Book Summary: The Key Ideas
#1: The Psychology of Achievement: We consistently overestimate talent, but ignore the reality that effort counts twice. Skill requires talent and effort, and achievement requires skill and effort.
#2: Grit and Goal Structures: The grittiest high achievers tend to have a top-level goal (or “ultimate concern”) to which all their lower-level and middle-level goals coherently work.
#3: The Power of Passion and Practice: The grittiest embrace long-term deliberate practice. They work on weaknesses and develop a depth of interest in their specialism beyond the ordinary.
#4: The Guiding Light of Purpose and Hope: The gritty are optimistic self-improvers. They get up time and time again in the face of adversity.
#5: Creating Grit from the Outside In: Grit can be cultivated in our external environment, via parents and role models, extra-curricular activities, and teams and cultures.
Book Notes: The Key Ideas in Detail
Premise of the Book
Angela Duckworth is the world’s leading academic in the study of grit: something she defines as passion and perseverance for long-term goals. Duckworth provides a comprehensive look at the leading research in this field, beginning with an overview of the make-up of grit, and then turning to how we can cultivate it in ourselves and in our external environments.
Key Idea #1: The Psychology of Achievement
High achievement is rarely just a question of talent. Instead, high achievers demonstrate remarkable resilience through failures.
To measure this distinct resilience, Duckworth developed the Grit Scale in the early 2000s (you can take it here). She has since used this scale to show that grit is a solid predictor of success across a multitude of different areas, such as military admissions, university and school grades, and career progression.
Despite the importance of grit, studies have shown that we exhibit a “naturalness bias”, showing a preference in choices for those who we deem to have achieved success through innate talent over those seen to have reached it through effort.
This has led to an overemphasis on “talent” by organisations, which can risk a short-term focus on performance at the expense of long-term learning and growth. What’s more, in childhood, overemphasising talent can overshadow the importance of grit and what can be achieved regardless of measures of “talent” such as intelligence.
“If we overestimate talent, we underestimate everything else.”
In reality, Duckworth recognises that exceptional performance is most often the result of countless accumulated acts of practice. She ties the psychology of achievement up in a simple formula:
Talent x Effort = Skill
Skill x Effort = Achievement
As Duckworth sums it up:
“Talent is how quickly your skills improve when you invest effort. Achievement is what happens when you take skills and use them.”
While this simple formula doesn’t account for outside forces, it provides the framework for Duckworth’s key argument: talent matters for improving a skill, but effort counts twice. Effort builds skill and effort makes skills productive.
Key Idea #2: Grit and Goal Structures
Grit isn’t just about working hard. It’s about staying the course and achieving mastery over a long period of time. To do this requires not just the core character, but coordination and purpose.
This coordination can be envisioned as goals in a hierarchy. Low-level goals are short-term activities and to-dos, which in turn feed into mid-level goals and finally top-level goals.
Top-level goals are more abstract, overarching wants. The salient point is that our top level (our “ultimate concern”) gives direction and meaning to the goals below it. For those with the most grit, our top-level (or “ultimate concern”) provides the driving force to fulfil the actions below it. And often the grittiest individuals hold the same top-level goal for a long period of time, in spite of all the failures and ups and downs on the journey.
For the very gritty, most mid-level and low-level goals serve the top level. Gritty people have the adaptability to change these lower-level goals to facilitate the top-level goals. A lack of grit, on the other hand, can be a result of incoherent goal structures.
Ultimately, Duckworth’s point is as follows: grit is a reflection of persistence in the pursuit of our top-level goal(s). Of course, this can be influenced by other factors such as genes and experience, and with age we seem naturally see our grit scores get higher.
Key Idea #3: The Power of Passion and Practice
Research tells us that those performing jobs that match their personal interests are both more satisfied and better performing. Yet the vast majority of us end up working in jobs that aren’t aligned with our passion.
Finding this passion is in most cases a process of discovery, followed by a lengthier period of interest development, cultivation and refinement. What separates the grittiest from the rest is their capacity to stick at interests for the long term, identifying nuances that keep them interested, and exploring their passion at a deeper level.
