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I've been catching up on EconTalk podcasts and Russ Roberts's discussion of grit, with author Angela Duckworth, was so typically engaging that I snagged the book when I saw it at the Thrift Store. Ms Duckworth makes one central claim: that grit is both measurable and a reliable indicator of likely success at a range of endeavors. As she formulates grit in the text, it can be broken down to:

(1) Talent x Effort = Skill

(2) Skill x Effort = Achievement

And as she explained on the podcast, a talent can be identified as something that we do where we learn quickly. To put it in Gladwellian terms, I might spend 10,000 hours practicing ballet and never get any good at it, but might pick up a golf club for the first time and be reasonable at the game within 5,000 hours of practice. The latter could then be thought of as a skill of mine. But even once I recognized golf as a skill, I would still have to put in the effort to achieve at it. Stated in these terms, her assertion seems pretty common-sensical and modest. Find something you are talented at and pursue it with determination and achievement is likely to follow. That does not seem overly controversial.

Silly me. Once you start doing some on-line research you stumble into a morass of charge and counter-charge over the Professor and her thesis. She stands accused of denying that talent either exists or matters, of botching her research, of being unoriginal, etc. Now, at the point where your critics are maintaining that your work is both obvious and wrong we can assume there's something odd going on here. It appears to be just jealousy that here presentation of these ideas has broken out of the Ivory Towers and reached a mass audience. A characteristic snipe is that "grit" is just a restatement of one of the well-known Big 5 Personality Traits. We all know which one, right? Of course not. We've never heard of them, nor cared, until she offered this variation on one: conscientiousness. Her peers in the field of psychology ought to be ecstatic that so many people have been made familiar with their work for maybe the first time, but that's not how Academia works, is it?

So let's ignore all the petty squabbling and look at one illustration of how grit works, one that stunned me as I was rereading Pat Jordan's classic memoir of failure, A False Spring. In the late 1950s, Jordan was local legend pitching phenom. Even as a Little Leaguer he was written up in Ripley's Believe it or Not and Dick Young's NY Daily News column after throwing four consecutive no-hitters. Scouts descended on his high school games, at Fairfield Prep in Connecticut. His great weapon was a preternatural fastball--back in the days before Driveline, when velocity was an unusual thing--but what drove him was an older half-brother who dreamed of a big bonus that would repay their parents for the cost of his legal education. In pursuit of this bonus, Jordan kept trying to throw harder and harder to the point where he struggled somewhat in his senior year and get less of a bonus than they'd imagined.

The Milwaukee Braves signed him for $36k and shipped the 18-year old off to McCook, Nebraska in the Class D Nebraska State League. What followed was a brief career that ranged from lackluster to disastrous, as his immaturity, arrogance, lack of the motivation his brother had always provided, and dependence on the fastball prevented him from developing. The book has long been hailed for brutal honesty about his shortcomings as a player and a person--most famously, when writing the book he contacted the young woman he'd deflowered and promptly dumped in that 1959 season and at the end of their conversation she revealed that they'd had a daughter. Other than a brief period in Instructional League, when Whitlow Wyatt somehow managed to get through to him, Jordan was pretty uncoachable. But Whitlow got him to improve his control by backing off on his natural velocity and using a more compact delivery that allowed him to throw strikes.

One might think that finally achieving some success in the pro game would have been rewarding, especially after his unexpected failures, but that's not what Jordan experienced:
The thought of continued and, maybe, permanent failure terrified me. For years I had heard only the sounds of my parents' approval as I pitched to my brother on the sidewalk in front of our house. I had avoided failure so much longer than most (all those years of no-hitters and strikeouts) that its intrusion into my life was at first incomprehensible and then so terrifying that I would do anything to shake it. I was even willing to compromise the only thing in my life I had ever consciously cultivated, and the only thing in myself I had ever valued--my natural talent.

It was an easy corruption, begun first in high school when I had subordinated perfecting that talent to my quest for the largest bonus. That was the first time I had ever consciously used my talent, whose perfection had been my only end, as a means to another end. Now, in Bradenton, when I should have been trying to perfect that talent (to throw as naturally and fast as I could, and only then trying to control it), I again subordinated that to another end. I deliberately frustrated the natural limits of my talent in the hope that this would bring me--not success, even--but simply the absence of failure. Such a cowardly satisfaction! And one that ultimately led to a failure so without the satisfaction a nobler failure might have had, that I have yet to come to grips with admit that I destroyed my talent, the one thing in me that was special to me. It doesn't matter what that thing was or how trivial it might have been. It only matters that such a thing did exist in me, as it does in us all, and that by refusing to risk perfecting it I was denying what most truly defined me.
What is immediately striking about this is how wrong it is as a matter of baseball. The object of the game for a pitcher is not to be the hardest thrower ever but to get the opposing hitter out. To the extent that throwing hard was his talent, it was not sufficient to the game. No pitcher has ever gotten by with just fastballs, especially if he couldn't throw them for strikes. Far from corrupting his pitching talent, Jordan was at the precise moment when he had a chance to perfect it. The actual corruption was when he kept trying to increase velocity for velocity sake alone. But it is his own analysis that has made this memoir not only one of the most revered of baseball books but a signal text on the squandering of talent.

