Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The truth about grit - By Jonah Lehrer

I’m a little late getting to this, but thanks to Dah Hui Lau, who passed it along a few weeks ago.

It’s the single most famous story of scientific discovery: in 1666, Isaac Newton was walking in his garden outside Cambridge, England - he was avoiding the city because of the plague - when he saw an apple fall from a tree. The fruit fell straight to the earth, as if tugged by an invisible force. (Subsequent versions of the story had the apple hitting Newton on the head.) This mundane observation led Newton to devise the concept of universal gravitation, which explained everything from the falling apple to the orbit of the moon.

There is something appealing about such narratives. They reduce the scientific process to a sudden epiphany: There is no sweat or toil, just a new idea, produced by a genius. Everybody knows that things fall - it took Newton to explain why.

Unfortunately, the story of the apple is almost certainly false; Voltaire probably made it up. Even if Newton started thinking about gravity in 1666, it took him years of painstaking work before he understood it. He filled entire vellum notebooks with his scribbles and spent weeks recording the exact movements of a pendulum. (It made, on average, 1,512 ticks per hour.) The discovery of gravity, in other words, wasn’t a flash of insight - it required decades of effort, which is one of the reasons Newton didn’t publish his theory until 1687, in the “Principia.”

Although biographers have long celebrated Newton’s intellect - he also pioneered calculus - it’s clear that his achievements aren’t solely a byproduct of his piercing intelligence. Newton also had an astonishing ability to persist in the face of obstacles, to stick with the same stubborn mystery - why did the apple fall, but the moon remain in the sky? - until he found the answer.

In recent years, psychologists have come up with a term to describe this mental trait: grit. Although the idea itself isn’t new - “Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration,” Thomas Edison famously remarked - the researchers are quick to point out that grit isn’t simply about the willingness to work hard. Instead, it’s about setting a specific long-term goal and doing whatever it takes until the goal has been reached. It’s always much easier to give up, but people with grit can keep going.


One of the most important elements is teaching kids that talent takes time to develop, and requires continuous effort. Carol S. Dweck, a psychologist at Stanford University, refers to this as a “growth mindset.” She compares this view with the “fixed mindset,” the belief that achievement results from abilities we are born with. “A child with the fixed mindset is much more likely to give up when they encounter a challenging obstacle, like algebra, since they assume that they’re just not up to the task,” says Dweck.

In a recent paper, Dweck and colleagues demonstrated that teaching at-risk seventh-graders about the growth mindset - this included lessons about the importance of effort - led to significantly improved grades for the rest of middle school.

Interestingly, it also appears that praising children for their intelligence can make them less likely to persist in the face of challenges, a crucial element of grit. For much of the last decade, Dweck and her colleagues have tracked hundreds of fifth-graders in 12 different New York City schools. The children were randomly assigned to two groups, both of which took an age-appropriate version of the IQ test. After taking the test, one group was praised for their intelligence - “You must be smart at this,” the researcher said - while the other group was praised for their effort and told they “must have worked really hard.”

Dweck then gave the same fifth-graders another test. This test was designed to be extremely difficult - it was an intelligence test for eighth-graders - but Dweck wanted to see how they would respond to the challenge. The students who were initially praised for their effort worked hard at figuring out the puzzles. Kids praised for their smarts, on the other hand, quickly became discouraged.

The final round of intelligence tests was the same difficulty level as the initial test. The students who had been praised for their effort raised their score, on average, by 30 percent. This result was even more impressive when compared to the students who had been praised for their intelligence: their scores on the final test dropped by nearly 20 percent. A big part of success, Dweck says, stems from our beliefs about what leads to success.

Woody Allen once remarked that “Eighty percent of success is showing up.” Duckworth points out that it’s not enough to just show up; one must show up again and again and again. Sometimes it isn’t easy or fun to keep showing up. Success, however, requires nothing less. That’s why it takes grit.


Related previous post: What it takes to be great