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Book Review: Grit – Takeaways for Development Economists and Parents

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Angela Duckworth’s new book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance has been launched with great fanfare, reaching number two on the NY Times Nonfiction bestseller list. She recently gave a very polished and smooth book launch talk to a packed audience at the World Bank, and is working with World Bank colleagues on improving grit in classrooms in Macedonia. Billed as giving “the secret to outstanding achievement” I was interested in reading the book as both a researcher and a parent. I thought I’d continue my book reviews series with some thoughts on the book.

What does it do?
The book is written as a popular press book, and is much less technical than books written for a popular audience that can also serve as undergraduate or graduate texts. It is more a cross between a self-health book, an introduction to the psychology literature on correlates of success, and a parenting advice column. The book attempts to do three main things:

  1. Explain what grit is: Duckworth defines grit as a combination of passion and perseverance for a singularly important goal that she considers as a hallmark of achievers in many different domains. She developed a simple self-assessed 10-item Grit scale which has questions that measure on a 5-point Likert scale passion for this singular goal (e.g. “New ideas and projects sometimes distract me from previous ones; My interests change from year to year; I have been obsessed with a certain idea or project for a short time but later lost interest”) and perseverance (e.g.  Setbacks don’t discourage me. I don’t give up easily; I am a hard worker; I finish whatever I begin).
  2. Claim that grit is correlated with good outcomes in the cross-section and predictive of success:
  • West Point cadets with more Grit are less likely to drop out during the initial “Beast” training period
  • Adults who have earned graduate degrees are grittier than those with only four year college degrees
  • During the Scripps National Spelling Bee, finalists with higher grit scores go further in the tournament

    3. Discuss how you can build grit in yourself and in others:

  • Key steps are finding a passion – which requires exploring different options, doing a lot of development on this, and then continuing deepen this
  • Do deliberative practice – set a stretch goal, use full concentration and effort towards this, get immediate and informative feedback, and then reflect and repeat
  • Cultivate a sense of purpose in your goal – reflect on how it helps others, how small changes can enhance connection to what is meaningful to you
  • To cultivate this in your kids (or in others you work with):
    • Set the example yourself that they can emulate
    • Have them do a supportive and demanding extracurricular activity that involves practice – whether it is ballet or piano or sport – and have them stick at it for a while (with “a while” growing with the child’s age)
  • It depends heavily on social interactions – so associate with others who are gritty, or try and form it as an organization.
Thoughts as a researcher
I’m interested in the topic for thinking about whether it gives a way to identify promising entrepreneurs, or helping understand who will transition better to the labor market, etc. (as well as my interest as a parent). I found the book a reasonably compelling read – the pieces come together in a coherent story, and it is hard to quibble too much with the general advice. However, there are a number of gaps when it comes to having confidence in using this as a researcher:

How important is it and cherry-picking of which results to stress? The book has almost no sense of magnitudes or importance. We are told that grit predicts how far spelling bee contestants go, etc. But there is no discussion of how big the effect is, or what the R2 of such a prediction is. Of course her academic papers have this, so it was disappointing not to have any of this discussion in the book – e.g. this paper of hers finds 1 SD in grit is associated with a 32% increase in the odds of completing a 24-day special Ops course, even conditioning on age, general intelligence, physical fitness and schooling; sales candidates 1 SD higher in grit had 40% higher odds of workplace retention even conditioning on age, experience, and each of the big-5 personality traits; Students 1 SD higher in grit had a 21% higher likelihood of graduating a year later from Chicago Public schools, conditioning on standardized achievement test results, age, gender, ethnicity, motivation, and other factors. Note these are percentage, not percentage point increases, and the base rate is unclear in some cases.
But what the book is completely silent on are studies where grit has no predictive power. This excellent Slate review of the book notes a meta-analysis of the literature on grit finds grit doesn’t differ much from the measure of conscientiousness that has been used for many years, and notes several studies where grit has had no predictive success. In my own (ongoing) work, grit appears to have little ability to predict which entrepreneurs will start and grow their businesses and which won’t.

How gameable is the measure? Duckworth acknowledges that “like any self-report questionnaire, the Grit Scale is ridiculously fakeable…it’s hard to imagine using the Grit scale in a high-stakes setting where, in fact, there’s something to gain by pretending that “I finish whatever I begin”. Her solution is to count up how many extracurricular activities you’ve done and whether you’ve sustained them for multiple years and improved in them to a position of achievement.  It’s not clear how useful such an approach would be for much work in developing countries in using grit to decide which job-seekers to enroll in a program, or which small business owners to support for example.

It’s incredibly U.S.-centric – almost all the evidence is from relatively small samples in the U.S., with a side discussion on the Finnish culture of sisu (perseverance). There is thus a lot of scope for development researchers to learn how well the concept performs in a wider variety of countries.

The evidence on how to improve grit is really slight: Duckworth acknowledges that the evidence is not strong for this yet – there don’t appear to be any RCTs which demonstrate that efforts to improve grit have lasting and meaningful effects, let alone a comparison of alternative approaches. So again plenty of scope for research, but also a reason to be cautious in applying the ideas.

When to give up? She has a page of discussion on the question of whether you can have too much grit, noting the research is unclear, but she thinks the prospect of people being too gritty is so removed from current reality as to hardly be an issue. But while perseverance sounds good, we also use words like stubborn and obstinate for people who won’t give up – the second half of this Hidden Brain podcast discusses interesting research by Gale Lucas on the downside of grit, and the conclusion that “We call them gritty or call them stubborn after we know how things turned out in the end.”

Bonus reading: this NPR Education piece summarizes the meta-analysis on grit and the three critiques of grit from it, along with her response to it.


David McKenzie

Lead Economist, Development Research Group, World Bank

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