The “Grit” Garbage of the Power of Light Weight Ideas

Sometimes I wade through the articles and books on education policy and think that there is a whole lot more garbage in this field than other fields. Maybe I’m just a grouchy old fart. I suppose that there is garbage amongst the historians and economists, too.

The “grit” fad is case study number one of the education variety of garbage. Light weight and silly. David Denby had an excellent critique of “grit” in the New Yorker last week.

In short, Angela Duckworth, a psychologist and TED Talker*, interviewed a whole bunch of successful people and found that they didn’t give up easily and were extremely focused on a particular ambition. So, all success is based on these two traits. She doesn’t look at losers who also have those traits and ask why they didn’t succeed.

Denby writes,

Duckworth—indifferent to class, race, history, society, culture—strips success of its human reality, and her single-minded theory may explain very little. Is there any good football team, for instance, that doesn’t believe in endless practice, endurance, overcoming pain and exhaustion?

But this silly idea is everywhere. Every education conference tackles it. How do we make our students grittier? How can schools teach grit? And so on.

The power of light weight ideas is truly frightening.

(* What if they replaced the White Walkers on Game of Thrones with the TED Talkers?)


50 thoughts on “The “Grit” Garbage of the Power of Light Weight Ideas

  1. I don’t know anything much about education policy I don’t read here, but I had heard about the “Grit” stuff. Aside from wondering how you would teach grit to school kids (maybe bring back bullying?), trying to study success by looking at only successful people (and using only self-report to boot) is about as pointless as an intellectual endeavor could possibly be.


  2. I like the grit articles because it seemed that the idea takes off from research like the marshmallow experiments (from Stanford, I think) The ability to focus on a longer term goal (getting 2 marshmallows instead of only 1) did have long term implication of which children would have better long term outcomes. The power within willpower (or grit) is an interesting area to study and try to understand. Especially if you add the marshmallow experiment (and results) to the research done regarding trauma (poverty, violence, etc) that help us understand decision making done while dealing with trauma and the concept of ‘bandwidth’.

    A couple of years ago, researchers did an experiment (sorry I don’t have time to look it up right now) where they went into shopping malls and asked for volunteers to answer some questions. Before asking the cognitive questions of their experiment, the researchers asked some of the participants to imagine if after finishing up shopping, they went outside to find their car had been hit in the parking lot and insurance wouldn’t cover the full cost of repairs. The car owner was asked to imagine how a $150 – $1500 (depending on group controls) unexpected car repair would make them feel.

    What the researchers found was fascinating (at least to me). Respondents who were given the hypothetical unexpected car repair bill to think about score materially lower than those who were asked the cognitive portion of the questionnaire without being asked the hypothetical. *Hypothetical* trauma materially affected people’s cognitive abilities. Now imagine what actual, chronic trauma does to people’s cognitive abilities.

    I do think there is something to the grit arguments, there is no question in my mind that some people are more resilient and more able to persevere through disappointment and frustration than others. However, to move beyond anecdote into how the environment contributes to individual grit (and can increase or decrease personal “grittiness”), we need to move beyond trying to measure individual grittiness which seems like more a method of people trying to quantify luck (those who are lucky enough to have greater than average resilience or greater than average advantages that may not rely on personal resilience) to what increases resiliency/grittiness.

    Elasticity is more interesting to me. Grit as an idea is detrimental only when we try to say that either you “have it or you don’t”. I think anyone who has raised children has seen their child grow more resilient the more they work on the skill. Watching a child learn to walk is a prime example. Attempt after attempt (different depending on the progression to walking shown), frustration, determination – to finally success…it is amazing to see that each child is different when it comes to this development. Some kids will meltdown during attempts, some will ply along doggedly with less frustration. I think how the environment rewards/punishes/ignores the different methods is in part how resiliency/grit (or lack thereof) may develop. The input you get during those moments of grit helps shape the next output. And new input can change the output. Elasticity.


  3. …they didn’t give up easily and were extremely focused on a particular ambition…

    That describes Edison and a large percentage of heroin addicts. Let’s teach it to kids and see which one we get.


