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Is grit overrated as the key to success? Research shows education, socioeconomic class play an outsized role

Posted by Kanika Sinha

July 9, 2021    |     4-minute read (621 words)

Over the last decade, grit has come to be seen as the silver bullet to success. Unless we cultivate this mental toughness, the message goes, we can’t live up to our potential.

But a growing chorus of detractors is rejecting grit gospel. Grit implies people succeed because of their effort, but this whitewashes the effects of class, race and society, they say.

Recent studies confirm that our understanding of grit’s role in success is overly simplistic. Researchers consistently find other factors play a more substantial role in attaining goals.

How grit is defined

The modern understanding of grit is that it’s a combination of passion and perseverance. Individuals with grit are tenacious, soldiering on toward their goals despite adversity and even failure. Grit makes people work tirelessly to accomplish their dreams.

The prevailing narrative started with a TED Talk

American psychologist Angela Lee Duckworth is credited with popularizing the concept of grit as a predictor of success. Duckworth, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, claims to have developed a body of research that finds grit is a better predictor of success than IQ, natural talent and physical ability.

Duckworth first captured the public’s attention with a 2013 TEDx Talk on grit that went viral. Millions were captivated by her formula for success and started applying the concept to their own ambitions. In 2016, she published the book “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance,” which continues to dominate the bestseller list.

The glittering grit paradigm continues to spread among educators, coaches, parents and anyone else convinced it offers a simple fix.

Research reveals the gritty truth

A 2020 analysis published by researchers at Israel’s Tel Aviv and Ariel universities found that the effect of grit on success was negligible. The report also found that intelligence contributed 48 to 90 times more than grit to scholastic achievement and 13 times more than grit to workplace success. Conscientiousness contributed twice as much to success compared to grit.

Separately, a 2019 twin study on reading comprehension found that working directly on reading skills was far more effective than developing a grit mindset, and a 2021 research paper found that grit didn’t lead to academic success for low-IQ students.

A July 2020 International Association of Applied Psychology studyfound a nonlinear relationship between grit and work goal progress. The authors suggest that success is an outcome of the extent to which employees believe the organization cares about their contributions and well-being.

In 2019, Duckworth herself undertook a follow-up study on grit in which data for over 10,000 U.S. military cadets was analyzed. The study found cognitive ability was the best predictor of success in the academic and military arena. The strongest predictor of physical performance the was found to be physical ability. Grit was found to contribute only modestly to academic, military or physical success.

OK, now what?

The public’s enthusiastic embrace of grit in disparate contexts has been premature. The reality is that success requires more than passion and perseverance.

Though the underlying ethos of grit seems positive, it represents an oversimplification of most real-life circumstances. Grit may be a reliable predictor of completion of the U.S. Military Academy’s seven-week training program for new cadets, but holding on to grit alone as a means to get through a life crisis is apt to be exhausting.

Also, our grit reserves are inextricably connected to external factors, some of which we can’t control. For example, deciding to “get through it” by relying on grit amid the pandemic does not assure success. Socioeconomic class also complicates grit theory, which offers little of value to those without the access or privilege to craft their own future.

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