Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. By Angela Duckworth. Scribner, 2016. 352 pp.
The genre of personal success literature has grown crowded and fiercely competitive in the three decades since Steven Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (1989). But Angela Duckworth has recently separated herself from the pack with her book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance (2016), which has been hailed by coaches, journalists, and especially educators as a breakthrough work. With an impressive background as a global management consultant, inner-city teacher, and now research psychologist, Duckworth—a 2013 MacArthur Fellow and professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania—seems to have discovered the key ingredient to success in any endeavor. And contrary to what many think, that key ingredient is not talent.
Duckworth’s book surveys a range of challenging endeavors, from West Point’s seven-week “Beast Barracks”—“the most physically and emotionally demanding part of your four years at West Point”—to the slow process of writing and rewriting novels (she interviews John Irving), with swimming, piano, and spelling bees in between.1 Across the board, Duckworth finds that those who excel display a combination of passion and perseverance that she calls “grit.”2 “Many of us, it seems, quit what we start far too early and far too often.”3 The “gritty” stick to what they’ve begun, improving through deliberate practice, often advancing beyond others who are more innately talented in the same area.
What makes one person “grittier” than another? Duckworth identifies several components. The first is a great passion for something. “Grit is about working on something you care about so much that you’re willing to stay loyal to it.”4 When that “something you care about so much” can lay claim to and orient every aspect of your life, all the better. “Fortunate indeed are those who have a top-level goal so consequential to the world that it imbues everything they do, no matter how small or tedious, with significance.”5
Speaking of the small and tedious, the second component of perseverance is a tolerance for the mundane. Duckworth references a study of competitive swimmers titled “The Mundanity of Excellence.” “The most dazzling human achievements are, in fact, the aggregate of countless individual elements, each of which, in a sense, ordinary,” she summarizes. In other words, the races are flashy, but the hours of daily practice are not.
Third, there is a connection to like-minded community. The research is clear: “If you want to be grittier, find a gritty culture and join it.”6 Duckworth quotes a sociologist who confesses: “Speaking for myself, I don’t have that much self-discipline. But if I’m surrounded by people who are writing articles and giving lectures and working hard, I tend to fall in line.”7
Finally, and very significantly, there is a willingness to encounter failure. This may sound strange, but remember that through practice we learn to do things that we are currently unable to do. For a while, you couldn’t get the flip turn, you couldn’t balance the equation, you always misspelled the word, you felt lost and exposed by the challenge. Duckworth reminds us that
learning from mistakes is something babies and toddlers don’t mind at all. . . . Watch a baby struggle to sit up, or a toddler learn to walk: you’ll see one error after another, failure after failure, a lot of challenge exceeding skill, a lot of concentration, a lot of feedback. . . . Very young children don’t seem tortured while they’re trying to do things they can’t yet do.8
But as we grow older, “something changes.”9 Rather than embracing failure as part of the learning process, we begin to think failure is bad and associate it with shame. The upshot of this is we begin to play things very safe, and thus we protect ourselves by avoiding the challenges that would call forth our best effort. In this vein, Duckworth emphasizes that achievement in math has far less to do with talent than with a willingness to keep practicing the problems and concepts one struggles to understand.
Parents and educators have been particularly drawn to Grit for its gem of good news: while birth and circumstance seem to play a role in grit, each of grit’s ingredients can, indeed, be cultivated. Thus, through deliberate structure and well-chosen words, parents and educators can enhance the grit of a child. For example, there’s a world of difference between saying, “This is hard; don’t feel bad if you can’t do it,” and, “This is hard; don’t feel bad if you can’t do it yet.”10
For the Christian, all of this is well and good, similar to the counsel one finds in the Old Testament Wisdom Literature and New Testament imperatives. You may have been thinking of Proverbs 24:16: “The righteous falls seven times and rises again,” or Galatians 6:9: “Let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.” The Scriptures likewise encourage us to cultivate a tolerance for the mundane (1 Thess. 4:11), connect with a community of the wise (Prov. 13:20), and make the most of what we’ve been given (Luke 12:48). But the cultivation and exercise of “grit,” such as Duckworth commends, will mislead us if we do not keep in mind two other significant words that begin with the same letter: grace and glory.
