Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance

Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance

by Angela Duckworth

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Overview

In this instant New York Times bestseller, pioneering psychologist Angela Duckworth shows anyone striving to succeed—be it parents, students, educators, athletes, or business people—that the secret to outstanding achievement is not talent but a special blend of passion and persistence she calls “grit.”

Drawing on her own powerful story as the daughter of a scientist who frequently noted her lack of “genius,” Duckworth, now a celebrated researcher and professor, describes her early eye-opening stints in teaching, business consulting, and neuroscience, which led to the hypothesis that what really drives success is not “genius” but a unique combination of passion and long-term perseverance.

In Grit, she takes readers into the field to visit cadets struggling through their first days at West Point, teachers working in some of the toughest schools, and young finalists in the National Spelling Bee. She also mines fascinating insights from history and shows what can be gleaned from modern experiments in peak performance. Finally, she shares what she’s learned from interviewing dozens of high achievers—from JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon to New Yorker cartoon editor Bob Mankoff to Seattle Seahawks Coach Pete Carroll.

Among Grit’s most valuable insights:

*Why any effort you make ultimately counts twice toward your goal
*How grit can be learned, regardless of I.Q. or circumstances
*How lifelong interest is triggered
*How much of optimal practice is suffering and how much ecstasy
*Which is better for your child—a warm embrace or high standards
*The magic of the Hard Thing Rule

Winningly personal, insightful, and even life-changing, Grit is a book about what goes through your head when you fall down, and how that—not talent or luck—makes all the difference.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

03/21/2016
What makes high achievers successful, MacArthur Fellow Duckworth writes, is grit—a “combination of passion and perseverance”—coupled to their raw talent. Talent is important, she acknowledges, but talent multiplied by grit is what builds skill, and skill multiplied by grit equals achievement. Duckworth believes that talent or genius is innate, but “grit grows.” In three sections, she defines grit, then shows how it can develop “from the outside in” and “from the inside out.” She mixes descriptions of her own experience with notable success stories, such as that of quarterback Steve Young, and discoveries in psychology, creating a highly readable guide to achievement. “This book has been my way of taking you out for a coffee and telling you what I know,” Duckworth concludes. She includes a self-assessment quiz, advice from Warren Buffet on identifying personal goals, and a chapter devoted to the ideal parenting style—a combination of supportive and demanding—for those who want to encourage the development of grit in their children. This is an informative and inspiring contribution to the literature of success. (May)

Kirkus Reviews

2016-03-08
Gumption: it's not just for readers of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, as this debut book, blending anecdote and science, statistic and yarn, capably illustrates. If you're so smart, why aren't you rich? It could be, to trust MacArthur fellow Duckworth, that you're just not working hard enough—which is to say, you just don't have enough grit. That old-fashioned term, appropriated by a newfangled scholar, is meant to combine the notions of passion, persistence, and hard work in more or less equal measure. That passion, Duckworth argues, "begins with intrinsically enjoying what you do." Self-confidence figures into the equation, the assuredness that you have the ability to do what you do with at least some measure of success; but then, the ability to cope with failure, dust yourself off, and try again comes into play as well. Duckworth makes great effort to downplay any idea of innate talent in favor of improvement and mastery that come from digging in and doing it. "If we overemphasize talent," she urges, "we underemphasize everything else." In the nature vs. nurture controversy, the author sides with nurture, and there's more than a little of the tiger mom in the prescriptions she dispenses for education. But on that note, she writes, teachers who are demanding may "produce measurable year-to-year gains in the academic skills of their students." But throw a little love, supportiveness, and respect into the mix, and you build better people. For Duckworth, there should be no trophies for just showing up. When she writes of hard work in building the "gritty person," she means hard work, as evidenced by her close study of West Pointers during their first and worst year, when 20 percent of the students drop out in a cohort carefully selected for their ability to stay on task until the task is done. Not your grandpa's self-help book, but Duckworth's text is oddly encouraging, exhorting us to do better by trying harder, and a pleasure to read.

