This feature was first published in Journeys Fall 2016.
This article was written by the director of communications Kyle Aldous.
If you get on a treadmill next to Will Smith, there are apparently only two options; you will give up and step off, or you will literally kill him.
We may never get to test his simple hypothesis, but the point is obvious and his message inspirational: never quit. You’ve probably heard some version of this message before from your parents, teachers, and other celebrities.
...BUT ALSO KNOW WHEN TO CUT YOUR LOSSES.
But actually, “never quit” is spectacularly bad advice.
Never quit? If I never quit anything, I would still be folding shirts at the Gap.
If we never quit anything, many of us would be in dead-end jobs, broken relationships, or trying to beat the high score in our favorite video games. The truth is, we all give up at times, and that’s okay.
WHAT IS GRIT?
2013 MacArthur “genius grant” fellow Dr. Angela Duckworth is the New York Times bestselling author of Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. In her book, she describes grit as a ‘combination of passion and perseverance’ in her book. She explains, “To have grit is to wake up thinking about the same questions, the same challenges you were working on yesterday—and to do the same tomorrow, and the next day, on and on and on for years. To have grit is to embody the Japanese motto: fall seven, rise eight.”
For years, Dr. Duckworth has been studying West Point cadets, and found that grit is a significant indicator in predicting which cadets will make it through the first year commonly referred to as “beast barracks.” She found that students who scored high on grit had the highest GPAs, but that these students were also associated with lower SAT scores, suggesting that among elite undergraduates, smarter students may be slightly less gritty than their peers! It’s good to know that lower SAT scores do not indicate a limit to one’s academic and life achievements.
In essence, grit is the opposite of quitting, and Dr. Duckworth’s evidence suggests we should want as much of it as possible. As a result, there are plenty of new studies being conducted about the development of grit, and no shortage of authors and researchers with answers to questions about grit. While the word “grit” is currently enjoying the spotlight, the concept of perseverance has been around for centuries. Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote in his book Meditations, “So remember this principle when something threatens to cause you pain: the thing itself was no misfortune at all; to endure it and prevail is great good fortune.”
CAN A PERSON HAVE TOO MUCH GRIT?
The Greek philosopher Aristotle warned us about the danger of extremism in the pursuit of character attributes. He suggested a type of “golden mean” to guide the pursuit of any virtue. For example, having no fear at all could lead to bravado that might end in poor decision-making, while on the other hand, if you have too much fear, this causes cowardice and may never lead to any action.
Answers such as “it depends,” and “we should try to have not too much but not too little,” don’t mean much on a practical level in day-to-day life. Luckily there is a “Grit or Quit?” test that you can use to help you figure out whether it’s time to persevere or time to pack it in.
Our lives are often made up of a series of goals like a staircase, each goal leading to the next until we finally reach our destination.
Take a moment to think of one of your long-term goals, and you may find that there are many ways to get to the top. Dr. Duckworth says that when it’s time to decide whether to quit or to continue using grit, you should analyze what it is that you are quitting, and where it falls among your goals.
Are you quitting the idea of getting your dream job because you didn’t do well in AP Calculus? Or can you recalculate a new route to that same destination, like using a car GPS? Look for a path to a dream job that does not involve acing AP Calculus, and keep moving forward.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR OUR KIDS AND US?
This is great for professionals, college students, and high school students, but how does this information apply to students in elementary and middle school? Many of them haven’t yet developed long-term goals, and when things get hard, it’s easy to quit.
“A child in elementary school should be able to stick with things for more than a few weeks,” Dr. Duckworth says. She adds that in middle school they should stick it out through the entire season or year, and once they are in high school, it is important to learn to carry an activity through multiple years.
For your child, this means it’s not the end of the world if they quit the piano, violin, soccer, or whatever activity they are currently pursuing. Plenty of other activities can still help your child live a fulfilling life. There is a phrase that Dr. Duckworth uses to help her own children know when to buckle down and exhibit grit, and when to wave the white flag and say, “I quit.”
“YOU CAN QUIT, BUT YOU CAN’T QUIT ON A HARD DAY.”
If a music passage is hard, you will continue until it’s easy. If you’re having a hard time with a basketball skill, you will keep practicing until you learn it.
“Parents know what a kid doesn’t know. For a kid, it’s irrational to keep going when they’re discouraged. Parents know that everyone feels that way,” Dr. Duckworth says.
While it is okay for a child to quit, it’s not okay to leave the void empty. If a child opts out of an activity, it should be replaced with another opportunity to build perseverance and grit.
The goal is not to force a child to develop grit by mandating the development of one particular skill prescribed by you at age three. Instead, give your children the agency to explore their interests and learn to push themselves until they ultimately find a compelling activity that captures their attention, energy, and diligence.
While empirical evidence demonstrates that more grit typically beats less grit, remember that there are many roads leading to your long-term goals. Don’t be afraid to correct your course along the way. And should you ever end up on a treadmill next to Will Smith, let him win. I’m still waiting for Men In Black 4.
How can I measure grit?
Check out the “Grit Scale” at http://angeladuckworth.com/grit-scale/
What can I do to teach grit to my children?
Paul Tough, “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character.”
Where can I read more about grit?
Angela Duckworth, “When to Quit From an Expert on Grit,” PBS Newshour, May 12, 2016
KJ Dell’Antonia, “Raising a Child with Grit Can Mean Letting Her Quit,” New York Times, April 29, 2016
- Dr. Angela Duckworth