Grit by Angela Duckworth: Notes18 min read

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Grit describes what creates outstanding achievements, based on science, interviews with high achievers from various fields and the personal history of success of the author, Angela Duckworth, uncovering that achievement isn’t reserved for the talented only, but for those with passion and perseverance.

When I hear the word grit, I always have the same image in mind immediately. A soldier has to crawl through the mud, barbed wire around him, and due to the heavy rain, he suddenly gets stuck and can’t move. But then, in a moment of almost angry defiance, he grits his teeth, pulls his foot out of the mud and crawls onward.

I’m sure it’s no coincidence the expression “to grit one’s teeth” lends itself to the title of this book, the word as a noun means courage, perseverance and fortitude. Angela Duckworth needs a lot of it herself, coming from a family in which her father often criticized her for her “lack of genius.” However, her work in psychology, which led her through Harvard, Oxford and the University of Pennsylvania, making her a 2013 MacArthur “Genius” Fellow – ironic?

No. She just knew that perseverance and passion drive effort, and effort drives achievement. That’s grit and that’s what you’ll learn about today in these 3 lessons:

Even though we say hard work is more important than talent, we still believe the opposite deep down.

Effort has a much, much bigger impact on achievement than talent.

Combine small, low-level, daily goals with a larger vision to stay consistently motivated.

Ready to become that soldier, that person who’s willing to go on, long after others have quit? Then let’s get gritty!

Lesson 1: When we say we think hard work trumps talent, we usually just bullshit ourselves.

If I approached you on the street and said: “We’re conducting a study and would like your opinion. What’s more important: hard work or talent?” you’d probably say “hard work.” It’s what you think you believe. It’s what you want to believe.

And it’s also what 66% of people say when they’re asked this question. They want to believe it too. But when it gets hard, when the other guy gets the promotion, when the third business idea fails, do you really hold on to that belief? Or do you maybe think, deep down, you don’t have enough talent after all?

In 2011, Chia-Jung Tsay made a shocking discovery. She studied that last question by giving music experts two written descriptions of a “naturally talented” and a “hard-working, striving” musician and then letting them listen to a recording of the musician performing.

The majority of the experts ended up preferring the piece by the “natural.” The kicker is that on both occasions, the exact same recording was played.

We like to tell ourselves that we believe in hard work more than in talent. But we don’t really mean it.

Lesson 2: The impact effort has on achievement is exponentially greater than talent.

The funny thing is, we have no reason to. Because if you said that hard work trumps talent and really believed it, you’d be right.

After looking at successful people across a wide range of disciplines, from politicians to athletes to writers, Angela set up a set of two equations, which simplify the way talent and effort are related, to make it clear how much more important effort is.

In order to achieve something, you first need the right skill to be able to even start working towards the achievement. However, once you have it, you still need to use and apply the skill for a long time in order to actually get there. With a certain amount (or lack) of talent, your starting points for those two “movements” then become:

Talent x Effort = Skill.

Skill x Effort = Achievement.

Your first bit of talent, combined with effort increases your skill level. Your increasing skill, multiplied by effort, leads to achievement.

That means effort counts twice. Once for skill and once for achievement. But that doesn’t mean it’s twice as important. If you substitute the skill equation into the achievement equation, you end up with:

Talent x Effort x Effort = Achievement, which means that Talent x Effort² = Achievement. Your effort is exponentially more important than how talented you are. That could be a factor of 2, 7, 10, or 500.

Regardless of how big the difference is though, there always will be one, and that’s what’s important to remember.

Lesson 3: You can stay consistently motivated by combining small, low-level, daily goals with a larger vision.

Okay, but a lot of effort means you’ll have to invest a lot of time and stay motivated for the long haul. How do you do that?

According to Angela, with a combination of two things:

A large vision, a big dream, something greater that’s meaningful to you and that can inspire you for a long time.

Small, achievable, daily goals, to help you get wins, make progress and stay motivated.

One without the other is meaningless. Do I want Four Minute Books to be a huge, global brand, with bookstores all around the world? Sure, but thinking about that every day gets depressing.

Only if I focus on doing nothing but publishing a summary, every single day, do I feel happy with my achievement and am motivated to show up yet another day.

