Deconstructing “Grit”

… grit is hardly distinguishable from conscientiousness, one of the classic Big Five traits in psychology. The study, which included a representative sample of U.K. students, measured grit against conscientiousness. Grit, researchers discovered, accounts for only an additional 0.5% of variation in test scores when compared with conscientiousness. IQ, on the other hand, accounts for nearly 40%, according to Plomin.


Schools in the Anglosphere are spending a lot of money in an attempt to increase the level of “grit” in children. But what is it that needs to be bolstered, and what part does a child’s genes play in “grit?”

Grit is Persistence, Motivation, Conscientiousness, Focus, Impulse Control, and more

Some of the components of grit
Some of the components of grit

The author of a best-selling book on grit, Angela Duckworth, is stepping back from some of the hype that has been propagated in her name.

The consequences of hasty applications of grit in an educational context are not yet clear, but Duckworth can imagine them. To be sure, it’s not that she faults these educators — in many ways, she says, these are the best in the field, the ones who are most excited about trying innovative new ways of helping their students succeed. But by placing too much emphasis on grit, the danger is “that grit becomes a scapegoat — another reason to blame kids for not doing well…

… Grit, as Duckworth has defined it in her research, is a combination of perseverance and passion — it’s just that the former tends to get all the attention, while the latter is overlooked. “I think the misunderstanding — or, at least, one of them — is that it’s only the perseverance part that matters,” Duckworth told Science of Us. “But I think that the passion piece is at least as important. I mean, if you are really, really tenacious and dogged about a goal that’s not meaningful to you, and not interesting to you — then that’s just drudgery. It’s not just determination — it’s having a direction that you care about.” __ Questioning Grit

Duckworth is the recipient of a 2013 MacArthur genius grant. She gives TED Talks, has written a bestseller on grit, and has made a good career from promoting “grit” in all its ambivalence.

But it is time to “deconstruct” grit so that we know what we are talking about, and can apply the relevant concepts to helping children develop their potential as individuals and members of various work, social, and civic groups. We know that executive function and personality play as large a role in success as IQ, and that all are strongly influenced by gene expression.

Previous research has shown that a child’s personality can predict a significant, although modest, proportion of the differences between children’s grades at school. For example, a link between conscientiousness and school achievement can explain around 4% of the differences in children’s grades.

… whether or not a person has more or less grit is substantially influenced by their DNA – and explains around a third of the differences between people’s level of grit. We showed that grit is highly similar to other personality traits, showing substantial genetic influence and no influence of shared environmental factors.

… the big Five personality traits – mainly conscientiousness – explained 6% of the differences between exam results of the 16-year-olds in our study. But after controlling for these personality traits, grit on its own did little to influence academic achievement, explaining only an additional 0.5% in people’s GCSE results. __ Conversation

The above comments and research results help somewhat in untangling grit. We know that IQ is up to 80% heritable and executive function (including conscientiousness) is up to 90% heritable. Twin studies suggest that personality is 40% to 50% heritable in the early years, and more so as a person ages.

Grit is usually seen as a combination of self-discipline and persistence / determination. But as Angela Duckworth herself points out, “passion” when seen correctly is a vital part of “grit.” Humans are not robots. They are driven — and drive themselves — by emotion. On top of passion, a sense of purpose is often overlooked when discussing “grit.” For grit to mean anything at all, a person must be “gritty” about something, some purpose.

So if the purpose is unclear, and the passion is weak and opaque, what good is grit?

Additionally, grit can be counter-productive when it fails to adapt to the nuances of particular situations. Persistence, determination, purpose, and passion are important, but they all must be modified somewhat at times by self-discipline, another pre-frontal executive function that is up to 90% heritable. And self-discipline must be informed by wisdom, which is a combination of cognitive aptitude and the ability to learn from one’s own and others’ experience.

The Dangers of Jumping on Popular Bandwagons

Dangerous Children are taught contrarianism, which helps them to avoid the oft-fatal error of bandwagon riding. For example, the mainstream was carried away by Angela Duckworth’s book, Ted Talks, and other contributions to the grit crusade. But since every concept contains multiple errors and pitfalls, carrying any monolithic theme too far without examining all of its components and ramifications, is certain to lead one to overstep himself into a quagmire.

Dangerous Children take grit for what it is, a useful — although ambivalent — trait that parsimoniously incorporates several important aspects of ultimate success.

Grit: Nature vs. Nurture

As mentioned above, IQ is up to 80% heritable, executive function is up to 90% heritable, personality is roughly 50% heritable early in life, and so on. Passion is part of personality, and persistence and conscientiousness are part of executive function. All of them are shaped by intelligence as influenced by experience.

Purpose is the vision, or the guiding light. Purpose utilises all of the above, but contains something extra — something that comes from the turbulent currents and possibilities within the “real world” as the child’s mind sees it. This is where the “community IQ” and “community executive function” influences the child’s intelligence, character, personality, and sense of purpose — via experience, and via genetic and epigenetic mechanisms.

It is impossible to untangle nature from nurture, and neither should be denied its role in the weaving of the character, personality, and life trajectory of the child.

Dangerous Children Do Not Care for Ideology or Crusades

To the extent that “grit” has become a crusade in education and pop psychology, the idea is ignored here at the Institute. But to the extent that the word can be used as a trigger to release a child’s unique orchestra of purpose-supporting strengths, it is invaluable.

The human mind drifts from state to state, from intention to chaos to intention again. The self-management of most intelligent minds can be very difficult unless the flexibly tough integrity is built in from the earliest age. Genes and gene expression will vary between individuals, but all minds can be reinforced and empowered to some degree of increased self-discipline, purpose, strong character, success-promoting personality, and enhanced aptitude across a wide range of competencies.

Modern education and psychology have missed the boat, largely out of a sense of political correctness and groupthink. But there is no reason why you or your children should ride the same bandwagon over the abyss.


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