When it comes to talent and expertise, some people just seem to have a natural gift. Whether it’s the talent of the Tragically Hip selling out shows across Canada or being able to manipulate the strings on a guitar like Neil Young, the talent of stars like these in their fields is admirable.
Well, it might be time to start thinking about talent in a different way. Angela Duckworth has not only started thinking about talent differently, but also conducted research to show potential flaws in our traditional way of interpreting one’s abilities. Duckworth believes that over all human traits, grit is the one that inspires and creates talent and capability in humans – from youths to adults, students to instructors and everyone in between.
Who is Angela Duckworth?
Currently, Duckworth teaches psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and she is also kept busy as the founder and scientific director of the non-profit Character Lab – a place with the goal of advancing character development.
Aside from winning a multitude of awards for her influences on K-12 education, she is presently most recognized for her research on, and book about, what it takes to accomplish goals, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.
In an excerpt from her book, Duckworth speaks to her past; her father told her as a child that she was not a genius. Duckworth did not disagree that she was not as smart as some as her peers. However, after doing research in her adult life on innate talent compared to what passion and perseverance can do, she is now recognized in her field. Ironically, Duckworth was even awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, also known as the “genius grant.”
Duckworth is an exact example of her most prominent research on what determination and commitment can yield beyond innate talent. She had the grit to motivate herself to achieve her goals.
What is Grit?
Duckworth, her colleagues and her predecessors have done a substantial amount of research on the characteristics that influence talent and the ability to accomplish goals. Although they found that several characteristics like creativity, vigor, emotional intelligence and charisma can contribute to success, not all of these qualities are required to achieve success across all fields. However, what Duckworth did find is that one quality can be attributed to leaders in all fields: grit. For Duckworth, grit can make or break a person when it comes to succeeding or failing.
In her research, grit is described as, “perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Grit entails working strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity and plateaus in progress. The gritty individual approaches achievement as a marathon; his or her advantage is stamina.”
According to Duckworth’s research, two individuals, who may be similar in talent, can yield very different results. For example, take two people who start taking swimming lessons at the same time. Both are comparable in talent, but one decides to take up tennis instead of swimming after one year. Whereas the swimming talent of this individual may wane, the individual who sticks with swimming through the highs and lows over the course of several years could become a professional athlete.
As she indicates in her research paper, Personality Processes and Individual Differences, Duckworth was not the first researcher to discuss human abilities, how people are able to use them effectively and what characteristics might contribute toward success. To determine success, some research focused on the Big Five personality traits: extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism and openness to experience. The Big Five are described as, “a taxonomy of personality trait: a coordinate system that maps which traits go together in people’s descriptions or ratings of one another.”
The Big Five have been interpreted in several ways and are by no means perfect. Some researchers say they can be used to indicate success, but others say they don’t include some traits that are also important – like grit.
In her original research, Duckworth et al conducted six studies. The researchers wanted to test grit in several scenarios in order to glean as much information as possible, some of which included the use of the Grit Scale developed by Duckworth and her colleagues. For example, they wanted to determine the relationship of grit to age, education, career, retention and performance.
The team found a few different outcomes from their studies. When comparing people of the same age, grit tended to lead toward achieving higher levels of education. As predicted, the researchers also proved that grit can grow with age – likely due to the fact the grittiness needs to be built up over time in order to achieve goals. They also found that grittier people made fewer career changes, instead using their focus and drive to achieve success in their field of interest. By studying cadets at West Point academy in the U.S., it was determined that grit improved retention rates in their first summer semester over qualities the academy was traditionally measuring. The team also found that grittier individuals outperformed others at a spelling bee.
What can you do with grit?
There are a few significant takeaways from this research. Although it might be easier to support somebody who is considered gifted, those who show a high-level of commitment to a task should not be overlooked. Providing support to students or people showing stamina will help contribute to their success over time.
When encouraging others, don’t just focus on in-the-moment intensity. It is important to include stamina, let them know that success can take time. Let them know they might make mistakes and the path to success won’t always be easy, but becoming an expert in their craft can take years of commitment.
When it comes to post-secondary education, focus can help a student be grittier. Encourage them to take their time when choosing a subject to specialize and focus on. The gritty individual will want to learn everything about a specific subject instead of gaining some knowledge on a variety of subjects.
The first step in being able to take advantage of grit is acknowledging its existence and the fact that it has been proven as an influential quality when it comes to achieving long-term success. If you are struggling with a current project or goal, don’t give up. Push through the pain, find a solution and continue on with grit as your motivation to achieve anything you put your mind to.