From the Publisher

One of "The Hottest Spring Nonfiction Books"
—The Wall Street Journal

Grit delves into the personal ingredients of great success. It’s worth reading...the gist is that talent and skill are less valuable than effort.”
—Andrew Ross Sorkin, The New York Times

"It really isn't talent but practice—along with passion—that makes perfect, explains psychologist Duckworth in this illuminating book. Inspiration for non-geniuses everywhere."
—People

Grit is a pop-psych smash.”
—The New Yorker

“With Grit, Duckworth has now put out the definitive handbook for her theory of success. It parades from one essential topic to another on a float of common sense, tossing out scientific insights.”
—Slate

"If you have recently bumped into that word, grit, Duckworth is the reason...In education and parenting circles, her research has provided a much needed antipode to hovering, by which children are systematically deprived of the opportunity to experience setbacks, much less overcome them...What sticks with you [in Grit] are the testimonials, collected from sources as disparate as Will Smith, William James, and Jeff Bezos's mom, that relentlessly deflate the myth of the natural."
—The Atlantic

"A fascinating tour of the psychological research on success...A great service of Ms. Duckworth's book is her down-to-earth definition of passion. To be gritty, an individual doesn't need to have an obsessive infatuation with a goal. Rather, he needs to show 'consistency over time.' The grittiest people have developed long-term goals and are constantly working toward them."
—The Wall Street Journal

“Duckworth is the researcher most associated with the study and popularization of grit. And yet what I like about her new book, Grit, is the way she is pulling away from the narrow, joyless intonations of that word, and pointing us beyond the way many schools are now teaching it...Most important, she notes that the quality of our longing matters. Gritty people are resilient and hard working, sure. But they also, she writes, know in a very, very deep way what it is they want.”
—David Brooks, New York Times

“Offers invaluable lessons to business leaders, parents, recruiters, and almost anyone who wishes to have a roadmap to achieve greater levels of success.”
—Forbes

"A fascinating tour of the psychological research on success...A great service of Ms. Duckworth's book is her down-to-earth definition of passion. To be gritty, an individual doesn't need to have an obsessive infatuation with a goal. Rather, he needs to show 'consistency over time.' The grittiest people have developed long-term goals and are constantly working toward them."
—The Wall Street Journal

“[Have] no doubt: Grit is great. It's a lucid, informative, and entertaining review of the research Angela has assiduously conducted over the past decade or so. The book also includes suggestions on how to develop grit, and how we can help support grit in others. There are few people who wouldn't learn something from this book.”
Scientific American (blog)

"An informative and inspiring contribution to the literature of success."
—Publishers Weekly

"Grit is a useful guide for parents or teachers looking for confirmation that passion and persistence matter, and for inspiring models of how to cultivate these important qualities."
—The Washington Post

"[Blends] anecdote and science, statistic and yarn...Not your grandpa's self-help book, but Duckworth's text is oddly encouraging, exhorting us to do better by trying harder, and a pleasure to read."
—Kirkus Reviews

"Engaging...With strong appeal for readers of Daniel H. Pink, Malcolm Gladwell, and Susan Cain, this is a must-have."
—Booklist

“Imagine that: a Philadelphia psychology professor setting the education world on fire with a one-syllable noun that just happens to define the city she currently calls home....Her book gives cause for hope and an immediate path to action.”
Philly.com

“Psychologists have spent decades searching for the secret of success, but Angela Duckworth is the one who found it. In this smart and lively book, she not only tells us what it is, but also how to get it.”
Daniel Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness

“A robust and engaging read, as Duckworth intersperses her own research with stories from her Chinese-American background, as well as interviews with high achievers in sport, business and the military...[The book includes a] riveting section on raising gritty children. When Duckworth suggests trashing the common parenting line ‘That’s OK, you tried your best’ and replacing it with the demanding yet supportive ‘That didn’t work. Let’s talk about how you approached it and what might work better,’ she made me want to cheer.”
—The Toronto Star