As Christians, we exist to display not how much we can accomplish ourselves but how much we can receive from the Lord. We begin by receiving a new status— being declared righteous before the Judge and adopted as children of the Father, based on no merit seen or foreseen in us but instead based on the work Christ accomplished in His own life and death for us. Accordingly, our identity is found not in what we build but in the One to whom we belong. As Douglas F. Kelly frequently taught his seminary students, “Who you are is not the most important thing about you—whose you are is far more important.”
With this freely given status, we grow by abiding in Christ and in the power of His Spirit within us, being reminded daily of Jesus’ words: “Apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5, emphasis added). I love how Sinclair Ferguson opens his recent book on the Christian life: “This is not so much a ‘how to’ book as ‘how God does it’ one.”11 The Apostle Paul, a “gritty” man if ever there were one, put it this way: “By the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain” (1 Cor. 15:10).
Second, the whole genre of personal success literature tends to orient us toward our own glory. There’s nothing wrong per se with seeking to be grittier in the face of challenges, more effective with time, or more capable with responsibilities and opportunities. In fact, the church today often plays it safe and would do well to imbibe more of the spirit of William Carey, who said, “Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God.” But “for God” are the critical words. Any lesser goal, even that of “human flourishing,” falls disastrously short.
Detached from the ultimate goal of bringing glory to God, the pursuit of maximizing our own capacities leads to two things. First, by pointing us in the wrong direction, it distances us from God. Second, by orienting us toward goals that cannot comprehend the whole of our lives, it inevitably pulls our lives apart. On this note, Duckworth confesses that she has trouble reconciling her two great passions: the one, as a professional, to “use psychological science to help kids thrive”; the other, as a parent, to be “the best mother I can be to my two daughters.”12 “Having two ‘ultimate concerns’ isn’t easy,’” she admits. Indeed it isn’t, because when it comes to “ultimate concerns,” we were made to have only one.
Francis Schaeffer helpfully distinguishes between the true integration point of life—God Himself—and false integration points—whether they be pleasure, knowledge, or accomplishment. “False integration points may seem satisfactory,” he writes, “only to end in that which is insufficient, with bits and pieces of the total man left out.” Made by God in His image and for His glory, we cannot serve any lesser goal with our lives—however noble that lesser goal may be—without experiencing the restlessness of conflicting pulls (between parenting and work, for instance). “In all these false integration points, there will be a chastising by my loving Father in the present life,” Schaeffer writes, “because he loves me, and he wants to bring me to himself.”13
I close by returning to a line from Grit filled with longing: “Fortunate indeed are those who have a top-level goal so consequential to the world that it imbues everything they do, no matter how small or tedious, with significance.”14 This is precisely what the Christian enjoys. Writing to the Colossians, Paul commends a top-level goal that imbues everything they do with significance: “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ” (Col. 3:23–24).
Grit is good, and more grit is better, but only if it’s grounded in grace and comprehended by the only goal that makes room for all that we do and all that we are—to bring glory to God Himself.
- Angela Duckworth, Grit: The Power of Passion ad Perseverance (New York: Scribner, 2016), 4. ↩︎
- Duckworth, Grit, 8 ↩︎
- Duckworth, Grit, 50. ↩︎
- Duckworth, Grit, 54. ↩︎
- Duckworth, Grit, 149. ↩︎
- Duckworth, Grit, 245. ↩︎
- Duckworth, Grit, 247. ↩︎
- Duckworth, Grit, 141. ↩︎
- Duckworth, Grit, 141. ↩︎
- Duckworth, Grit, 182. ↩︎
- Sinclair Ferguson, Devoted to God: Blueprints for Sanctification (2016), x. ↩︎
- Duckworth, Grit, 65–66. ↩︎
- Francis Schaeffer, True Spirituality: How to Live for Jesus Moment by Moment, 128. Emphasis mine. ↩︎
- Duckworth, Grit, 149. ↩︎