Now maybe it was only because of the proximity of the two readings, but, informed by Ms Duckworth's Grit, I had an epiphany when delving into : Pat Jordan's talent was not for baseball but for writing. Refusing to make the adjustments--put in the effort--to deveop his pitching talent, he was out of baseball after just three years. His minor league career, had he not written so compellingly about it, would be entirely forgotten, as indeed would he be. But he has worked at the craft of writing for over 50 years and not only produced that one great book, but innumerable profiles and essays that are considered peak sports-writing and magazine journalism. Plotted along Ms Duckworth's axis: he had a talent for writing and put in the necessary work to become skillful; having developed skill he put in more work and achieved greatness.

The most storied failure in literature illustrates the meaning and value of grit.


Grade: (B)


See also:

Angela Duckworth Links:

    -TWITTER FEED: @angeladuckw
    -WIKIPEDIA: Angela Duckworth
    -FACULTY PAGE: Angela Duckworth (University of Pennsylvania)
    -MACARTHUR FELLOW PAGE: Angela Duckworth: Research Psychologist | Class of 2013
    -ONLINE CLASS: Angela Duckworth on Building Grit: Learn how you can build the habits of perseverance from an award-winning psychologist and MacArthur genius. (Acumen Masterclass)
    -BOOK SITE: grit (Simon & Schuster)
    -Character Lab
    -Positive Psychology Center: Angela Duckworth
    -ONLINE TEST: Grit Scale
    -ESSAY: Organizational Grit (Thomas H. Lee and Angela L. Duckworth, September–October 2018 , Harvard Business Review)
    -STUDY: Cognitive and noncognitive predictors of success (Angela L. Duckworth, Abigail Quirk, Robert Gallop, Rick H. Hoyle, Dennis R. Kelly, and Michael D. Matthews, PNAS November 19, 2019)
When predicting success, how important are personal attributes other than cognitive ability? To address this question, we capitalized on a full decade of prospective, longitudinal data from n = 11,258 cadets entering training at the US Military Academy at West Point. Prior to training, cognitive ability was negatively correlated with both physical ability and grit. Cognitive ability emerged as the strongest predictor of academic and military grades, but noncognitive attributes were more prognostic of other achievement outcomes, including successful completion of initiation training and 4-y graduation. We conclude that noncognitive aspects of human capital deserve greater attention from both scientists and practitioners interested in predicting real-world success.

