Five things you should know about Grit before getting too enthusiastic about it

When I first watched Angela Duckworth’s TED Talk Grit: the power of passion and perseverance I knew I had to show it to my students — and I have to this day, to all of them. In a nutshell, her formula says Grit = passion + perseverance; and this is the formula for high achievement. I still find the talk very inspiring, but I have become wary of articles on the web, like “5 ways to increase your grit”. In a way, these articles are about as useful or useless as most of the self-help literature out there.

Angela Duckworth is much much more “honest in this respect when she says at the end of her talk:
Every day, parents and teachers ask me, “How do I build grit in kids? What do I do to teach kids a solid work ethic? How do I keep them motivated for the long run?” The honest answer is, I don’t know.

There is simply no simple recipe for grit. Why?

1. Grit has a genetic component:

Like most personality traits, grit has a strong genetic component. It does not mean that some people are doomed to have no success in life, but simply that some people are inherently more driven. A study on grit concludes:

Little is known about why children differ in grit or about the etiology of its correlates with educational achievement. Although there has as yet been no genetically sensitive study investigating the etiology of grit or its links with school achievement, twin studies investigating the associations between Big-5 traits and educational achievement have found that these associations are largely explained by genetic factors, rather than environmental factors.

2. Grit depends on personality traits

How gritty a person is depends a lot on his or her personality. The following traits from the Big Five inventory are the most important ones:

  • Conscientiousness (high — correlates with planning and impulse control)
  • Agreeableness (low — correlates with competitiveness)
  • Openness to experience (high — correlates with curiosity and creativity)

The perseverance part is highly correlated with trait conscientiousness. The same study concludes:

Grit Perseverance of Effort and Big-5 Conscientiousness are to a large extent the same trait both phenotypically (r=0.53) and genetically (genetic correlation = 0. 86).[…] Personality, primarily conscientiousness, predicts about 6% of the variance in GCSE grades, but Grit adds little to this prediction.

This finding also ties in with other research on success. I would like to remind you of Walter Mischel’s famous Marshmallow experiment, which showed that children with higher impulse control also had better academic achievement later in life. Impulse control is part of trait conscientiousness.

3. Grit-passion and Grit-perseverance are often present in two different personality types

People who don’t persevere are often people who simply enjoy change and exploration and may get bored more easily, than people who tend to follow through. An Iowa study found that school grades (GPA) were very much correlated with the J (judging ~ conscientiousness) dimension in Myers-Briggs

Grit-passion, or the “Rage to Master”, on the other hand, is often most typical for N (intuitive ~ openness to experience) types. A lot of people who did great at school follow traditional career paths, while many of the people we consider highly successful typically weren’t so in school, among not only sportspeople, rock stars and actors, but typically also writers and even Nobel laureates (see: Nobel Prize Winners Hate School ).

The rage to master makes all personality types to follow through, irrespective of their level of conscientiousness. I don’t think anybody would have described Einstein as “gritty” or conscientious before his breakthrough discovery. He struggled at school and was definitely not very passionate about his job in the patent office either. Just imagine his teachers telling him “Little Albert, you have to become more gritty, otherwise you will never amount to much in life”.

As P types are more explorative they tend to favour breadth rather than depth, whereas J types often end up as experts in their chosen field. In the labour market, this gives J types frequently an advantage.

4. Grit-passion and Grit-perseverance can be conflicting in life-goals

My older son has always shown a “rage to master” whatever he was interested in. By the age of two, he had learned three different alphabets. Instead of learning the names of 25 dinosaurs, he learned the names of 250 with a lot of additional details about them. One would think that a child who learns that easily should have an easy time at school. On the contrary, primary school was a rough time for him, us parents and his teacher. Not only did he not follow through with his work (generally refusing to do homework), but he also lost the passion he had previously had in academic interests. My older son is a P, or low conscientiousness type. My younger son also has the rage to master; he knew all the elements of the periodic table and their properties at age seven and loves doing experiments. He has no real problems at school because he is a J or more conscientious type, but he isn’t fond of school either, to put it mildly.

The passion part of grit cannot be forced, it has to be fostered. It is the component of grit that is more important for high achievement than the conscientiousness part. My two sons — contrary to most boys their age I know — are passionate readers. The main reason is that I have read with both of them since early childhood, always considering their current special interests. The school curriculum that does not take into account the individual interests of the students actually might have a negative impact on how passionate children become about reading. I studied English and American Literature but basically stopped reading fiction when I finished my studies because I had developed an aversion to a lot of the literature I had been forced to read.

The passion part of grit is also the one that makes it so unpredictable. While conscientiousness is highly heritable, passion is so much harder to predict. Again personality might give us some clues, like it’s more unlikely for introverts to become passionate about a team sport than, say, running or cycling.

5: Grit-passion and the rage to master can make or break people

On paper, grit sounds like a quality that only has positive sides to it. Currently, you often find the idea that anybody can be anything they want to be. This is simply a modern fairy tale created by countless self-help books. The truth is, only a tiny fraction of the population has the potential to become the next Mozart, Messi or Mendeleev. While giving up too early is a bad thing, so can be persevering. There are plenty of wannabe Ed Sheerans who make a living as buskers.

The rage to master is a hallmark of gifted children. The more successful they are the more they typically become alienated from their peers and their community. A lot of them are painfully aware of this and would rather be “normal” than different. Often this rage to master is described with the rather negative word “obsession”, which can lead to adverse life-outcomes such as compulsive behaviour, high levels of family conflict and loneliness.

While pretty much all highly successful people had a lot of grit, the list of failed ones with the rage to master is probably equally long: Giordano Bruno, who was burned at the stake, Van Gogh, who sold a single painting during his lifetime and Nicola Tesla, who despite being an extremely successful inventor died in poverty and loneliness are just a few famous examples.

Considering these five points, grit doesn’t sound like that magic word anymore. Will I stop showing my students Angela Duckworth’s TED talk? No, of course not. It’s much too inspiring and it would be a missed opportunity to convey to students that school is not only about attaining good grades, but should be most of all about finding their passion in life.

Originally published at on August 2, 2020.