“A contemporary classic—a clarifying and deeply-researched book in the tradition of Stephen Covey and Carol Dweck. For anyone hoping to work smarter or live better, Grit is an essential—and perhaps life-changing—read.”
—Daniel H. Pink, New York Times-bestselling author of When, Drive, and To Sell Is Human

Grit is a persuasive and fascinating response to the cult of IQ fundamentalism. Duckworth reminds us that it is character and perseverance that set the successful apart.”
Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point, Blink, and Outliers

"Angela Duckworth [is] the psychologist who has made 'grit' the reigning buzzword in education-policy circles...Duckworth's ideas about the cultivation of tenacity have clearly changed some lives for the better...In this book, Duckworth, whose TED talk has been viewed more than eight million times, brings her lessons to the reading public."
—Judith Shulevitz, The New York Times Book Review

“Impressively fresh and original…Grit scrubs away preconceptions about how far our potential can take us.”
Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking

“Fascinating. Angela Duckworth pulls together decades of psychological research, inspiring success stories from business and sports, and her own unique personal experience and distills it all into a set of practical strategies to make yourself and your children more motivated, more passionate, and more persistent at work and at school.”
Paul Tough, author of How Children Succeed

“This book will change your life. Fascinating, rigorous, and practical, Grit is destined to be a classic in the literature of success.”
Dan Heath, co-author of Made to Stick, Switch, and Decisive

“Utterly captivating, inspiring and original…Once you pick up Grit, you won't be able to tear yourself away.”
Amy Cuddy, Harvard Business School professor and author of Presence

“Enlightening…Grit teaches that life’s high peaks aren’t necessarily conquered by the naturally nimble but, rather, by those willing to endure, wait out the storm, and try again.”
Ed Viesturs, Seven-Time Climber of Mount Everest and author of No Shortcuts to the Top

“I kept wanting to read this book aloud—to my child, my husband, to everyone I care about. There are no shortcuts to greatness, it's true. But there is a roadmap, and you are holding it.”
Amanda Ripley, author of The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way

“Readable, compelling and totally persuasive. The ideas in this book have the potential to transform education, management and the way its readers live. Angela Duckworth’s Grit is a national treasure.”
Lawrence H. Summers, Former Secretary of the Treasury and President Emeritus at Harvard University

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781501111105
Publisher: Scribner
Publication date: 05/03/2016
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 46,917
Product dimensions: 5.92(w) x 9.28(h) x 1.14(d)

Read an Excerpt

Grit
By the time you set foot on the campus of the United States Military Academy at West Point, you’ve earned it.

The admissions process for West Point is at least as rigorous as for the most selective universities. Top scores on the SAT or ACT and outstanding high school grades are a must. But when you apply to Harvard, you don’t need to start your application in the eleventh grade, and you don’t need to secure a nomination from a member of Congress, a senator, or the vice president of the United States. You don’t, for that matter, have to get superlative marks in a fitness assessment that includes running, push-ups, sit-ups, and pull-ups.

Each year, in their junior year of high school, more than 14,000 applicants begin the admissions process. This pool is winnowed to just 4,000 who succeed in getting the required nomination. Slightly more than half of those applicants—about 2,500—meet West Point’s rigorous academic and physical standards, and from that select group just 1,200 are admitted and enrolled. Nearly all the men and women who come to West Point were varsity athletes; most were team captains.

And yet, one in five cadets will drop out before graduation. What’s more remarkable is that, historically, a substantial fraction of dropouts leave in their very first summer, during an intensive seven-week training program named, even in official literature, Beast Barracks. Or, for short, just Beast.

Who spends two years trying to get into a place and then drops out in the first two months?

Then again, these are no ordinary months. Beast is described in the West Point handbook for new cadets as “the most physically and emotionally demanding part of your four years at West Point . . . designed to help you make the transition from new cadet to Soldier.”

