Column: True Grit Sometimes Means Cutting Your Losses
Cognitive ability isn’t the only quality that determines how well children fare in school, let alone in life. Dan Goleman reminded us of that almost 20 years ago in his book Emotional Intelligence, emphasizing the impact of self-awareness, altruism, personal motivation, empathy, and the ability to love and be loved.
But a funny thing has happened to the message since then. When you hear about the limits of intelligence these days, it’s usually in the context of a conservative account that features not altruism or empathy but something very much like the Protestant work ethic. More than smarts, we’re told, what kids need to succeed is old-fashioned self-discipline and willpower, persistence and the ability to defer gratification. They have to be able to resist temptation, to put off doing what they enjoy in order to grind through whatever they’ve been told to do — and keep at it for as long as it takes.
Emblematic of this shift is Paul Tough’s recent bestseller How Children Succeed, which opens with a declaration that what matters most for children are qualities such as “persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit and self-confidence.” But Tough barely mentions curiosity or confidence after that. It’s self-control and grit that occupy him for much of the book. And it’s grit — defined by its most prominent proponent, University of Pennsylvania psychologist Angela Duckworth, as “the tendency to sustain perseverance and passion for challenging long-term goals” — that has been greeted with a degree of enthusiasm unmatched since, well, the last social-science craze.
The inner-city charter-school chain KIPP has integrated the idea of grit into its teacher training. So has the Lenox Academy for Gifted Middle School Students in Brooklyn, as NPR recently reported. Every school in one Houston area district will “emphasize grit through a district-wide set of expectations and lessons,” according to the Pearland Independent School District website.
Yet the heart of what’s being disseminated is a notion drummed into us by Aesop’s fables, Benjamin Franklin’s aphorisms, Christian denunciations of sloth and the old chant, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”
The problems with grit, however, go well beyond the fact that it’s not exactly a fresh idea. To begin with, not everything is worth doing, let alone doing for extended periods, and not everyone who works hard is pursuing something worthwhile. On closer inspection, the concept of grit turns out to be dubious, as does the evidence cited to support it. Persistence can actually backfire and distract from more important goals.
Emphasizing grit is usually justified as a way to boost academic achievement, which sounds commendable. Indeed, research has found that more A’s are given to students who report that they put off doing what they enjoy until they finish their homework. Another pair of studies found that middle-schoolers who qualified for the National Spelling Bee performed better in that competition if they had more grit, “whereas spellers higher in openness to experience, defined as preferring using their imagination, playing with ideas, and otherwise enjoying a complex mental life,” did worse. But what should we make of these findings? If enjoying a complex mental life interferes with performance in a contest to see who can spell the most obscure words correctly, is that really an argument for grit? And when kids persist and get good grades, are they just responding to the message that when they do what they’ve been told, they’ll be rewarded ? Interestingly, separate research, including two studies Duckworth cites to argue that self-discipline predicts academic performance, showed that students with high grades tend to be more conformist than creative. That seems to undermine not only the case for grit but for measuring success by grades.
There’s other evidence that grit isn’t always desirable.
Gritty people sometimes exhibit what psychologists call “nonproductive persistence”: They try, try again, though the result may be either unremitting failure or “a costly or inefficient success that could have been easily surpassed by alternative courses of action,” as Dean McFarlin and his colleagues put it in the Journal of Personality. Even if you don’t crash and burn by staying the course, you may not fare nearly as well as if you had stopped, reassessed and tried something else.
Moreover, grit may adversely affect not only decisions but the people who make them. Following a year-long study of adolescents, Canadian researchers Gregory Miller and Carsten Wrosch concluded that those “who can disengage from unattainable goals enjoy better well-being …and experience fewer symptoms of everyday illness than do people who have difficulty disengaging from unattainable goals.” Yet proponents of grit claim that hard things are worth doing just because they’re hard. They’re also more focused on behaviors than motives, rarely asking: Do kids love what they’re doing? Or are they driven by a desperate need to prove their competence?
Duckworth acknowledges that it’s desirable for children to develop sustained interests. But her value judgment is that they should focus on improving at one thing, rather than exploring and becoming reasonably competent at multiple things. She has no use, for instance, for children who experiment with several musical instruments. “The kid who sticks with one instrument is demonstrating grit,” she told a reporter. “Maybe it’s more fun to try something new, but high levels of achievement require a certain single-mindedness.”
Take a moment to reflect on other goals one might have for children — for example, to lead lives that are psychologically healthy, fulfilling and moral. Those objectives would almost certainly lead to prescriptions quite different from “do one thing and never give up.” And for anyone who favors breadth and variety, no reason has been offered to prefer a life of specialization — or to endorse the idea of grit, which is rooted less in research than in preference.
Finally, the concept isn’t just philosophically conservative in its premise but also politically conservative in its consequences. The more we focus on trying to instill grit, the less likely we’ll be to question larger policies.
In education, rather than devising new approaches that actively engage students, we end up trying to get kids to work harder at the tedious status quo. In her research, Duckworth even created a task that was deliberately boring, the point being to find strategies for resisting the temptation to do something more appealing instead.
More broadly, consider Tough’s declaration that “there is no antipoverty tool we can provide for disadvantaged young people that will be more valuable than the character strengths … (such as) conscientiousness, grit, resilience, perseverance and optimism.”
Really? No antipoverty tool — presumably including Medicaid and public housing — is more valuable than an effort to train poor kids to persist at whatever they’re told to do? Whose interests are served by such a position?
Rather than putting so much stock in grit, we should remind kids that what matters isn’t just how long you persist, but why you do so, and that sometimes continuing what you’re doing represents the path of least resistance. It can take guts to cut your losses and move on. Those messages are as important as the usefulness of perseverance.
Alfie Kohn is the author of The Myth of the Spoiled Child: Challenging the Conventional Wisdom About Children and Parenting .