favorites?

Hi! I write about habits and spirituality and random whatevers. Click here to see the daily habits that I track. Find me on Twitter @kgao.