Parents and teachers love the story of The Little Engine That Could. We root for the small engine who struggles up the mountain, puffing, “I think I can! I think I can!” until it finally makes it to the top in order to bring dolls and toys to good little boys and girls. This story exemplifies grit, which Angela Duckworth defines as “passion and perseverance for long-term goals.” We want our children to have grit. We want that quality ourselves.
On Duckworth’s Grit Scale, people high in grit endorse items such as “I have overcome setbacks to conquer an important challenge” and “I finish whatever I begin” as very true of them while stating that other items, such as “I become interested in new pursuits every few months” and “I often set a goal but later choose to pursue a different one” do not describe them (Duckworth, Peterson, Matthews, & Kelly 2007).
Research by Duckworth and her colleagues has found, for example, that high-school juniors with higher grit scores are more likely to graduate on time (Eskreis-Winkler, Duckworth, Shulman, & Beale 2014). Also, among contestants in the Scripps National Spelling Bee, grittier teens end up ranking higher than those who describe themselves as having less grit (Duckworth et al. 2007). A recent two-year longitudinal study with adolescents (Park, Tsukayama, Yu, & Duckworth 2020) found a reciprocal relationship between grit and growth mindset: Grit predicted rank-order increases in a growth mindset, and growth mindset predicted rank-order increases in grit.
Duckworth has argued that grit is a better predictor of achievement than ability. We can all think of examples of people who started early and worked relentlessly in a particular field to achieve astonishing success. Certainly, children (and all of us) need to be able to persevere when things get tough and not give up at the slightest setback. But some researchers (e.g., Credé et al. 2017) have questioned the robustness of the findings about grit as well as the psychometric properties of the Grit Scale. There’s a lot of overlap between grit and other traits, conscientiousness and self-control (an aspect of conscientiousness). Also, cognitive ability and study skills seem to be stronger predictors of academic performance than grit.
As a clinical psychologist, my concerns about promoting grit as a key to success are both practical and philosophical. Here are some of the downsides to an overemphasis on grit:
- Overlooking situational factors. Grit is defined as an individual difference variable, meaning some people are more gritty than others, but whether someone persists with an activity has a lot to do with the situation. Children who are poor or growing up in chaotic family situations will be less able to persist — not because of personal weakness but because the stress of their environment is already taxing their coping resources. Also, we’ve all had the experience of feeling extra motivated in a class with an enthusiastic and caring teacher. It’s much easier to persist when the environment is engaging. If we want kids to be more persistent, it may make more sense to address their environment than to give them sermons on grit.
- Overvaluing specialization. Seeing grit as a desirable trait assumes that sticking with one thing is ideal, but that’s not necessarily true! There’s definitely a place in the world for generalists, as well as specialists. It’s normal to have our interests change and evolve. Sometimes people have to try various activities (or jobs) before finding ones that are a good fit.
- Not appreciating developmental changes. Kids are not supposed to show adult-level motivation and goal pursuit. For children and teens, exploring different goals and activities is an important part of identity development. Latching on to a particular life goal prematurely, without engaging in exploration, is something developmental psychologists call identity foreclosure (Marcia, 1966). Kids haven’t been around long enough to know the world of possibilities, so if they tie themselves to goals very early, they’re probably just accepting goals that have been handed to them by parents or teachers, perhaps because they’re afraid of exploring. Maybe that will work out. Maybe it won’t.
- Discounting normal variability in motivation. The definition of grit as a trait discounts the fact that no one is 100% motivated to pursue their goals at all times. That’s a false ideal. Everyone gets tired. It’s normal to feel frustrated or discouraged or fed up. It’s healthy to need a break. We need to have compassion for ourselves and others to accept these ordinary fluctuations in motivation and persistence.
- Not recognizing the value of wise quitting. Grit emphasizes unshakable determination, but sometimes the wisest thing to do is to quit. Wise quitting frees people from the misery of pursuing unachievable or too-costly goals and enables them to channel their efforts and resources in more satisfying directions (e.g., Koppe & Rothermund, 2017; Wroche et al. 2003).
- Overemphasizing individual achievement goals. The exemplary people that Dweck and her colleagues point to as shining examples of grit have achieved extraordinary individual success through their determination and persistent effort. At what cost? Achievement matters, but it’s only one facet of a well-lived life. As I’ve discussed at length here and here, when we overemphasize performance, we risk putting our children (or ourselves) on a treadmill of constantly having to prove their worth. We all need room in our lives for the things that matter but aren’t necessarily impressive, such as love, kindness, laughter, curiosity, and joy.
Credé, M., Tynan, M. C., & Harms, P. D. (2017). Much ado about grit: a meta-analytic synthesis of the grit literature. Journal of Personality and social Psychology, 113(3), 492.
Duckworth, A. L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M. D., & Kelly, D. R. (2007). Grit: perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Journal of personality and social psychology, 92(6), 1087.
Eskreis-Winkler, L., Duckworth, A. L., Shulman, E. P., & Beal, S. (2014). The grit effect: Predicting retention in the military, the workplace, school and marriage. Frontiers in psychology, 5, 36.
Koppe, K., & Rothermund, K. (2017). Let it go: Depression facilitates disengagement from unattainable goals. Journal of behavior therapy and experimental psychiatry, 54, 278-284.
Marcia, J. E., (1966), Development and validation of ego identity status, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 3, pp. 551-558
Park, D., Tsukayama, E., Yu, A., & Duckworth, A. L. (2020). The development of grit and growth mindset during adolescence. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 198, 104889.
Wrosch, C., Scheier, M. F., Carver, C. S., & Schulz, R. (2003). The importance of goal disengagement in adaptive self-regulation: When giving up is beneficial. Self and Identity, 2(1), 1-20.
© Eileen Kennedy-Moore, Ph.D.