The Power of Passion & Perseverance
Angela Duckworth, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, won a 2013 MacArthur Fellowship, an award so prestigious that it is also known as the “genius grant.” As Duckworth explains in the foreword to her latest book, Grit, the award of the grant reminded her that throughout her childhood, her scientist father would despair that she was no “genius” — in other words, that she just wasn’t smart enough or didn’t have a great-enough talent in anything. And he was right. As Duckworth explains in her book, genius or talent didn’t win her the coveted MacArthur Fellowship: It was grit.
According to Duckworth, grit is the combination of unbridled passion and unrelenting perseverance — a combination, she writes, that will overcome innate talent or hard work or high IQ or any of the other assumed key success factors for individuals.
Duckworth first demonstrated the power of grit at West Point, where she sought to answer a question that had eluded a number of psychologists for decades: Why did so many new cadets drop out in the first training program of their West Point careers?
Only a tiny portion of candidates make it through the admission gauntlet into West Point — and only if they receive a high-enough Whole Candidate Score, which carefully measures the likelihood that candidates have the mental and physical capabilities to make it at West Point. Thus, most should be in a position to survive the brutal seven-week training course known as “Beast Barracks.” Yet, many didn’t — and surprisingly their scores on the Whole Candidate Score bore no correlation to whether or not they dropped out.
The Grit Scale
In July 2004, Duckworth had new cadets take her Grit Scale, which was (and is) a series of statements designed to determine whether someone has grit. The statements emerged from her research, based on hundreds of interviews with high achievers in a variety of fields. It was in this research that Duckworth discovered the power of passion and persistence, and West Point was her laboratory to test her thesis. The experiment was simple: Would the Grit Scale be more accurate than the vaunted Whole Candidate Score in determining who would make it through Beast and who would drop out?
The answer was yes. Consisting of only 10 statements that measured passion and perseverance (e.g. “I have difficulty maintaining my focus on projects that take more than a few months to complete,” “My interests change from year to year,” and “I have been obsessed with a certain idea or project for a short time but later lost interest” are three examples), the Grit Scale was consistently able to predict who would survive the “Beast” and who would not. Subsequently, the Grit Scale would prove its potency for forecasting success in a wide variety of settings.
After establishing the vital importance of grit, Duckworth offers some good news: Grit can be developed. Developing grit, she writes, means discovering and deepening your interests, developing the habit of discipline to ensure that you practice relentlessly, cultivating a sense of purpose and meaning, and teaching yourself to hope. In the second half of Grit, she offers a detailed how-to for acquiring these four psychological assets and “growing grit from the inside out.” Any person seeking new avenues to greater success should read this deeply researched, inspiring book.