A Typical Day at Beast Barracks

5:00 a.m.

Wake-up

5:30 a.m.

Reveille Formation

5:30 to 6:55 a.m.

Physical Training

6:55 to 7:25 a.m.

Personal Maintenance

7:30 to 8:15 a.m.

Breakfast

8:30 to 12:45 p.m.

Training/Classes

1:00 to 1:45 p.m.

Lunch

2:00 to 3:45 p.m.

Training/Classes

4:00 to 5:30 p.m.

Organized Athletics

5:30 to 5:55 p.m.

Personal Maintenance

6:00 to 6:45 p.m.

Dinner

7:00 to 9:00 p.m.

Training/Classes

9:00 to 10:00 p.m.

Commander’s Time

10:00 p.m.

Taps

The day begins at 5:00 a.m. By 5:30, cadets are in formation, standing at attention, honoring the raising of the United States flag. Then follows a hard workout—running or calisthenics—followed by a nonstop rotation of marching in formation, classroom instruction, weapons training, and athletics. Lights out, to a melancholy bugle song called “Taps,” occurs at 10:00 p.m. And on the next day the routine starts over again. Oh, and there are no weekends, no breaks other than meals, and virtually no contact with family and friends outside of West Point.

One cadet’s description of Beast: “You are challenged in a variety of ways in every developmental area—mentally, physically, militarily, and socially. The system will find your weaknesses, but that’s the point—West Point toughens you.”

So, who makes it through Beast?

It was 2004 and my second year of graduate school in psychology when I set about answering that question, but for decades, the U.S. Army has been asking the same thing. In fact, it was in 1955—almost fifty years before I began working on this puzzle—that a young psychologist named Jerry Kagan was drafted into the army, ordered to report to West Point, and assigned to test new cadets for the purpose of identifying who would stay and who would leave. As fate would have it, Jerry was not only the first psychologist to study dropping out at West Point, he was also the first psychologist I met in college. I ended up working part-time in his lab for two years.

Jerry described early efforts to separate the wheat from the chaff at West Point as dramatically unsuccessful. He recalled in particular spending hundreds of hours showing cadets cards printed with pictures and asking the young men to make up stories to fit them. This test was meant to unearth deep-seated, unconscious motives, and the general idea was that cadets who visualized noble deeds and courageous accomplishments should be the ones who would graduate instead of dropping out. Like a lot of ideas that sound good in principle, this one didn’t work so well in practice. The stories the cadets told were colorful and fun to listen to, but they had absolutely nothing to do with decisions the cadets made in their actual lives.

Since then, several more generations of psychologists devoted themselves to the attrition issue, but not one researcher could say with much certainty why some of the most promising cadets routinely quit when their training had just begun.

Soon after learning about Beast, I found my way to the office of Mike Matthews, a military psychologist who’s been a West Point faculty member for years. Mike explained that the West Point admissions process successfully identified men and women who had the potential to thrive there. In particular, admissions staff calculate for each applicant something called the Whole Candidate Score, a weighted average of SAT or ACT exam scores, high school rank adjusted for the number of students in the applicant’s graduating class, expert appraisals of leadership potential, and performance on objective measures of physical fitness.

You can think of the Whole Candidate Score as West Point’s best guess at how much talent applicants have for the diverse rigors of its four-year program. In other words, it’s an estimate of how easily cadets will master the many skills required of a military leader.

The Whole Candidate Score is the single most important factor in West Point admissions, and yet it didn’t reliably predict who would make it through Beast. In fact, cadets with the highest Whole Candidate Scores were just as likely to drop out as those with the lowest. And this was why Mike’s door was open to me.