  4. I agree wholeheartedly on the lightweight, soundbite ideas and the damage they do when they become cited as the magic solution in education. You reference grit, but Dweck’s mindset, self control and the marshmallow test, . . . all share similar traits. People are looking for quick fixes to complicated problems that need multifaceted interventions.

    But, as science goes, Duckworth’s is decent and she herself does talk about the limits of her work. The grit scale was developed and used to evaluate students’ success at the US Naval Academy:

    I haven’t found the study in which she “interviewed a whole bunch of successful people and found that they didn’t give up easily and were extremely focused on a particular ambition”, but that is not the extent of her work. And, I really like that she makes her grit scale available — there’s nothing mysterious or proprietary about it. She writes her own cautions —


  5. TED talks do seem to publicize the kind of lightweight presentation of ideas that are easy to spread. But not every speaker advocates only for the simplified story they tell in TED talks. Some of them are following the rulebook in which one has different levels of presentation of the idea, some of which are simpler (and yes, lightweight) than others.

    Skeptical Science has a button in which they allow the reader to select the level of explanation, and though their “beginner” explanations may be “over” simplified, they also have deeper explanations and deeper (“heavier”?) science behind the ideas.


  6. Is it grit? Or is it compliance? If you’re a West Point cadet, you’ve already signed up for a strenuous experience. Do you tell the truth on the survey? (I’m not being snarky. I could argue that those who scored highest on “grit” were the students who gave the answers best suited to their image of what West Point would demand of them. In other words, if your mental picture of a situation is realistic, your chances of success are greater. Or alternatively, if you are willing to obey every order, ignoring pain and weakness, you’ll do better in a military environment.)

    Of course, some words have better PR than others. What if instead of “Grit,” we dubbed it, “Masochism combined with optimism and a high pain threshold?” Think there’d be so much enthusiasm for it then?

    I am deeply concerned about the recent attempts to create character assessments for admissions purposes. The SSAT organization is working on one: I do enjoy the, hmm, optimism of the declaration that the assessment can’t be coached. (I doubt it cannot be coached. Anything can be coached. The only question is if the stakes are high enough to justify the investment of resources.)

    And then the irony of the three character traits which are dubbed “not important”: Sense of Humor, Gregariousness, and Dynamism.

    I’ll go out on a limb and say all three traits probably lead to success outside of school, if not in Trigonometry.


  7. The problem with Denby’s critique is that “class, race, history, society, culture” are not something an individual teacher can do something about, and probably not something that educational policy can do anything about. (Attempts to address these issues usually seem to devolve into teaching the children, other than the white males, to complain about how they have been discriminated against, which may be true but doesn’t improve their performance.) In contrast, individual character is, at least conceivably, something that an individual teacher might productively address.

    There’s also the fact that Denby, like many other commentators, has been writing for middle-brow New York publications for some forty years, and the ratio of volume to profundity is very high, to say the least. (You might say the same about my work, but it mostly consists of loan agreements and partnership agreements, so you haven’t read it.) I’m really insufferably weary of him. I think people who aren’t genuinely, breathtakingly insightful should retire from public commentary after 30 years.


  8. y81 said:

    “I think people who aren’t genuinely, breathtakingly insightful should retire from public commentary after 30 years.”

    5 years.

    That way we can have a little variety.


  9. OK, so I know two people who went through that basic training at West Point.

    Person 1 is College Buddy’s Sister (CBS). CBS was an Olympic level swimmer in high school. 5 am practices every day (very gritty). Good grades. Got into West Point. But she got terrible shin splints during that summer bootcamp training. She had completely different muscles in her legs from all that swimming that didn’t hold up to five miles runs on hard streets with boots. She ended up in a hospital with two casts on her legs. (Bad luck, not lack of grit)

    Then when she was recovering, she finally confronted her parents about the fact that her father who had been taking her and her sister to all those 5am swim practices had been sexually abusing the girls for years. Mom kicked out the dad. Dad never communicates with the girls again and immediately starts a new family (with little girls) on the other side of the state. CBS, her mom, and my friend have a huge mental breakdown and need years of therapy to function. Obviously, she doesn’t return to West Point. (Horrific circumstances, not lack of grit.)

