Review by, Sara Spear

University of South Florida

[email protected]

Grit (2016), written by MacArthur Fellow and psychologist, Angela Duckworth, dispels the myth that talent alone leads to achievement. Instead, using psychological research and personal anecdotes from highly successful individuals, Duckworth emphasizes how excellence is achieved mostly through commitment towards a goal (passion) and the perseverance to achieve it - or, grit.

Passion originates from an interest. As any academic advisor who has worked with undecided students knows, this is the first question asked as a way to target majors that may be a good fit. Research shows that genuine interest in one’s profession or area of study ultimately makes people feel more satisfied and perform at higher levels. In order to discover that interest, Duckworth stresses the importance of autonomous exploration and personal ownership of the search process. Unfortunately, some students forgo this search in favor of their parents’ opinions. But even when negotiation is not possible, advisors can still encourage students to consider what elements of their chosen major or field they are drawn to and in which they can invest more of themselves.

Many people passively wait to experience the epiphany of an ah-ha moment that will magically set them on their path to success. The people who embody the concept of grit, however, are actively pursuing experiences that may ultimately develop into a passion. Towards this end, Duckworth highlights the transformative power of extracurriculars. She encourages students to first try new things and then purposefully demonstrate “follow through” (p. 228) for a select few activities. Unlike chronic dabbling, this commitment fosters student development and may even develop into a passion. Duckworth reminds readers that while natural talent may be involved, behind every performance and sporting event, there are countless hours of commitment and practice that cultivated the passion that allowed for the perfection of the craft.

Once someone has a passion to pursue, failures along the way are perceived as temporary setbacks or mere obstacles to overcome. As Duckworth writes, “Lectures don’t have half the effect of consequences” (p. 89). Indeed, an advisor can warn a student a hundred times but true learning occurs when a student fails and subsequently reflects on how to improve in the future. When determining what support to offer, advisors should note how a student’s previous experiences with failure, may predict their response. For example, Duckworth describes how students from more affluent backgrounds may have never experienced true failure. As a result, these “fragile perfects” (p. 190) have not developed the resiliency to adequately handle failure and may feel debilitated by even the smallest misstep.  

Grit is characterized by both passion and perseverance. It is having an interest, committing oneself to it with determined effort, and showing persistence even when things get tough. To achieve success with grit, Duckworth underlines the importance of self-awareness and realistic expectations in goal-setting for achievement. She warns against the “positive fantasizing” (p. 65) that advisors often witness their students doing - that is, having a dream without properly researching what it requires or establishing goals to reach it. For grit to flourish, her recommendation is to be both supportive and demanding of the student, advice that reminds advisors of Sanford’s well-known theory of challenge and support. 

The author explores several other concepts relating to grit that have been popularized by other theorists: Ericsson’s idea of “deliberate practice,” Csikszentmihaly’s concept of “flow,” and Dweck’s growth “mindset.”  If you enjoyed the works of these researchers, Grit should be the next title on your reading list. 

References: Sanford, N., & Adelson, J. (1962). The American college: A psychological and social interpretation of the higher learning. New York: Wiley.

Posted in: 2017 Book Reviews
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