Angela Lee Duckworth: The Key To Success? Grit

We recently posted an article in our Facebook Parent Support Group about why “Grit, Not IQ, Predicts Success.”  The article explored the significance of a scientific study conducted by psychologist Angela Duckworth, in which she found that self-discipline and grit (the ability to focus on completing a difficult task over a long period of time) were more predictive of academic success than talent or IQ.  She concludes that, in learning, “character is at least as important as intellect.”  Students must be taught how to deal with setbacks, and cope with the difficulties and mental stamina associated with learning.  Self-discipline is predictive of achieving short term goals; however, grit is the “X-factor” that determines who is successful at achieving long term, more abstract goals.

How might individuals go about cultivating grit in themselves and in each other?  Duckworth provides several suggestions for how her findings can be applied to in-classroom teaching as well as to savvy parenting.  Taken a step further, we find that her groundbreaking work goes hand-in-hand with the philosophy behind powerfully engaging and personalized academic tutoring and all the ways in which academic mentors can help students access their untapped “grit” potential.

How does this all correlate with a tutoring philosophy?  Well, it first supports the idea that learning proves all the more rewarding when reconceptualized as an exhilarating, fun, and fruitfully challenging endeavor.  Grit and self-discipline are most easily cultivated when students can find personal connection, purpose, and fulfillment in their academic endeavors. Because it is difficult to coach individual students through a lesson and customize it to their particular interests within a classroom setting (no matter how small your school), one-on-one work with a skilled tutor can help to connect abstract academic concepts with a student’s everyday life.  A well-trained tutor can develop an intimate knowledge of his/her student’s love for football or whale watching, and analogize geometry and world history lessons to topics that the student holds dear to his/her heart.  Beyond forging connections between the academic and the personal, expert tutors act as life coaches or mentors who help students shape their self-conceptions and aspirations.  As a student begins to envision a fulfilling life trajectory with the help of a tutor’s guidance, both can work towards making learning applicable to that student’s long term goals.  Additionally, self-discipline and grit come through rigorous training.  Not only do great tutors mentor and teach, but they also coach — acting as personal trainers for the mind. Individualized attention and sustained, structured periods of studying with a skilled educator help to build students’ self-discipline “muscles.”

Ultimately, what we learn from Angela’s work is the importance of placing value on character, not natural ability.  Gone are the days of making excuses for oneself, clinging to the notion that one can simply NOT do math because his/her “brain doesn’t work that way.”  In the midst of cultural backlash directed toward a “special snowflake” millennial generation, in which everyone got trophies for just trying, we, as educators and parents, must begin to celebrate and cultivate tenacity and determination in our students.  This is not to say that individuals shouldn’t receive recognition for trying once; however, it is all the more crucial that we encourage ourselves, and our students, to harness their graceful warrior through desensitizing themselves to sustained effort and work toward overcoming adversities.  The way to grow and ultimately to thrive is to embrace situations that allow for growth by working through them — moving through the resistance — and working toward the light, as opposed to avoiding the discomfort altogether.  Students who become too accustomed to resting on their laurels, relying solely on effortless strengths to get by, miss invaluable opportunities to develop the skills that are more predictive of their life-long success.

Especially for those students struggling to engage and perform to their utmost potential, we must exhibit patience and tap into our own capacity for grit in order to help them recognize their own.  Grit is all the more readily available to those who can identify their optimal learning style and the most conductive environment that will enable them to excel.  First start by helping students reframe all their “have to’s” into “want to’s.”  Guide them in establishing a personal “buy-in” so that sustained effort and concentration organically follow suit.  Give students the resources and tools they need to cope with their exhaustion and internalize the lessons that a bit of healthy, “grit”-infused struggle teach us.  And for students who seem to be gifted at everything, give them ample opportunities to get outside of their comfort zone and fail.  Then, ensure that they get back up — every time.

If all else fails and you find yourself at a loss for how to proceed, go back to the root of what drives us humans to be the best that we can be.  Focus on what matters to that individual and why, as passion is the plow that tills the soil of self-discipline and, ultimately, that which harvests abundant, ripe, and lasting grit.

True, we all have different ways of instilling these soft skills into our students as well as into ourselves.  What are some of the ways in which you have encouraged your child to power through an obstacle?  We would love to hear about your observations, epiphanies, and outcomes!  Share your experiences in the comments section, or join the conversation on our Facebook and Twitter.

You or your child can actually take the Grit Scale here (registration is free)!  For more information regarding the impact of Duckworth’s work, we suggest Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character.