    Person 2 is Cross Country Buddy (XCB). XCB was one of my best friends for years and years until we got drunk, had a brief fling, and totally trashed our friendship. XCB got into West Point but didn’t want to go. His twin brother got into Columbia, and their dad made XCB go to West Point, because he couldn’t afford two Ivy League tuitions. Told him it was a matter of family honor. XCB starts West Point with a HUGE chip on his shoulder.

    The basic training was a breeze for him, because of all his cross country training. It didn’t take much grit to get through the training.

    And what are the skills that my young friend, XCB, learned at West Point? He learned that hallucinagens were better the pot, because pot turned up in a pee test, but they would have to do a spinal tap to find evidence of hallucinagens in a test. He learned how to avoid STDs when sleeping with bar girls in Korea. He learned which of his classmates were sneaking into the room of his Lesbian friend and raping her in the middle of the night. And so on. He left West Point so mentally fucked up that when given the opportunity for a no fault discharge of the military (two years after graduation) after finally caught driving DUI, he jumped at it. He went to medical school afterwards and is a fancy doctor now.

    He survived West Point not because of grit, because of family guilt and pressure. He didn’t learn grit at West Point, he learned about STDs and drug tests and rapists.


    1. “He went to medical school afterwards and is a fancy doctor now”

      Great. Just the kind of doctor we want.


    2. He learned how to avoid STDs when sleeping with bar girls in Korea.

      They taught me that in high school, and I went to a Catholic school. No mention of Korea specifically.


  10. Would CBS or XCB ever disclose that information on some sterile, generic, academic survey. NO! Not that any survey would even offer them a box to check about weird Japanese honor codes or pervert dads. So, I question the results of the West Point study.


  11. Of course, it’s good to be resilient and not give up when faced with rejection. Of course. Did those particular values explain who is successful and who is not? NOPE!

    In fact, there may be no more resilient and grittier group of people than PhD students. Hell, they keep going even when faced with statistical facts that there are no jobs waiting for them when they graduate. So, then they end up as adjuncts. There is a fine line between grit and delusional.


    1. Well, exactly, and this notion that any ambition will do, regardless of whether it leads to a viable career or even a valuable hobby, or is socially/morally/etc. worthwhile, or whatever, is part of the problem. I suspect that most teenage boys (and males of other ages too….) would do well if they set their ambition as “play video games as long as possible with the stated goal of eventually becoming a video game designer.”

      One of my favorite parts of Unbreakable Kimmie Schmidt is Anna Camp’s character, who has had to redirect her energies used in the military or DoD or something into ruling the world of charity benefits. She’s positively Shakespearean in her commitment to that goal. So you might say she has grit, as well.

      Of course, I haven’t read the actual research, so there may be something to it.


    2. You are rejecting generically and generally the idea of any systematic study of behavior.

      Grit is clearly being oversold, because it’s cute, and because it fits a particularly ideology (in addition to the hope that it might have some predictive value and might be teachable).

      But the research studies never argued that grit explained all the variance in success (in fact the r values are modest, as reported in the studies). The values reported are well within including your n of 2. Reading the actual paper reminds me of how much the public reporting of the data falls into the lightweight trap you are deploring.

      Part of the lesson I take home from the examples of grit is that those who do succeed have often (not always, but often) met significant challenges too. XCB has probably shown a lot of grit after having been forced to go to a school he didn’t want to attend (and surviving and graduating anyway, while simultaneously dabbling in drugs) and then going on to medical schools and becoming a fancy doctor. Probably a number of pretty good examples of grit along the way.


      1. And it seems CBS certainly succeeded at changing her life. What she did is much harder, I think, than just graduating.


  12. I started telling Jonah about the West Point study as he was getting ready for cross country practice about 15 minutes ago.

    J – Interrupts me. “That’s crazy! How do you quantify grit? One kid has five grit points and other kid has twelve? That’s stupid!”
    Me – “Yes! That’s my boy!”
    J – “That’s the dumbest thing ever. I have ALL the grits! And you have none! ALL. THE. GRITS.”
    Me – “I think you get 1 grit for going to cross country practice, but you lose 2 grit points for sleeping through the alarm and needing your mommy to wake you up.”
    J – “What if we lived in a world where all you had to eat was grits? I would hate that. I don’t really like corn meal.”


