Research Identifies Grit as the Best Predictor of Individual Success

For the past decade, psychologist Angela Lee Duckworth and her colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania have been studying people in a multitude of challenging circumstances to find commonalities among those that succeed despite facing extreme difficulties. What they have discovered is that passion, perseverance and stamina – or “grit” – outweigh IQ, talent and even the advantage of wealth when it comes to someone achieving high levels of success. (Click here to view a short video presentation on Grit by Dr. Duckworth on TED Talks.)

Author Paul Tough’s recent bestseller, “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and Hidden Power of Character,” also points to the same self-motivating trait called ‘grit’ as what determines a student’s success. While there are not yet proven methods to cultivate grit in students, research does confirm that setting high standards and providing challenging opportunities for students can pay off in their long-term success in school and in life.
In the book Tough writes, “What matters most in a child’s development, they say, is not how much information we can stuff into her brain in the first few years. What matters, instead, is whether we are able to help her develop a very different set of qualities, a list that includes persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit and self-confidence.”

In an illustration using the story of the Tortoise and the Hare, Dr. Duckworth explains the differences in those that succeed and those that flounder or quit before achieving their goals.

“Gritty individuals are tortoise-like, distinguished by their propensity to maintain ‘effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity, and plateaus in progress’ (Duckworth, Peterson, Matthews, & Kelly, 2007, p. 1088). Less gritty individuals are, in contrast, more easily discouraged, prone to take ‘naps’ mid-course, and frequently led off track by new passions.” (From article “True Grit,” published in the Association for Psychological Science Observer, vol. 26, no. 4, April 2013)

Dr. Duckworth highlights in her report some of the characteristics of individuals with grit, including:

  • They’ve had more opportunities to develop a resilient approach to failure and setbacks (which explains why many people get grittier with age and experience);
  • They have a growing appreciation of the efficacy and rewards of long-term effort; and
  • They self-motivate in deliberate practice, or more hours engaging in activities designed to improve performance.

Another possible trait being explored in continued studies of grit includes people possessing an “optimistic explanatory style,” or those viewing challenges and setbacks as opportunities rather than resigning to a failure. In the classroom setting, Dr. Duckworth surveyed teachers during her research and found that the more optimistic teachers rated themselves higher in both grit and life satisfaction. This self-assessment actually correlated with the teachers who were more effective in helping students achieve by the end of the year.

Duckworth’s research was done in a variety of settings, including cadets at West Point, K-12 students in national spelling bees, and adults in high-stress sales jobs, to name just a few. In all areas, the standout character trait among the most successful was grit.

There are more resources from other researchers regarding the links between ‘grit’ and success. In a report published in Teachers College Record in August, the authors hint at one possible motivating factor in cultivating a student’s grit. “Students are more committed to achieving with integrity when they perceive the goal of their learning to be mastering academic content rather than earning high academic marks.” (“The Role of Moral and Performance Character Strengths in Predicting Achievement and Conduct Among Urban Middle-School Students” by Scott Seider, Sarah Novick, Jessica Gomez, and Jennifer Gilbert, Teachers College Record, August 2013, vol. 115, #8, p.1-34)

Carol Dwek’s “Growth Mindset,” Malcolm Gladwell’s writings on the “10,000 Hour Rule,” and Kenneth Leithwood’s findings on how transformational leadership can beget increased student engagement all support the theory that highly motivated leaders can influence the motivation of their students.

In Alabama, a new coalition supporting high standards and long-term success of all Alabama’s children is elevating the important characteristic of grit. Alabama GRIT – which is an acronym for “Graduate Ready. Impact Tomorrow.” – was formed by a diverse team of Alabama leaders, including education advocates and leaders from the board rooms to the classrooms, parents, business and military leaders, and other community members, advocating to raise the bar and increase the academic rigor for students in Alabama’s K-12 schools. These are citizens who are convinced that Alabama students are up for the challenge and can compete academically with students in other states and countries.

The work of this coalition is focused on uniting Alabama voices, supporting high academic standards, and fostering honest conversations in local communities about what it will take for all Alabama students to graduate well prepared for whatever path they choose after high school.

“After learning about the research and findings linking ‘grit’ to individual success, it just made sense for our organization to tie GRIT into our work,” said Alabama GRIT’s executive director, Jessica Hammonds. “Organizations of all sorts are invited to become members of GRIT, and citizens are invited to sign the GRIT pledge, saying they are willing to work hard and do whatever it takes to help Alabama students be academically prepared to succeed in a career or in college.

“Alabamians know about hard work,” said Hammonds. “Our members believe in the abilities of today’s students. We believe that despite hardships and obstacles, perseverance on everyone’s part – students, teachers, parents and the community –really pays off.”

Click here for a full bibliography of Dr. Duckworth’s downloadable reports.

Click here to find out more about Alabama GRIT.

Special Note: A+ Education Partnership is a proud member of Alabama GRIT, and encourages its supporters to join these efforts by signing the GRIT pledge, staying informed and getting involved in their local community.