From his own experience joining the air force as a young man, Mike had a clue to the riddle. While the rigors of his induction weren’t quite as harrowing as those of West Point, there were notable similarities. The most important were challenges that exceeded current skills. For the first time in their lives, Mike and the other recruits were being asked, on an hourly basis, to do things they couldn’t yet do. “Within two weeks,” Mike recalls, “I was tired, lonely, frustrated, and ready to quit—as were all of my classmates.”

Some did quit, but Mike did not.

What struck Mike was that rising to the occasion had almost nothing to do with talent. Those who dropped out of training rarely did so from lack of ability. Rather, what mattered, Mike said, was a “never give up” attitude.

Around that time, it wasn’t just Mike Matthews who was talking to me about this kind of hang-in-there posture toward challenge. As a graduate student just beginning to probe the psychology of success, I was interviewing leaders in business, art, athletics, journalism, academia, medicine, and law: Who are the people at the very top of your field? What are they like? What do you think makes them special?

Some of the characteristics that emerged in these interviews were very field-specific. For instance, more than one businessperson mentioned an appetite for taking financial risks: “You’ve got to be able to make calculated decisions about millions of dollars and still go to sleep at night.” But this seemed entirely beside the point for artists, who instead mentioned a drive to create: “I like making stuff. I don’t know why, but I do.” In contrast, athletes mentioned a different kind of motivation, one driven by the thrill of victory: “Winners love to go head-to-head with other people. Winners hate losing.”

In addition to these particulars, there emerged certain commonalities, and they were what interested me most. No matter the field, the most successful people were lucky and talented. I’d heard that before, and I didn’t doubt it.

But the story of success didn’t end there. Many of the people I talked to could also recount tales of rising stars who, to everyone’s surprise, dropped out or lost interest before they could realize their potential.

Apparently, it was critically important—and not at all easy—to keep going after failure: “Some people are great when things are going well, but they fall apart when things aren’t.” High achievers described in these interviews really stuck it out: “This one guy, he wasn’t actually the best writer at the beginning. I mean, we used to read his stories and have a laugh because the writing was so, you know, clumsy and melodramatic. But he got better and better, and last year he won a Guggenheim.” And they were constantly driven to improve: “She’s never satisfied. You’d think she would be, by now, but she’s her own harshest critic.” The highly accomplished were paragons of perseverance.

Why were the highly accomplished so dogged in their pursuits? For most, there was no realistic expectation of ever catching up to their ambitions. In their own eyes, they were never good enough. They were the opposite of complacent. And yet, in a very real sense, they were satisfied being unsatisfied. Each was chasing something of unparalleled interest and importance, and it was the chase—as much as the capture—that was gratifying. Even if some of the things they had to do were boring, or frustrating, or even painful, they wouldn’t dream of giving up. Their passion was enduring.

In sum, no matter the domain, the highly successful had a kind of ferocious determination that played out in two ways. First, these exemplars were unusually resilient and hardworking. Second, they knew in a very, very deep way what it was they wanted. They not only had determination, they had direction.

It was this combination of passion and perseverance that made high achievers special. In a word, they had grit.

For me, the question became: How do you measure something so intangible? Something that decades of military psychologists hadn’t been able to quantify? Something those very successful people I’d interviewed said they could recognize on sight, but couldn’t think of how to directly test for?

I sat down and looked over my interview notes. And I started writing questions that captured, sometimes verbatim, descriptions of what it means to have grit.

Half of the questions were about perseverance. They asked how much you agree with statements like “I have overcome setbacks to conquer an important challenge” and “I finish whatever I begin.”

The other half of the questions were about passion. They asked whether your “interests change from year to year” and the extent to which you “have been obsessed with a certain idea or project for a short time but later lost interest.”

What emerged was the Grit Scale—a test that, when taken honestly, measures the extent to which you approach life with grit.

In July 2004, on the second day of Beast, 1,218 West Point cadets sat down to take the Grit Scale.