Small daily goals, big scary dreams – not one or the other – have both, okay?

My personal take-aways

The only caveat I have about this book is that you should be very cautious about the big dream you pick. There is something to be said for quitting as a strategy, but once you’ve quit the wrong things, go all in on grit. Great book!

Grit Summary

The Book in Three Sentences

The secret to outstanding achievement is not talent but grit: a special blend of passion and persistence.    

Grit is about having passion and perseverance for long-term goals.

Gritty people are able to maintain their determination and motivation over long periods despite experiences with failure and adversity.

The Five Big Ideas

Grit is about holding the same top-level goal for a very long time. (A top-level goal is your ultimate concern, a compass that gives direction and meaning to all the goals below it.)

Paragons of grit have four psychological assets: (1) interest (2) practice (3) purpose (4) hope.

Gritty people do more deliberate practice and experience more flow.

For paragons of grit, the long days and evenings of toil, the setbacks and disappointments, and struggle, the sacrifice—all this is worth it because, ultimately, their efforts pay dividends to other people.

Often, the critical gritty-or-not decisions we make are a matter of identity more than anything else.

Grit Summary

Our potential is one thing. What we do with it is quite another.

Compared with what we ought to be, we are only half awake. Our fires are damped, our drafts are checked. We are making use of only a small part of our possible mental and physical resources.

The “naturalness bias” is a hidden prejudice against those who’ve achieved what they have because they worked for it, and a hidden preference for those whom we think arrived at their place in life because they’re naturally talented.

In Duckworth’s view, the biggest reason a preoccupation with talent can be harmful is simple: By shining our spotlight on talent, we risk leaving everything else in the shadows. We inadvertently send the message that these other factors—including grit—don’t matter as much as they really do.

In a study of competitive swimmers titled, “The Mundanity of Excellence,” Dan Chambliss, writes, “The most dazzling human achievements are, in fact, the aggregate of countless individual elements, each of which is, in a sense, ordinary.”

Great things are accomplished by those “people whose thinking is active in one direction, who employ everything as material, who always zealously observe their own inner life and that of others, who perceive everywhere models and incentives, who never tire of combining together the means available to them.”

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.

Consistency of effort over the long run is everything.

Many of us, it seems, quit what we start far too early and far too often. Even more than the effort a gritty person puts in on a single day, what matters is that they wake up the next day, and the next, ready to get on that treadmill and keep going.

Grit is about working on something you care about so much that you’re willing to stay loyal to it. It’s not about falling in love; it’s about staying in love.

Grit has two components: passion and perseverance.

Enthusiasm is common. Endurance is rare.

Duckworth on passion:

What I mean by passion is not just that you have something you care about. What I mean is that you care about that same ultimate goal in an abiding, loyal, steady way. You are not capricious. Each day, you wake up thinking of the questions you fell asleep thinking about. You are, in a sense, pointing in the same direction, ever eager to take even the smallest step forward than to take a step to the side, toward some other destination. At the extreme, one might call your focus obsessive. Most of your actions derive their significance from their allegiance to your ultimate concern, your life philosophy. You have your priorities in order.

Grit is about holding the same top-level goal for a very long time. Furthermore, this “life philosophy,” as Pete Carroll might put it, is so interesting and important that it organizes a great deal of your waking activity. In very gritty people, most mid-level and low-level goals are, in some way or another, related to that ultimate goal. In contrast, a lack of grit can come from having less coherent goal structures.

When prioritizing goals, ask yourself, “To what extent do these goals serve a common purpose?”

The more they’re part of the same goal hierarchy—important because they then serve the same ultimate concern—the more focused your passion.

Don’t beat your head against the wall attempting to follow through on something that is, merely, a means to a more important end.

Giving up on lower-level goals is not only forgivable, it’s sometimes absolutely necessary. You should give up when one lower-level goal can be swapped for another that is more feasible. (Note: to learn more about when to quit and when to stick, read The Dip by Seth Godin.)

As a species, we’re getting better and better at abstract reasoning.

Grit grows as we figure out our life philosophy, learn to dust ourselves off after rejection and disappointment, and learn to tell the difference between low-level goals that should be abandoned quickly and higher-level goals that demand more tenacity.

