Growing up, I wanted to be just like my older brother. He was a whiz in school, a tennis prodigy, and had oodles of friends. As I saw it, my brother was great at everything. Although I loved him dearly, I grew tired of living in the shadow of his eminence. So at the ripe age of 7, I made a decision. I too was going to achieve greatness. The plan was simple: find one thing at which to beat my brother.
My quest began on a Sunday afternoon. It was family day in the Jain household, and we decided to go miniature golfing. I’d never played before, but when I saw that the equipment consisted of little silver sticks and white dimpled balls I knew it couldn’t be that difficult.
I grabbed my gear and ran out to the first hole. With sweaty palms and a pulsing heart, I wound up and smashed the ball! I watched as it forcefully rolled down the green, past the hole, over the plastic enclosure, and into the parking lot. The ball was lost, and I followed suit. I took my little silver stick and chucked it clear across the course, all the while screaming, “I QUITTTTTTTTTTT!”
Thus began my history of quitting. From piano to soccer to art class… I tried new things and at the slightest hint of adversity, I quit. The desire to outshine my brother and hurl objects in the face of defeat dissipated, yet my treacherous habit of quitting remained steady.
What was wrong with me? Was I just a brat? Not really, I was actually quite a loving and affectionate child. I simply wanted to find something where I could excel, something to call my own. The problem was that I lacked a vital skill. In pursuit of my goals, I lacked the mental fortitude to withstand challenges. I lacked grit.
A really brief history of Grit
Twenty-odd years after the mini-golf debacle, I met renowned researcher and psychologist Angela Duckworth. I was immediately captivated by her work. You see, Duckworth was interested in why some succeeded while others did not. She was interested in the ingredients necessary for achievement. From my point of view, Duckworth was uncovering the difference between my brother and me growing up.
Early in her career, Duckworth taught math to middle and high school students. During that time, she made an obvious, yet profound observation: students who tried hard did better than students who didn’t try as hard. What role did “trying hard” or effort play in one’s success? This wonder led to her groundbreaking work.
After much research, Duckworth theorized that people who achieve great success – those at the top of their fields – have the qualities of dogged perseverance and sustained passion toward long term goals. She coined a term for this quality: grit. Duckworth believed grit could predict success above and beyond traditional metrics of intelligence such as IQ.
To test her theory, she developed a simple assessment called the Grit Scale. The scale requires people to rate themselves on statements such as, “I finish whatever I begin,” or “I have overcome setbacks to conquer an important challenge.” She took scale into the field, and what followed was remarkable.
In one study, low scores on the grit scale was a better predictor of which freshmen cadets at West Point would drop out by their first summer than an internally developed composite score made up of academic grades, physical fitness, and a leadership scores. In another study of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, grit predicted who would move on to the finals above and beyond IQ. In yet another study, grittier students at an elite university achieved higher grade point averages than their less gritty classmates despite having lower SAT scores. Dozens of similar studies made it clear: grit matters.
The revelations from this research are nothing short of astonishing. No longer are you stuck with intellect or raw talent as your core means for success. Perseverance and passion matter at least as much, if not more than other cognitive qualities. As I see it, grit is a tool that levels the playing field – a tool for the underdog. A tool I wish I had as a child.
How I found my Grit
While I didn’t have access to grit research growing up, I did have the good fortune of working with a teacher who taught me some of the same core principles.
By age 12, I’d left behind hundreds of activities, clubs, and hobbies in my dusty trail of abandonment. The one thing I hadn’t given up on was starting anew! My latest undertaking was a reading club. As I sat through the first meeting, I realized everyone was older than me, exploring books well above my reading level. I decided I’d stick with it for at least a week.
I came back the second week with my copy of The Count of Monte Cristo marked up with multiple passages I didn’t understand. After the meeting, I approached the group leader, Mrs. Johnson, ready to launch into my standard I-need-to-quit speech.
Before I could speak, Mrs. Johnson said, “I know you’re little younger than everyone here, but you can do this. Stick with it for a few weeks.”
“Well, I just don’t think… I just didn’t really get… I’m busy at school, see…”
“Renee,” she interrupted, “What exactly are you afraid of?” I decided not to answer. But Mrs. Johnson was good, she used a Jedi mind-trick that teachers like to use – silence.
Two minutes later, I squeaked, “Failing. I guess.”
“And what exactly does that mean… failing?”
I stammered for a while and finally said, “It means not being able to keep up and getting really frustrated because it’s too hard and then wanting to quit.” And then I told her my big secret, “Mrs. Johnson, I’m just not that good at anything. I fail… a lot.”
That was when Mrs. Johnson said something I will never forget, “Renee, listen to me very closely. I’m going to tell you something my father taught me growing up. The only way we can ever fail in life – the only way – is by not trying. Everything else can be overcome with a little hard work and some good old-fashioned sweat.”
I worked with Mrs. Johnson each week after reading club. She never minimized my frustrations; instead, she showed me practical techniques to take breaks and then persevere. She helped me plow through what is now one of my all-time favorite books and ignited my life-long passion for reading. But beyond this, Mrs. Johnson tapped into a strength that resides within all of us. Mrs. Johnson helped me find my grit. In this, she changed the trajectory of my life.
Passing on Grit
If I had one outrageous wish, it would be for all children to have a Mrs. Johnson by their sides. Since I haven’t figured out how to clone her (yet!), I try to pass these skills on myself. One of the skills that kids love to learn about is grit. Below are a few methods I use to help kids embrace the core principles of grit:
- Promote awareness: The simple awareness of the existence of grit excites students. They LOVE to hear that aside from raw intellect, there is something which can catapult them toward their goals. Interestingly, even kids as young as 6 or 7 like to hear about the studies on grit.
- Teach by example: Kids are engaged by real life exemplars of grit such as Michael Jordan. Jordan was initially cut from his high school basketball team. Instead of giving up, he decided he would practice longer and harder than any kid who made the team. The next year, he made the cut.
- Focus on the process: Taking a page out of Carol Dweck’s research, students can learn to enjoy the journey toward their goals. Focusing on the process can increase both the effort students make in working toward goals as well as their resilience in overcoming obstacles.
- Use mental contrasting: Kids enjoy daydreaming about the future which may be why they like mental contrasting exercises! Students envision a desired future goal as well as possible obstacles which may pop up while pursuing that goal. When a goal is feasible, this type of mental contrasting can boost goal commitment.
If you’re interested in learning more about Grit, check out Angela Duckworth’s new book: Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance
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