    -ESSAY: Self-Control and Grit: Related but Separable Determinants of Success (Angela Duckworth and James J. Gross, Curr Dir Psychol Sci. 2014 Oct)
    -VIDEO: Grit with Angela Duckworth (Ted Talk)
    -PODCAST: Angela Duckworth on Grit (Russ Roberts, Jul 25 2016, EconTalk)
    -PODCAST: Angela Duckworth on Character (Russ Roberts, 3/07/22, , EconTalk)
    -INTERVIEW: “You’re no genius”: Her father’s shutdowns made Angela Duckworth a world expert on grit (Leah Fessler, 3/26/18, Quartz)
    -INTERVIEW: Angela Duckworth on Passion, Grit and Success (Julie Scelfo, April 8, 2016, NY Times)
    -PODCAST: Angela Duckworth on Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance (Scott Barry Kaufman, February 23, 2016 , Psychology Podcast)
    -PODCAST: Angela Duckworth and the Research on 'Grit' (Emily Hanford, American Public Media)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: Angela Duckworth On Grit And The Power Of Perseverance (Jane Clayson, May 2, 2016, WBUR: On Point)
    -INTERVIEW: Angela Duckworth on Grit, Work, and Happiness (Adobe Blog, 1/24/18)
    -REPORT: MacArthur 'Genius' Angela Duckworth Responds To A New Critique Of Grit (Anya Kamenetz, May 25, 2016, All Things Considered)
    -INTERVIEW: Forget Talent, Success Comes From 'Grit': Rachel Martin talks with Angela Duckworth, the psychologist who brought the idea of "grit" as a marker of success into the American mainstream. Her book posits that achievement is about persistence. (Rachel Martin, May 1, 2016, Weekend Edition Sunday)
    -PODCAST: How to Get More Grit in Your Life (Ep. 246) (Stephen J. Dubner, 5/04/16, Freakonomics)
    -PODCAST: The Principle Of Grit with Angela Duckworth (Patrick Donohoe, November 1, 2018, the Wealth Standard)
    -PODCAST: Angela Duckworth: Explaining Grit,/a> (The Dave Chang Show Oct 10, 2019, The Ringer)
-INTERVIEW: Don't have a passion? Now's the time to foster one (CBS News June 21, 2016)
    -PROFILE: Don’t Believe the Hype About Grit, Pleads the Scientist Behind the Concept (Melissa Dahl, May 9, 2016, The Cut)
    -PODCAST: Being Well Podcast: Grit with Angela Duckworth (Being Well with Dr. Rick Hanson)
    -Angela Duckworth on Why Grit Matters More than IQ (Farnham Street)
    -INTERVIEW: The Significance of Grit: A Conversation with Angela Lee Duckworth ((Deborah Perkins-Gough, September 2013, Resilience and Learning)
    -INTERVIEW: Grit and the Greater Good: A Conversation with Angela Duckworth (Sarah McKibben, October 2018, The Promise of Social-Emotional Learning)
    -PROFILE: The Fierce Vulnerability of Angela Duckworth, Bestselling Author of 'Grit' (Cami Anderson, 5/28/19, ForbesWomen)
    -PROFILE: Angela Duckworth finds grit is not always the best predictor of success in new research (Jonah Charlton 11/05/19, Daily Pennsylvanian)
    -PROFILE: Grit’ author Angela Duckworth on working smart versus working too hard, when it’s okay to pivot, and the impact of tech on grit (Connie Loizos, November 1, 2018, Tech Crunch)
    -PROFILE: Grit Trumps Talent and IQ: A Story Every Parent (and Educator) Should Read: Angela Duckworth and her team devise strategies to help students learn how to work hard and adapt in the face of temptation, distraction, and defeat. (Marguerite Del Giudice, October 14, 2014, National Geographic)
    -PROFILE: Is grit the true secret of success?: What does it take to do really well in life? The answer, says psychologist Angela Duckworth, is not innate talent but grit – something she learned the hard way (Paula Cocozza, 7 May 2016, The Guardian)
    -ESSAY: The Research Behind the TED Talk: Angela Duckworth on Grit (Kelsie Anderson and Aubrey Francisco, March 6, 2019, Digital Promise)
    -ESSAY: The Limits of “Grit” (David Denby, June 21, 2016, The New Yorker)
    -ESSAY: Is “Grit” Really the Key to Success?: A new book says you need passion and perseverance to achieve your goals in work and life. Is this a bold new idea or an old one dressed up to be the latest self-help sensation? (Daniel Engber, 5/08/16, Slate)
    -ESSAY: Is Grit Overrated?: The downsides of dogged, single-minded persistence (Jerry Useem, May 2016, The Atlantic)
    -ESSAY: 4 Signs You Have Grit (Robin Hilmantel, May 12, 2016, TIME)
    -ESSAY: Grit: Is It Baloney? : Grit, the bestselling idea by Angela Duckworth, leaves me cold (Ravi Chandra M.D., Jun 22, 2016, Psychology Today)
    -ESSAY: The Risks of Focusing on Character in Admissions (Rebecca Zwick July 30, 2017, The Chronicle Review)
    -ESSAY: Learning to harness your grit during tough times (Tatyana Leonov, May 2, 2020, Sydney Morning Herald)
    -ESSAY: Grit: How this Personality Trait is the Key to Success (JENNA BUONO, 10/25/17, CogniFit)
    -REVIEW: of Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth (Scott Barry Kaufman, Scientific American)
    -REVIEW: of Grit (Steph Clarke, Steph's Business Bookshelf)
    -REVIEW: of Grit (stuti shukla, Harvard Business Review)
    -REVIEW: of Grit (Judith Shulevitz, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Grit (Matthew Miller, Table Talk)
    -REVIEW: of Grit (Dustin Flanary, Medium)
    -REVIEW: of Grit (Aaron Sommers, Ploughshares)
    -REVIEW: of Grit (Jason Smith, USA Today)
    -REVIEW: of Grit (Go Lean Six Sigma)
    -REVIEW: of Grit (Jay P. Greene, Education Next)
    -REVIEW: of Grit (Kirkus)
    -REVIEW: of Grit (KENNETH POSNER, New Rambler)
    -REVIEW: of Grit: What Shall We Do About Grit? A Critical Review of What We Know and What We Don’t Know (Marcus Credé, September 18, 2018, educational Researcher)
    -REVIEW: of Grit (Sandy Clarke, The Star)
    -REVIEW: of Grit (The Economist)
    -REVIEW: of Grit (Parker Briown, Quillette)
    -REVIEW: of Grit (Publishers Weekly)

Book-related and General Links:
-ESSAY: The Weak Case for Grit: Where’s the evidence that grit predicts success? (JESSE SINGAL, APRIL 14, 2021, Nautilus)