Duckworth on “The Maturity Principle”:

Over time, we learn life lessons we don’t forget, and we adapt in response to the growing demands of our circumstances. Eventually, new ways of thinking and acting become habitual. There comes a day when we can hardly remember our immature former selves. We’ve adapted, those adaptations have become durable, and, finally, our identity—the sort of person we see ourselves to be—has evolved. We’ve matured.

Like every aspect of your psychological character, grit is more plastic than we might think.

If you’re not as gritty as you want to be, ask yourself why.

Any of the following four thoughts might go through your head right before you quit what you’re doing: “I’m bored.” “The effort isn’t worth it.” “This isn’t important to me.” “I can’t do this, so I might as well give up.”

Paragons of grit don’t swap compasses: when it comes to the one, singularly important aim that guides almost everything else they do, the very gritty tend not to utter the statements above.

Paragons of grit have four psychological assets:





From the very beginning to the very end, it is inestimably important to learn to keep going even when things are difficult, even when we have doubts.

Passion for your work is a little bit of discovery, followed by a lot of development, and then a lifetime of deepening.

Interests are not discovered through introspection. Instead, interests are triggered by interactions with the outside world.

What follows the initial discovery of an interest is a much lengthier and increasingly proactive period of interest development.

Longitudinal studies tracking learners confirm that overbearing parents and teachers erode intrinsic motivation. (Note: to learn more about motivation, read Drive by Dan Pink.)

Kids whose parents let them make their own choices about what they like are more likely to develop interests later identified as a passion.

Duckworth on the motivational differences between expert and beginners:

At the start of an endeavor, we need encouragement and freedom to figure out what we enjoy. We need small wins. We need applause. Yes, we can handle a tincture of criticism and corrective feedback. Yes, we need to practice. But not too much and not too soon. Rush a beginner and you’ll bludgeon their budding interest. It’s very, very hard to get that back once you do.

The grittier an individual is, the fewer career changes they’re likely to make.

For the expert, novelty is nuance.

If you’d like to follow your passion but haven’t yet fostered one, you must begin at the beginning: discovery.

Ask yourself:

What do I like to think about?

Where does my mind wander?

What do I really care about?

What matters most to me?

How do I enjoy spending my time? And, in contrast, what do I find absolutely unbearable?

To young graduates wringing their hands over what to do, Duckworth says, “Experiment! Try! You’ll certainly learn more than if you don’t!”

The directive to follow your passion is not bad advice. But what may be even more useful is to understand how passions are fostered in the first place.

Kaizen is Japanese for resisting the plateau of arrested development. (Note: To learn more about kaizen, read One Small Step Can Change Your Life by Robert Maurer)

A crucial insight of Anders Ericsson’s research on excellence is not that experts log more hours of practice. Rather, it’s that experts practice differently. Unlike most of us, experts are logging thousands upon thousands of hours of what Ericsson calls deliberate practice.

Duckworth on how experts practice:

First, they set a stretch goal, zeroing in on just one narrow aspect of their overall performance. Rather than focus on what they already do well, experts strive to improve specific weaknesses. They intentionally seek out challenges they can’t yet meet.

Then, with undivided attention and great effort, experts strive to reach their stretch goal. Interestingly, many choose to do so while nobody’s watching.

As soon as possible, experts hungrily seek feedback on how they did. Necessarily, much of that feedback is negative. This means that experts are more interested in what they did wrong—so they can fix it—than what they did right. The active processing of this feedback is as essential as its immediacy. And after feedback, then what?

Then experts do it all over again, and again, and again. Until they have finally mastered what they set out to do. Until what was a struggle before is now fluent and flawless. Until conscious incompetence becomes unconscious competence.

Finally, experts start all over again with a new stretch goal. One by one, these subtle refinements add up to dazzling mastery.

Gritty people do more deliberate practice and experience more flow. There’s no contradiction here, for two reasons:

First, deliberate practice is a behavior, and flow is an experience. Anders Ericsson is talking about what experts do; Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is talking about how experts feel.

Second, you don’t have to be doing deliberate practice and experiencing flow at the same time (Duckworth argues for most experts, they rarely go together.)

Deliberate practice is for preparation. Flow is for performance.