  13. Thank you for this. My “little sister” (through BB/BS) has “grit” in spades. She needs more grit to get through a day than most of us need in a lifetime. (Finding food and shelter when there is none readily available takes a fair amount of persistence and resilience.) But all that grit did not help with things like academic success or graduating HS on time.

    Don’t get me started on the Dweck growth mindset stuff….that may work well for middle class families, but is completely off-the-mark for many students. The part I hate is how school district administrators grab on to one theory or book or expert like it is the holy grail.


  14. So, has J taken the grit test? It’s available at Duckworth’s site. And, it is undoubtedly true that you can lie to obtain a higher grit score if you desire (a point Duckworth makes when she says the scale cannot be used for high stakes situations, like interviews).


  15. Duckworth, answering what the grit scale can be used for: “In sum, I think the Grit Scale can be used for research and for self-reflection, but its limitations make it inappropriate for many other uses, including selecting employees, admitting students to college, gauging the performance of teachers, or comparing schools or countries to each other.”


  16. Hmmm. You don’t like my case studies. Too bad. I think case studies are very useful. OK, let’s scale up. How about N= 30,000? That the population of our town. To afford a home in our town, you have to be in the top 5%. Nearly everyone in this town is successful in some way – ivy league degrees, professional degrees, CEOs, business owners. Jonah is presently at the lake house of a friend. His friend’s dad is the owner of a major bean company that begins with the letter G. If Duckworth is operationalizing the success variable to include doctors and lawyers and finance experts, then nearly everyone I know fits her model.

    Sure, people in this town have a lot of resilience. They have worked hard and overcomed all sorts of obstacles to get where they are, but there’s a whole lot of other factors that played a role in their success — family wealth, family connections, good health, family stability, community, luck, birth order, brains, talent, trust funds, career choices, and so on.

    And if the very successful people in our town really thought that grit was the key factor in explaining their success, they wouldn’t be so involved in their own children’s lives. They would let their kids fail their math tests. But they don’t. They hire tutors and send them to Kumon. They medicate them. They send them to private schools, if necessary. The kid who is the star baseball player in town is in full day baseball camp – the kind that costs thousands and is run by ex-pros. Sure, it takes some grit for that kid to get up every morning at 7 and go off to this camp where he’s running and exercising all day, but now we’re getting murky on this whole grit thing. If the parents are financing the grit, is it still grit? Seems like everyone is gritty in one way or another.

    And most of the kids in this town, the children of the successful, end up successful, too. They go to the best colleges. They are surrounded by people who are high achievers. It’s the rare kid here who flounders and moves down the success scale. If there really is such a thing as a success scale. Maybe success means having lots of people around you that are loving and kind.

    There’s something really gross about successful people, like Duckworth and the other attendees at the TED Talks, patting themselves on the back for getting ahead by being hard workers. Steve sees a lot of people on Wall Street who have gotten ahead by being assholes.


    1. Maybe success means having lots of people around you that are loving and kind.

      That sounds over-rated, but I’m with you on the wanting to strangle people who talk about hard work. I mostly hear it from retired people.

      I just think it is absurd to take a study conducted on people who all got into West Point and generalize it to the U.S. education system. That’s not testing any reasonable definition of success. That’s testing relatively small differences among successful people.


    2. These questions are in principle answerable, thanks to the miracle of multiple regression analysis. What proportion of the variation in results of the n=30,000 sample is due to parental income, what percentage to IQ, what percentage to “grit” (as quantified by Duckworth), what proportion to race (may not be enough variation in Laura’s town to get a handle on this variable, etc.), what proportion to being an asshole (I’m sure there’s some psychological quantification of that attribute), etc.?


