By Joan Bauer
GRIT BY Angela Duckworth
Scribner, an imprint of Simon and Schuster
I have followed Angela Duckworth’s work for years. It has informed me as a novelist, it has helped me to create characters who don’t give up, and it has challenged me personally to press on. I devoured her New York Times bestseller, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. While many of us have the refrigerator magnet that reminds us to Never, never, never give up, Dr. Duckworth, a 2013 MacArthur Fellow, and professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, shows us how to do it.
Duckworth has been interviewing leaders in a variety of fields, like medicine, law, sports, business, art, academics, and the military to identify that “ferocious determination” they have inside.
“They knew in a very, very deep way what they wanted. They not only had determination, they had direction.” This, she writes, is what “made high achievers special. In a word, they had grit.”
Perseverance and passion, she says, are the building blocks of grit. Duckworth’s book is structured around stories that serve as examples from which she explores the subject of grit and builds her argument that it can be both learned and taught. She tells the story of a teacher who looked at a struggling student and changed the script from This is all you can do to Who knows what you can do? That student is a professor today. Pulling from her experience as a middle school math teacher, Duckworth saw the power of grit in her students. Why did some with in-born talent not always excel? Why did some who struggled to understand become top performers? When children refuse to give up, she says, when they go over and over a problem, that hard work will usually pay off. Do we value talent or effort more? This is a profound question. Value effort, she says. Encourage it, reward it. Help children find that thing they love, help them be their best, not necessarily the best.
At West Point, over one thousand cadets took the Grit Scale test. The results of their grit became an accurate predictor of who would stay in the program and who would leave, not their SAT scores or GPAs. One of my favorite stories in Grit is about John Irving, who is both a National Book Award Winner for The World According to Garp and an Academy Award winner for his screenplay for The Cider House Rules. Irving, severely dyslexic, is not a natural writer. He never tested well. What he did do well was go over his writing again and again until he got it right. He has mastered the wisdom of an old Japanese proverb: Fall seven, rise eight. I love the way Duckworth embraces failure. Here we are in a world where performance enhancing drugs are changing the face of professional sports. Failure in too many places in society is no longer acceptable. To lose—well, that must never happen! It’s easier to lie, cheat, blame, and cover up. We are all winners, forever and ever. Right? Wrong, Dr. Duckworth says. Failure can be one of our greatest teachers. Her advice: Don’t overreact to setbacks and failures and help your children be resilient. “Failure isn’t fatal.” We need to write this across our hearts.
I was happy to see there is a test to determine one’s grit in the book. I took it and, oh, I need to be grittier. There is another test, the Warren Buffet test, about finding what you truly want to do in life. I took that, too. Happily, I am mostly on that road. But each test illuminated, and I was left with the feeling that I, and all of us, can and must reach higher. It’s easy to say I’m too old, too short, too whatever, not a good student, not a good reader, not good at (fill in the blank). Here’s the glorious news about grit—we can raise our intensity, grit can be developed like a muscle, not giving up actually changes our neurons to work toward success. That makes it easier to groan at our bad habits and cheer the places where we’re strong. Getting grittier is worth it!
Here’s how to start:
• Have stretch goals.
• Understand your interests.
• Deepen your capacity to practice.
• Know that great work comes from great purpose.
• Keep hope as the center of it all.
There is a fierce hope in this book, the kind of hope that comes with a responsibility: “Grit...,” Angela Duckworth writes, “rests on the expectation that our own efforts can improve our future. I have a feeling tomorrow will be better is different from I resolve to make tomorrow better.” Reading Grit, I marveled at the power of will and what our minds and hearts contain. With so many people taking shortcuts to success, with more and more of us wondering—What gives me joy? What do I want to work for?—this book should be required reading.
Joan Bauer is a New York Times bestselling novelist and winner of the Newbery Honor Award, the LA Times Book Prize, and two Christopher Awards. Her latest novel is Soar, published by Viking/Penguin Random House. Connect with her on Twitter @joan_bauer or at joanbauer.com.