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

Belle Peterson
May 31, 2016

An interesting opinion piece in the Washington Post by Jeffrey Sellingo-- "Is ‘Grit’ Overrated in Explaining Student Success? Harvard Researchers Have a New Theory," explains that two Harvard researchers are "working on a new project aimed at understanding the development of individual excellence."
"Todd Rose and Ogi Ogas at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education maintain that concepts like grit and hard work are based on averages across populations or occupations, such as tennis or chess. But mastery in almost any field cannot be easily explained by averages since people achieve their success in different ways."
“Things like grit and 10,000 hours are mindsets that are very misleading because they are consequences not causes — they are lagging indicators of performance,” said Todd Rose, who is the author of The End of Average, a book that illustrates how averages are flawed in understanding human achievement."
"Since September, Ogas and Rose have interviewed three dozen people who have achieved success in their fields, from sommeliers to poker players. “When we spent the time to understand how they got better, each master had his or her own unique path,” Ogas said."
“In each case, what we found is that they started down one path because they thought that was what they were supposed to do, and then at some point they realized that they didn’t like that path at all,” Rose said. “During that period, they fell into something else and made a series of choices that led them to success.”
When the pilot phase of their study ends, the researchers plan to plan to expand their inquiry to hundreds of people to see if their individual theory of success still holds true.
As Sellingo writes, "Whether their research will catch on in education circles like that of Duckworth’s remains unclear. But given that theories in education tend to come and go at alarming speed, it’s likely only a matter of time before we have moved on to something else to explain why students succeed."

May 31, 2016

Hi David - Nice blog, very thoughtful and balanced as usual.
I fully agree we need to get more evidence on the relevance of socio-emotional skills like grit for socio-economic outcomes in developing countries, particularly on interventions to cultivate them.
As you note, the work we're doing in Macedonia with Angela's character lab - trying to teach grit to middle schoolers through a structured grit curriculum based on the notion of "deliberate practice" and evaluating it through an RCT- should hopefully contribute to that.
We also have some evidence from the World Bank STEP surveys and other related labor skills surveys, for countries like Peru and Vietnam, suggesting that grit correlates with labor market outcomes (e.g, employment, earnings). In Peru, for instance, a 1 st. dev higher grit score associates with having 9% higher earnings, controlling for cognitive skills, other proxies of socio-emotional skills (including conscientiousness) and other usual characteristics. In fact, it is exactly the same earnings premium as scoring 1 std dev higher in the cognitive skills measures. Grit also correlates predicts who pursues a 4-5 year (longer term) university degree rather than a 1-2 year post-secondary education, controlling for the other characteristics including proxies of financial constraints.
By the way, in these data, grit and conscientiousness are positively correlated but fairly moderately (e.g, under 0.4, same for the correlation between grit and cognitive skills). My understanding of the personality psychology literature is that grit can indeed be seen as one of several facets of conscientiousness - related but not the same construct (this is well elaborated in the work of Brent Roberts and others).
These are of course cross-sectional associations so no causality can be ascribed, but the good thing is that these data can help establish whether there are patterns that hold across a variety of developing countries (we have these data for around 20 countries now) just as we now have fairly consistent estimates on the returns to years of schooling across the world.
This together with more rigorous evaluations of interventions should help us enhance our understanding and advisory capacity both as development practitioners and parents :)