  17. Lightweight ideas are nicely malleable. On the bright side, this may supplant the multiple intelligences fad.


  18. I am not arguing in favor of people patting themselves on the back if they are successful and attributing their success to their “hard work”

    This was good

    So was the Atlantic article on grit,

    I particularly liked the last paragraph, where the reporter brought up the issue of when grit might be maladaptive — say, for example, in the modern world, where flexibility and the willingness to abandon one plan to pursue another might be very adaptive.

    “Just half of the Grit Scale’s questions are designed to measure perseverance, or the determination to meet a particular challenge. The other half measure what she calls passion but might be better understood as directional consistency, or the ability to stick unswervingly to a single, superordinate goal over a period of years.
    . . .
    But that describes journalism maybe 15 years ago. Which made me wonder: How well does this approach—basically, pick one long-range goal, keep your head down, and don’t take a step sideways—hold up in an economy where career paths can twist and even vanish with little warning? Shouldn’t you keep your head up, ready for the next pivot? Or have many irons in the fire, as the champions of “career agility” suggest?”


  19. I suspect that one of the reasons for the development of measures like the SSAT character assessment survey (interesting stuff, though I too fear what uses it will be put to) is to address precisely the hyper supports you describe in your town: “They would let their kids fail their math tests. But they don’t. They hire tutors and send them to Kumon. They medicate them. They send them to private schools, if necessary” can produce a kid who appears to function at a high level on standard measures (like math tests). If the goal is to just find the kids who do the best on math tests that they have been taught to do, the system is fine. But, if the goal is to find the kids who have potential to do more (say, be leaders of the free world, or cure cancer, or create the significant movie/plays/musicals/books of the ages, or life changing technology, they think they need to find other measures.

    Among other issues, the ability to meet the standards of the current tests can be produced by far more than the elite HS (or college) will accept. So, they want to select on other standards, not just reinforce the coaching that produces the rule-following rubric-filler.

    The grit scale, as Duckworth says, was never meant to be a selection test, though, so it falls in a different category, merely of assessing behavior. And, on the question Y81 asks, I’m guessing that it would only explain a small additional part of the variance (on top of parental income, IQ, . . . ). In the West Point study (West Point is only one of the sub-analyses), it correlates highly with both SAT & GPA, and with the Conscientiousness subscale of the Big five personality assessment.


  20. I haven’t really had anything to say on this topic, though I find it interesting. Like bj, I want to believe that we can study behavior meaningfully. And like Laura, I get frustrated sometimes with the lightweight nature of some of this stuff. So I currently have two things to say:
    1. Maybe the reason why I get frustrated with the lightweightedness is because it seems as though the writers of these pieces (or the audience/s for them) are rushing to the solution. I often tell my students that Einstein once said that if he had an hour to solve a problem, he would spend 59 minutes of that hour defining the problem and 1 minute coming up with a solution. It seems to me we still haven’t fully defined the problem just yet, but we’re rushing to apply hastily devised solutions.
    2. I got a 3 on Duckworth’s scale. I have no idea what that means. When it comes to perseverence, I do know that I have that in spades. I know I’m also good at determining what I want, devising a way to get it, then patiently waiting it out. That’s how I have my current job. (It’s also how I got to see Hamilton in March. 🙂 I don’t have “success” as measured in a lot of ways, but I have what I want.
    2a. As a parent, it’s always been important to me that my kids want something they can’t easily get. It’s also important to me that they get involved in some activity where they work to improve. This is especially important for E, who started off pretty much good at anything in school. E gets bored with activities if he isn’t automatically good at them, but fortunately music came along, and he has learned the benefits of practice there.


      1. OMG, thank you! I fell so in love with the quote that it never even occurred to me it was fake. I am going to have to turn in my Skeptic Card. 😦 Does this mean I can’t post Snopes links on my right-wing cousin’s anti-Obama FB posts any more?


    1. I’m not throwing away. My shot. I’m just like my country. I’m old, armed, and cataracty. And I’m not throwing away my shot.


  21. OTOH, interestingly, the posters you see in frat houses reading: “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy–Benjamin Franklin” are substantially accurate.


      1. Regardless of how easy it is to drink enough to pass out, I think you can rule out the snooze your way to heaven plan by reading the Parable of the Talents.


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