The day before, cadets had said good-bye to their moms and dads (a farewell for which West Point allocates exactly ninety seconds), gotten their heads shaved (just the men), changed out of civilian clothing and into the famous gray and white West Point uniform, and received their footlockers, helmets, and other gear. Though they may have mistakenly thought they already knew how, they were instructed by a fourth-year cadet in the proper way to stand in line (“Step up to my line! Not on my line, not over my line, not behind my line. Step up to my line!”).

Initially, I looked to see how grit scores lined up with aptitude. Guess what? Grit scores bore absolutely no relationship to the Whole Candidate Scores that had been so painstakingly calculated during the admissions process. In other words, how talented a cadet was said nothing about their grit, and vice versa.

The separation of grit from talent was consistent with Mike’s observations of air force training, but when I first stumbled onto this finding it came as a real surprise. After all, why shouldn’t the talented endure? Logically, the talented should stick around and try hard, because when they do, they do phenomenally well. At West Point, for example, among cadets who ultimately make it through Beast, the Whole Candidate Score is a marvelous predictor of every metric West Point tracks. It not only predicts academic grades, but military and physical fitness marks as well.

So it’s surprising, really, that talent is no guarantee of grit. In this book, we’ll explore the reasons why.

By the last day of Beast, seventy-one cadets had dropped out.

Grit turned out to be an astoundingly reliable predictor of who made it through and who did not.

The next year, I returned to West Point to run the same study. This time, sixty-two cadets dropped out of Beast, and again grit predicted who would stay.

In contrast, stayers and leavers had indistinguishable Whole Candidate Scores. I looked a little closer at the individual components that make up the score. Again, no differences.

So, what matters for making it through Beast?

Not your SAT scores, not your high school rank, not your leadership experience, not your athletic ability.

Not your Whole Candidate Score.

What matters is grit.

Does grit matter beyond West Point? To find out, I looked for other situations so challenging that a lot of people drop out. I wanted to know whether it was just the rigors of Beast that demanded grit, or whether, in general, grit helped people stick to their commitments.

The next arena where I tested grit’s power was sales, a profession in which daily, if not hourly, rejection is par for the course. I asked hundreds of men and women employed at the same vacation time-share company to answer a battery of personality questionnaires, including the Grit Scale. Six months later, I revisited the company, by which time 55 percent of the salespeople were gone. Grit predicted who stayed and who left. Moreover, no other commonly measured personality trait—including extroversion, emotional stability, and conscientiousness—was as effective as grit in predicting job retention.

Around the same time, I received a call from the Chicago Public Schools. Like the psychologists at West Point, researchers there were eager to learn more about the students who would successfully earn their high school diplomas. That spring, thousands of high school juniors completed an abbreviated Grit Scale, along with a battery of other questionnaires. More than a year later, 12 percent of those students failed to graduate. Students who graduated on schedule were grittier, and grit was a more powerful predictor of graduation than how much students cared about school, how conscientious they were about their studies, and even how safe they felt at school.

Likewise, in two large American samples, I found that grittier adults were more likely to get further in their formal schooling. Adults who’d earned an MBA, PhD, MD, JD, or another graduate degree were grittier than those who’d only graduated from four-year colleges, who were in turn grittier than those who’d accumulated some college credits but no degree. Interestingly, adults who’d successfully earned degrees from two-year colleges scored slightly higher than graduates of four-year colleges. This puzzled me at first, but I soon learned that the dropout rates at community colleges can be as high as 80 percent. Those who defy the odds are especially gritty.

In parallel, I started a partnership with the Army Special Operations Forces, better known as the Green Berets. These are among the army’s best-trained soldiers, assigned some of the toughest and most dangerous missions. Training for the Green Berets is a grueling, multistage affair. The stage I studied comes after nine weeks of boot camp, four weeks of infantry training, three weeks of airborne school, and four weeks of a preparation course focused on land navigation. All these preliminary training experiences are very, very hard, and at every stage there are men who don’t make it through. But the Special Forces Selection Course is even harder. In the words of its commanding general, James Parker, this is “where we decide who will and who will not” enter the final stages of Green Beret training.

