Got Grit? You Can Get It!

Got Grit? You Can Get It!

By MASTERs Plus Tutoring Program | Published September 2016

Does talent or effort determine how far you will go in life? Both do, but a recently-published book by a stellar expert comes down clearly on the side of effort. Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, by Dr. Angela Duckworth, brings together new and not-so-new research on the roots of success, offering actionable insights on how you and your student can continue to grow and achieve throughout your lives.

Much of the research was conducted by Duckworth herself, who won a MacArthur genius grant in 2013 for exceptional creativity and the promise of more to come. She has consulted for the White House, big business, big sports and the World Bank, and her university lab is dedicated to finding out exactly how and why people achieve.

Some of what Duckworth reports is what you have secretly hoped, some of it is what you might expect, and some of it will surprise you, but a great deal of it encourages belief in our power–with the right tools and influences—to move through obstacles. Duckworth even argues that the highly talented might be at a disadvantage when they hit that first hard wall we all hit sooner or later because they have too little practice picking themselves up and soldiering on.

So, if you are asking what you and your student can do to develop and exercise that power, we are passing on the following ideas from and observations on Duckworth’s seminal new book.

Growth Mindset or Fixed Mindset?

Do you believe in our ability to get smarter and grow? Or do you tend to think our natural talent is more-or-less fixed and can’t be developed much? People in the first group, according to Duckworth, are more likely to experience greater academic success and better social relationships and health than people in the second. You’ve got to believe you can grow before you will do the hard work to make it happen.

Wise Parenting and Wise Teaching

For the past forty years, research on optimal parenting has consistently shown that “wise parents,” those who blend high standards with high levels of support, tend to raise the healthiest, most successful children. “Wise teaching,” Duckworth observes, is similar: It praises and encourages effort and expresses belief in the student’s ability to meet high expectations while giving helpful feedback and more chances to try and improve. Phrases that reflect a fixed mindset such as, “Ouch, I guess math just isn’t your talent–Don’t worry,” or “Oh, you did very well on that test! You must just be a natural at foreign languages!” should be avoided.

If we perceive difficulties/struggle as “failure,” then we withdraw from the engagement to avoid shame, but zero effort generally leads to paltry skills and near-zero achievement. In contrast, if we perceive difficulties/struggle as “useful information” to shape further training, then we remain engaged and grow our skills, and that gives us the power to achieve over time. When our babies are learning to walk, we accept “failures” as the necessary steps toward success. We don’t say, “No, no, don’t walk! Baby will fall down,” as our toddlers repeatedly fall down and get up. But, when children “fail” as they try other difficult skills, even in preschool, we might unconsciously be telling them to just sit back down rather than encouraging more awkward steps toward mastery. We need to praise each sincere attempt to perform while we give helpful feedback and maintain high standards.

“Effort Counts Twice”

This idea of Duckworth’s is fundamental to her theory, but it can mystify on first reading, so here is an example: Raw talent is a little like gold nuggets embedded deep in your earthly frame; effort is the mining and refining of it. Effort is also the practicing jeweler’s making piece after piece after piece with that gold until he loses count but finally finds his creations beautiful. This illustrates the two equations Duckworth has developed to explain how to go from talent to achievement: talent x effort = skill; and then, skill x effort = achievement. In Duckworth’s own words, “when you consider individuals in identical circumstances, what each achieves depends on just two things, talent and effort. Talent—how fast we improve in skill—absolutely matters. But effort factors into the calculations twice, not once. Effort builds skill. At the very same time, effort makes skill productive.” It’s the strivers, she says, and not the naturally-skilled, who finally achieve more.

Deliberate Practice

Earlier research and observations on achievement have indicated that it can take up to 10 years or 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to make an expert. Deliberate practice, however, is never to be confused with just racking up time on task. “Experts practice differently,” Duckworth writes while summarizing earlier research. Deliberate practice has specific requirements that lead to continual growth (Grit, p. 137):

  • A clearly defined stretch goal
  • Full concentration and effort
  • Immediate and informative feedback
  • Repetition with reflection and refinement

Even when we are not talking about the formation of world-class pianists or award-winning physicists, this kind of practice tends to yield the greatest skill development in the shortest time. It can make our students, and us, more efficient and more satisfied with what we accomplish in the limited time we have.

The “One Hard Thing” Rule

Based on her research and her own effortful successes, Duckworth recommends this house rule that she, her husband, and her two daughters all follow:

  • You pick a hard thing you want to learn to do or to do better.
  • You commit to doing your best at it for x minutes a day.
  • You have to do it ‘til the end of the semester/season/recital date.

When we can’t quit at the first sign of difficulty, when we are expected to stick it out until we beat a few obstacles along the way, we get to see ourselves winning, and as a result we experience satisfaction and growing confidence in our abilities to overcome. Children emulate their mothers and fathers, so the “one hard thing” rule should be for everyone, and not just the young ones.

What can you do if your students just aren’t interested in anything? Insist that they begin to explore a variety of activities in the outside world among other people. Duckworth observes that discovering your passion also takes effort, and that we may need to explore several interests in depth (the “one hard thing” rule). But she says it can lead to lives of purpose and the hope that our grit can yield greater achievement and happiness in whichever fields we work.

Would you like support and feedback for your students as they strive to meet high expectations? Call 708-798-8400 today to enroll in our expert, individualized tutoring program.             






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