According to Duckworth, grit paragons also exude kaizen without exception, showing an uncompromising desire to grow and continually improve, and resisting the negative state of looking back at the past with dissatisfaction.
Seminal research by Anders Ericsson (the 10,000-hour rule) suggests that what separates experts is not just the rate at which they practice at an early stage, but the way in which they practice. The grittiest embrace deliberate practice, focusing on improving specific weaknesses.
The basic requirements of deliberate practice:
- A clearly defined stretch goal
- Full concentration and effort
- Immediate and informative feedback
- Repetition with reflection and refinement
Duckworth suggests that one of the best ways to grow grit is to make deliberate practice a habit. By using consistent cues in our habit loop, embracing emotion-free mistake making, and harnessing the power of automaticity, we can capitalise on its advantages.
As Duckworth more simply puts it, “One by one, these subtle refinements add up to dazzling mastery.”
Key Idea #4: The Guiding Light of Purpose and Hope
We typically follow a progression starting with a relatively self-oriented interest, moving through self-disciplined practice, and finally integrating our work with some other-centred purpose.
Duckworth defines purpose in this context as “the intention to contribute to the well-being of others”. Her research suggests that those with higher grit scores value this sense of purpose more highly.
Yet despite us all wanting a job that feels like our purpose, only a minority consider their jobs a “calling”. Duckworth suggests that the key to cultivating grit is not necessarily going all out to look for a calling, but to deepen and develop interests over the long term.
What supports this purpose-based grit is an underlying optimism which the gritty exhibit, and a willingness to look forward despite confronting failure after failure.
“I have a feeling tomorrow will be better is different from I resolve to make tomorrow better. The hope that gritty people have has nothing do with luck and everything to do with getting up again.”
Duckworth links this idea to a growth or fixed mindset. To move towards a true growth mindset, she recommends practising optimistic self-talk and updating our beliefs on intelligence and talent.
Key Idea #5: Creating Grit from the Outside In
Children of supportive and demanding parents fare far better than children with parents on any other spectrum of supportiveness and demandingness in areas of education, health, behaviour and other future outcomes. This positive influence is not limited to parents either. Those who play a key role in our lives, such as teachers, can have a significant positive effect on levels of grit.
Though there is not a huge amount of specific research on the topic, linked studies suggest extracurricular activities can also help increase grit, especially with pursuits designed to cultivate passion and perseverance. Research also suggests extracurricular follow-through is a useful predictor of future grades, mental health and behaviour.
The effect appears to be self-reinforcing. In other words, the situations to which we gravitate tend to enhance the characteristics that brought us there in the first place. In a kind of learned industriousness, doing hard things teaches us to do other hard things. This is a phenomenon known as the “corresponsive principle” in psychology.
The final powerful external influence on our grit levels is culture. Duckworth suggests the easiest way to get grittier is to use the force of conformity to fit in. As she puts it, “If you want to be grittier, find a gritty culture and join it.”
Duckworth observes that gritty people’s choices cannot always be explained by costs and benefits, but instead by the logic of identity. We find these forms of identities in our teams and cultures. Communication styles, an emphasis on collective continuous improvement and a supportive working environment can all help foster grit in teams.
View from the Blog:
If you have spent enough time walking this earth, you will know by now that talent isn’t everything. What matters far more in the long run is our willingness to stick at our interests and develop true expertise. This isn’t a revolutionary conclusion, but this book is its proof.
Duckworth has produced not only an entertaining read, bursting with anecdotal cases of those who have shown this intangible quality of passion and perseverance, but has also compiled an accessible journey through the research that proves grit matters more than talent.
For those looking to cultivate grit in themselves, it’s worth adding to your reading list. For those looking to cultivate grit in others – and particularly their children – I think Duckworth’s explanation of the key research is essential reading.
On goal setting: How Setting Intrinsic Goals Can Transform Your Mindset
On purpose in our work: The Truth About Finding Purpose in Your Work
Related Book Summaries:
Atomic Habits by James Clear
Quiet by Susan Cain