Grit offers good – but not great – insights

action adventure challenge climb
Photo by Martin on

I just finished reading Grit, and I have to say I’m disappointed.

I know Angela Duckworth’s argument that passion and perseverance can overcome obstacles and lead to success has met with mixed reviews — especially from those who believe the focus on grit discounts the impact of poverty — and I have to say I side with the critics.

First of all, I was surprised by how little she addressed the problems faced by disadvantaged youth. “Grit” has been championed by so many people in education the past two years that I expected the book was going to be all about that.

Instead, it was mostly about talking to champions — like world-class spellers and swimmers — and figuring out their strategies for success. Unfortunately, that means it suffered from a lot of hindsight bias. I kept wondering as I read: How many people worked just as hard with just as much passion as these champions but didn’t achieve success?

Duckworth does make some good points, though, so I’ll share a few of my a-ha moments.

  • She tells a good story about a chronically tardy teenager who got a job at American Eagle. The boss told her, “Oh by the way, the first time you’re late, you’re fired.” The girl’s behavior changed overnight. As Duckworth observed (albeit anecdotally): “Lectures don’t have half the effect of consequences.” As a teacher in a school with very few consequences for behavior, I wonder how great a disservice we are doing.
  • She weighs in on the debate over telling kids to “follow their passion” v. telling kids to “be practical” and focus on getting a decent job. The larger issue, she argues, is that most kids don’t even have a passion to follow. So true. We need to help our students develop a sense of purpose — to counter their growing feelings of anxiety and despair and to give them a reason for wanting to learn.
  • She explains how often we see the final performance — a TED Talk, an Olympic race, an A on a test — and do not see the hours upon hours of effort that went into it. This is especially problematic for teenagers, who assume successful peers are “naturals” and they are just failures. We need to peel back the curtain… somehow.
  • She writes about one experiment conducted with seventh-graders, where half received essays back with Post-it notes saying, “I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know you can reach them,” while others received a placebo note: “I’m giving you these comments so that you’ll have feedback on your paper.” Twice as many students (80% compared to 40%) with the high expectations note revised their essays. A good reminder of the simple strategies we can use to build our students’ motivation and self-confidence.

Grit is a fine response to our over-emphasis on IQ — especially with a president who taunts people by alleging they have low IQ scores — but it didn’t break much new ground for me. Mindset (Dweck) is a more thorough and compelling analysis of many of the same issues.

Martha Rush is a teacher, blogger, author and speaker. Visit or join the NeverBore LLC Facebook group for more information. @MarthaSRush #beatboredom