What’s grit got to do with it?

‘Grit’ is emerging as the biggest predictor of success, topping the usual suspects like IQ, education, and conscientiousness. I discuss what grit is, why it’s important, and most importantly, how we can go about fostering grit in our children.

What is Grit?

Grit is passion and perseverance for long-term goals. Grit is working hard toward challenges; and maintaining effort and interest over years despite setbacks, adversity, and plateaus in progress. It is the trait that makes inventors keep inventing despite failure, writers keep writing after knockback, and athletes keep training after injury and loss.

Thanks to the work of Angela Duckworth, Grit has recently grown in profile. Duckworth’s TED Talk describes the extensive research she has undertaken. Grit is unrelated to IQ and yet it predicts success across diverse settings and with adults and children. Grittier people achieve more academically, are more likely to persist through a gruelling US military training program, perform better at National Spelling Bee Championships, and are more likely to stick at and perform well in teaching and sales jobs. Grittier adults are also more satisfied with their lives, experience more happiness, and less sadness.

What do ‘gritty’ people have in common?

Gritty people tend to be more motivated by meaning or engagement, and less motivated by pleasure. That is, they seek out activities that serve a greater purpose or that completely absorb their attention as opposed to activities that just feel good. Those high on grit are also more optimistic, believe that their abilities can grow and improve, and that their actions influence the outcomes they achieve.

Gritty individuals undertake ‘deliberate practice’ to achieve their goals. What’s that mean? It means they improve their skills in a very effortful, planned, and arduous (not fun!) manner. Deliberate practice was found to be the key factor leading to success in the National Spelling Bee competition; gritty children were more likely to undertake ‘deliberate practice’ to learn words (i.e. studying words in solitude as opposed to being quizzed by another or reading for pleasure), and this deliberate practice resulted in success.

So, now we know what gritty people look like, how do we build them?

Building Grit

When it comes to Grit, the nature vs. nurture debate strikes again! But, the consensus is that we can nurture the trait; which is good news! Here are a few key things we as parents can do to help foster Grit:

  1. Foster a Growth Mindset

A ‘Growth mindset’ means the belief that abilities can be developed through hard work as opposed to being fixed traits that we are unable to influence (‘fixed mindset’). Carol Dwerk has found that individuals with a growth mindset are more resilient and keep trying in the face of setbacks, as they understand that hard work and failure are part of the process. How do we encourage a growth mindset?

  • Model a growth mindset: Our own mindset determines the language we use when talking to our children. It is common to have a mix of growth and fixed mindsets, and so try and be aware of yourself saying things that reflect a ‘fixed mindset’ and turn them into ‘growth mindset’ statements. For example, instead of saying “I can’t draw” you might say, “I need to work on my drawing” or rather than “she’s so smart!” you could say, “she must work hard to achieve such great results”.
  • Praise effort, not talent: we so quickly jump to praising our children for being clever when they are good at things, but what happens when they do something that they find difficult? Research has shown it can lead to them to giving up more quickly and thinking, “maybe I’m not smart after all!” Praise your children for how hard they have worked, and the process they went through to achieve an outcome or complete a task. If they had trouble and made mistakes but kept going, celebrate this (e.g. “I’m so proud that even when you had trouble, you just kept trying! Well done, look what you ended up achieving after all that hard work”).
  • Share your own failures: Discuss your own setbacks and failures with your kids so that they know that hard work, frustration and setbacks are all part of the journey! Make sure they know it is ok to fail, which means responding to their mistakes with an attitude of “what can we learn from this”. Normalising setbacks, slowness in progress, and struggles will help kids respond to setbacks with resilience, instead of thinking it is a sign they should stop and giving up.

You can find more information on developing a more focused growth mindset in the Mindset Kit.

  1. Cultivating individual interests and passions

Think back to the definition of Grit. Half of the magic is ‘passion’. It is difficult to be gritty in something that we don’t enjoy, and the same goes for our children. Sure, they are unlikely to identify their ‘passion’ until they are in their teens or older, but from a young age we can keep a look out for and make space for them to pursue activities that they enjoy.

  1. Encourage, model, and support deliberate practice

Deliberate practice isn’t always fun, but it gets results! Take a leaf out of Duckworth’s book and adopt what she calls the “hard thing rule”. In her household, everyone needs to be working on one difficult thing at any given time. Each person can choose their “hard thing” and should be interested in it, but they need to stick with it for a set period and undertake deliberate practice daily. The lesson is that self-discipline and hard work brings results.

Grit is a relatively stable characteristic but with a ‘growth mindset’ it can be nurtured. It’s not too late for you! Incorporate some of these tips to develop your own Grit. Seeing your grittiness will inspire Grit in others, particularly your little ones.


An edited version of this article was first published at Sassy Mama on 12 October 2017.

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