Nobody wants to show you the hours and hours of becoming. They’d rather show the highlight of what they’ve become.

Duckworth has three suggestions for getting the most out of deliberate practice:

Know the science

Make it a habit

Change the way you experience it.

Each of the basic requirements of deliberate practice is unremarkable:

A clearly defined stretch goal

Full concentration and effort

Immediate and informative feedback

Repetition with reflection and refinement

For paragons of frit, the long days and evenings of toil, the setbacks and disappointments and struggle, the sacrifice—all this is worth it because, ultimately, their efforts pay dividends to other people.

In Duckworth’s “grit lexicon,” purpose means “the intention to contribute to the well-being of others.”

Most gritty people see their ultimate aims as deeply connected to the world beyond themselves.

Three bricklayers are asked: “What are you doing?” The first says, “I am laying bricks.” The second says, “I am building a church.” And the third says, “I am building the house of God.” The first bricklayer has a job. The second has a career. The third has a calling. Many of us would like to be like the third bricklayer, but instead identify with the first or second.

Yale management professor Amy Wrzesniewski has found that people have no trouble at all telling her which of the three bricklayers they identify with.

Not surprisingly, Wrzesniewski’s conclusion is that it’s not that some kinds of occupations are necessarily jobs and others are careers and still others are callings. Instead, what matters is whether the person doing the work believes that laying down the next brick is just something that has to be done, or instead something that will lead to further personal success, or, finally, work that connects the individual to something far greater than the self.

Adam’s research demonstrates that leaders and employees who keep both personal and prosocial interests in mind do better in the long run than those who are 100 percent selfishly motivated.

In order to develop a sense of purpose, David Yeager recommends reflecting on how the work you’re already doing can make a positive contribution to society.

Amy Wrzesniewski recommends thinking about how, in small but meaningful ways, you can change your current work to enhance its connection to your core values.

Bill Damon recommends finding inspiration in a purposeful role model.

The hope that gritty people have has nothing to do with luck and everything to do with getting up again.

Optimists habitually search for temporary and specific causes of their suffering, whereas pessimists assume permanent and pervasive causes are to blame. (Note: To learn more about learned optimism, read The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor.)

When you keep searching for ways to change your situation for the better, you stand a chance of finding them. When you stop searching, assuming they can’t be found, you guarantee they won’t.

Duckworth has measured growth mindset and grit in both younger children and older adults, and in every sample, she’s found that growth mindset and grit go together. (Note: to learn more about growth mindset, read Mindset by Carol Dweck.)

Growth Mindset > Optimistic Self-Talk > Perseverance Over Adversity

Duckworth’s recommendation for teaching yourself hope is to take each step in the sequence above and ask, “What can I do to boost this one?”

Duckworth’s three suggestion in that regard is to:

Update your beliefs about intelligence and talent

Practice optimistic self-talk

Ask for a helping hand

If you want to bring forth grit in your child, first ask how much passion and perseverance you have for your own life goals. Then ask yourself how likely it is that your approach to parenting encourages your child to emulate you. If the answer to the first question is “a great deal,” and your answer to the second is “very likely,” you’re already parenting for grit.

As soon as your child is old enough, find something they might enjoy doing outside of class and sign them up and require that they stick with at least one activity for more than a year.

Kids who spend more than a year in extracurriculars are significantly more likely to graduate from college and, as young adults, to volunteer in their communities.

If you want to be grittier, find a gritty culture and join it. If you’re a leader, and you want the people in your organization to be grittier, create a gritty culture.

Over time and under the right circumstances, the norms and values of the group to which we belong become our own. We internalize them. We carry them with us. The way we do things around here and why eventually becomes The way I do things and why.

Often, the critical gritty-or-not decisions we make are a matter of identity more than anything else. Often, our passion and perseverance do not spring from a cold, calculating analysis of the costs and benefits of alternatives. Rather, the source of our strength is the person we know ourselves to be. (Note: This echoes James Clear’s idea of Identity-Based Habits.)

Recommended Reading

If you like Grit, you may also enjoy the following books:

Mindset by Carol Dweck

The Obstacle Is the Way by Ryan Holiday

Start with Why by Simon Sinek

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