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Talking grit with Angela Duckworth


June 9, 2016 Fionnuala O'Reilly and Zhi Soon

Angela Duckworth, Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and Behavioural Insights Team collaborator, was in London recently promoting her new book “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance”. BIT have taken inspiration from Angela’s work over the past few years and have previously used the concept of grit to evaluate the impact of volunteering on young people. In this blog post we give a brief summary of her work, and explore how these ideas can be applied in practice.

What is grit?

Angela describes grit as having two elements – passion and perseverance. Passion is defined not as the intensity of one’s interest, but rather the consistency of that interest over very long periods of time – years, decades or even a lifetime. Perseverance on the other hand, relates to the tenacity with which we approach our goals – the ability to carry on through times of frustration, boredom, ambiguity and pain.

Angela’s work examines the predictive nature of grit in forecasting who will finish what they set out to do. For example, she finds that cadets at West Point who score more highly on the Grit scale are more likely to complete a gruelling seven week training programme called “the Beast”, and grittier children are more likely to get to the final stages of the National Spelling Bee. More broadly, her research finds that grit foretells retention of sales employees, completion of high school and remaining married (Duckworth et al, 2014).

How can we cultivate grit?

In the policy space, attention has now moved beyond grit’s predictive power and into how we can cultivate grit in children, adolescents and indeed adults. Although the academic literature in this area is still very much in its infancy, Angela puts forward a four part methodology for how we can grow grit “from the inside out”. She begins with developing interests, positing that children should be encouraged and allowed to try out different hobbies, and importantly, to give them up after a specific period e.g. a semester if they no longer find them enjoyable. The more we expose our children to different pursuits, be it music, sport or art, the better equipped they are to uncover what truly engages them.

Second, Angela argues that all “grit paragons” (people who are particularly gritty) do what is known as deliberate practice – every day, they challenge themselves to become just a little bit better than they were yesterday. Deliberate practice has four parts:

(a) Set a stretch goal – something that is just beyond one’s reach at present but is attainable with effort.

(b) Focus – block out distractions like mobile phones, social media, TV etc. Focusing attention in order to do quality work is necessary to improve, yet today we face an unprecedented number of distractions that previous generations did not have to grapple with. Putting strategies in place to help us focus is vital.

(c) Seek feedback – experts are more interested in what they did wrong than what they did right. Feedback should be immediate and informative – it should pin-point certain aspects of performance to be worked on.

(d) Reflect and refine – this stage involves reflecting on what has been learned and what still needs more work, and then repeating the deliberate practice process again until we’ve achieved our goal.

The third part of developing grit involves finding purpose in what we do. Knowing that our work benefits others in some way, be it friends, family, students or colleagues, is hugely motivating. Setbacks, hardships and daily struggles are all justifiable in the name of others.

The final component of Angela’s four part framework is hope – not merely hoping that our situation will improve by chance, but rather understanding that a large part of what happens to us each day is within our control. Grit relies on the recognition that by our own efforts, we can improve our future. Whilst this methodology, particularly teaching students how to do deliberate practice, has shown some promising results in the short term, more empirical research is necessary to test different ways of fostering grit.

The challenge ahead

Reliably measuring grit, and indeed character skills more broadly, is one of the challenges facing academics and policymakers in this area. Many of the current measures are self-report scales which suffer heavily from biases like social desirability bias and reference bias. Furthermore, there is still relatively little consensus on which character skills are most important and should therefore be the focus of policy. As Angela pointed out several times throughout the course of her visit, grit is not the only character skill that matters, and it is certainly not the only competence that children need to cultivate in order to become well-rounded individuals. Angela provides a useful framework for categorising character skills into three clusters:

  1. Interpersonal skills like social skills and emotional intelligence which aid us in building and sustaining relationships with others
  2. Intrapersonal skills like self-control and grit which help us to move forward with our goals
  3. Quasi-intellectual skills like creativity, curiosity and zest which stimulate engagement with the world

Here in the UK, policymakers are keen to learn from Angela’s work. Whilst in the UK, Angela met a number of senior government figures, including Secretary of State for Education, the Rt Hon Nicky Morgan and Minister of State for Children and Families, Edward Timpson MP. She also spoke at a number of events, including at No.10 Downing Street and a seminar with government officials at the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills.

Angela and her team of researchers at the Character Lab are continuing their work into how we can best measure and cultivate grit. Similarly, here in the UK, the Behavioural Insights Team is working with researchers like Angela and agencies across the UK Government, as well as organisations like the Education Endowment Foundation and the Early Intervention Foundation, to run trials testing different interventions to enhance character skills. It is our hope that through collaboration and the sharing of expertise on both sides of the Atlantic, this research will culminate in a set of evidence-based character building tools for use around the world.  

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