The Selection Course makes Beast Barracks look like summer vacation. Starting before dawn, trainees go full-throttle until nine in the evening. In addition to daytime and nighttime navigation exercises, there are four- and six-mile runs and marches, sometimes under a sixty-five-pound load, and attempts at an obstacle course informally known as “Nasty Nick,” which includes crawling through water under barbed wire, walking on elevated logs, negotiating cargo nets, and swinging from horizontal ladders.

Just getting to the Selection Course is an accomplishment, but even so, 42 percent of the candidates I studied voluntarily withdrew before it was over. So what distinguished the men who made it through? Grit.

What else, other than grit, predicts success in the military, education, and business? In sales, I found that prior experience helps—novices are less likely to keep their jobs than those with experience. In the Chicago public school system, a supportive teacher made it more likely that students would graduate. And for aspiring Green Berets, baseline physical fitness at the start of training is essential.

But in each of these domains, when you compare people matched on these characteristics, grit still predicts success. Regardless of specific attributes and advantages that help someone succeed in each of these diverse domains of challenge, grit matters in all of them.

The year I started graduate school, the documentary Spellbound was released. The film follows three boys and five girls as they prepare for and compete in the finals of the Scripps National Spelling Bee. To get to the finals—an adrenaline-filled three-day affair staged annually in Washington, DC, and broadcast live on ESPN, which normally focuses its programming on high-stakes sports matchups—these kids must first “outspell” thousands of other students from hundreds of schools across the country. This means spelling increasingly obscure words without a single error, in round after round, first besting all the other students in the contestant’s classroom, then in their grade, school, district, and region.

Spellbound got me wondering: To what extent is flawlessly spelling words like schottische and cymotrichous a matter of precocious verbal talent, and to what extent is grit at play?

I called the Bee’s executive director, a dynamic woman (and former champion speller herself) named Paige Kimble. Kimble was as curious as I was to learn more about the psychological makeup of winners. She agreed to send out questionnaires to all 273 spellers just as soon as they qualified for the finals, which would take place several months later. In return for the princely reward of a $25 gift card, about two-thirds of the spellers returned the questionnaires to my lab. The oldest respondent was fifteen years old, the absolute age limit according to competition rules, and the youngest was just seven.

In addition to completing the Grit Scale, spellers reported how much time they devoted to spelling practice. On average, they practiced more than an hour a day on weekdays and more than two hours a day on weekends. But there was a lot of variation around these averages: some spellers were hardly studying at all, and some were studying as much as nine hours on a given Saturday!

Separately, I contacted a subsample of spellers and administered a verbal intelligence test. As a group, the spellers demonstrated unusual verbal ability. But there was a fairly wide range of scores, with some kids scoring at the verbal prodigy level and others “average” for their age.

When ESPN aired the final rounds of the competition, I watched all the way through to the concluding suspenseful moments when, at last, thirteen-year-old Anurag Kashyap correctly spelled A-P-P-O-G-G-I-A-T-U-R-A (a musical term for a kind of grace note) to win the championship.

Then, with the final rankings in hand, I analyzed my data.

Here’s what I found: measurements of grit taken months before the final competition predicted how well spellers would eventually perform. Put simply, grittier kids went further in competition. How did they do it? By studying many more hours and, also, by competing in more spelling bees.

What about talent? Verbal intelligence also predicted getting further in competition. But there was no relationship at all between verbal IQ and grit. What’s more, verbally talented spellers did not study any more than less able spellers, nor did they have a longer track record of competition.

The separation of grit and talent emerged again in a separate study I ran on Ivy League undergraduates. There, SAT scores and grit were, in fact, inversely correlated. Students in that select sample who had higher SAT scores were, on average, just slightly less gritty than their peers. Putting together this finding with the other data I’d collected, I came to a fundamental insight that would guide my future work: Our potential is one thing. What we do with it is quite another.

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