Getting Gritty: can academic “grit” be taught or is it a personality type like John Wayne?

Do we all have an inner John Wayne, or is grit unique to the gritty few?

Is grit a product of circumstance that reveals it or do we need to bring grit to the scene? I’m thinking it’s a little of both, but it’s certain that some of us are “grittier” than others, and each of us in different ways.

Academics are newly concerned with “grit,” or “resilience,” as long term success requires the ability to get past challenges and set backs.  In fact, students who overcome failure and keep steady towards a long term goal are understood to be better prepared for higher level academics and life in general than students who never faced failure at all.
In “Grit: The power of Passion and Perseverance,” teacher and psychologist Angela Duckworth argues that the ability to diligently pursue a long-term goal is core to personal success. Her heroes are the less math-capable student who pushes through the tedium to achievement in math or the artist who tirelessly submits 2,000 drawings before acceptance.

In studying West Point candidates, she was able to correctly identify successful future graduates with questions such as, “I finish what I begin” and “New ideas and projects sometimes distract me from previous ones.” She claims that “grit” predicts success more effectively than talent or ability, as grit leads to long term goal fulfillment.  “Grit,” she writes, is “consistency over time.”

(For a book review see, “The Virtue of Hard Things” from the Wall Street Journal).

Personality Type is Not Predetermination!

Perhaps grit is a personality type, or the product of one, just as, for example, procrastination is related to personality type (especially “low conscientiousness” and “neuroticism” and its subset “impulsivity”; see here and here for Tim Pychyl Psychology Today columns on procrastination and personality).

These typologies can correlate certain behaviors and outcomes, but they do so in a kind of reverse logic: just because procrastination-related outcomes result from choices that align with a certain personality trait doesn’t mean that every choice a procrastinator makes has to be to defer and delay. A tendency towards one personality typology or another is no life sentence to predetermined outcomes, and no one is made up of any single personality type, anyway.

Still, it’s good to know our personal tendencies and choices that may have contributed to a negative outcome. If I can see that, say, my inclination for impulsivity contributed to racking up credit card debt, it may help me find a little more grit in myself to fight off my impulsivity the next time I’ve got the itch to reach for my wallet.

Academic Grit & Procrastination

Just as we procrastinate variably, we find resiliency in different moments and situations. We have students in our A+ Club program who will work their knuckles to the bone for a theatre production or doing track sprints but for whom that math homework just doesn’t bring out their inner John Wayne.

What we’d prefer for them is that their Duke show up on a daily basis instead of coming to the rescue the night before the test. That is, that they find it in themselves to apply their grit less selectively.

Grit, then, is the ability to push through something unpleasant. And since the Student Success Blog has long defined procrastination as putting off unpleasant, or “aversive,” tasks, then it is grit that can get us past procrastination.

The Daily Grit

We also know that pushing oneself through the impulse to delay and defer is difficult. “I just don’t feel like it right now…” is an enormously strong emotion (and rationalization).

Perhaps grit can break it?

In fighting procrastination, I advise students to identify and think about it when they’re procrastinating.  At least that way they are procrastinating consciously, which is a first step towards breaking the cycle. I next ask students to call for “will power” to intervene and push themselves towards getting started on the unpleasant task and engage in prioritization instead of procrastination.

Now I’m thinking that “grit” is more visible, more visceral than” will power,” so maybe grit can be a more handy and daily tool.

Feeling Gritty Myself

I’m actually trying on a little grit right now as I write, as I’d really prefer to finish this tomorrow and turn on the US Open and watch my man Sam Querry smack that fuzzy yellow ball.  I know I can finish this article later. Yet here I am pushing myself to stay on task instead of deferring it to tomorrow.

By saying to myself “grit” instead of “will power,” it’s working.

Grit I can touch and feel, whereas will power seems fake like a nylon super hero costume. Besides, it kinda makes me laugh to think of myself as John Wayne, albeit the older, rounder Wayne, though still a gritty one.

We’ll see if my Inner Duke rides on and that tomorrow I can say, “I finish what I start” and I didn’t “let distractions get in the way of my goals.”

I’ll let you know.

– Michael

Tomorrow’s Update: I did it! Finished this essay last night and had it ready for final review and publication today. And because I got it done, I was able to relax this morning and watch last night’s tennis match. Sam lost, dammit, as Kevin Anderson pulled out more grit in taking two of three tie breakers. Go Kevin, rooting for you for the rest of the tournament, you gritty dude!