Grit is the key to success, but not without one vital characteristic

Research shows other factors play a substantial role in achieving goals.

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Grit is one of those characteristics that everyone wants. Not quite tough, not quite stubborn, but some combination of the two that was attractive enough for a professional hockey team to make the concept it's mascot. Defined by the psychologists who popularized the term, is “a characteristic often described as putting passion and perseverance toward important long-term personal goals.” In the initial study of grit published in 2007, the authors said it was the leading determinant of success. But research published since then, including by the original grit researchers, show that other factors play a vital role in achieving goals.

There's more to grit than meets the eye.

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The original research, "Grit: Perseverance and passion for long-term goals by University," from Pennsylvania psychologist Angela Duckworth and her colleagues, determined that West Point Academy cadets who scored high in grit were more likely to complete the grueling program. But two research papers published in 2016 poked holes in the stated importance of grit.

Iowa State University researchers, led by Marcus Credé, analyzed 88 independent studies representing nearly 67,000 people and found that grit is similar to conscientiousness and isn’t a good indicator of success. They also found the original data had been misinterpreted.

“Nobody wants to hear that success in life is made up of many small factors that all add up,” he said. “It’s your education, it’s how hard you work, it’s your conscientiousness and creativity — all these little pieces that add up.” He added that in terms of academic performance, “we know from other meta-analyses that variables such as adjustment, study habits and skills, test anxiety, and class attendance are far more strongly related to performance than grit.”

A 2018 paper published by Columbia Business School professors in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences also took issue with Duckworth’s original conclusions on grit because it didn’t calculate an essential component.

“Although grit is defined as the combination of perseverance and passion, its measurement has focused on perseverance and has not adequately captured passion,” the authors wrote. “In a meta-analysis of 127 studies and two field studies, we show that passion is a key component of grit.”

In one of three studies, the researchers asked employees of a technology company to gauge their levels of perseverance and passion attainment. They then matched those assessments to supervisor-rated performance ratings. The researchers found that the highest performers had high scores of both perseverance and passion.

The authors concluded that “perseverance without passion attainment is mere drudgery, but perseverance with passion attainment propels individuals forward.”

Even Duckworth and her team seemed to want to add clarity to their original research. In a follow-up study published in 2019, Duckworth’s team looked at more than 11,000 West Point cadets and concluded that cognitive ability predicts academic success while grit and physical capacity helped cadets stick around until graduation.

“This work shows us that grit is not the only determinant of success,” Duckworth said. “Yes, it’s very important, helping people stick with things when they’re hard, but it’s not the best predictor of every aspect of success. If you want to lead a happy, healthy, helpful life, you want to cultivate many aspects of your character, like honesty, kindness, generosity, curiosity, [and grit].”

So what should you take away from this? There’s no magic bullet when it comes to success. We should all strive to be well-rounded people.

Abstract: When predicting success, how important are personal attributes other than cognitive ability? To address this question, we capitalized on a full decade of prospective, longitudinal data from n = 11,258 cadets entering training at the US Military Academy at West Point. Prior to training, cognitive ability was negatively correlated with both physical ability and grit. Cognitive ability emerged as the strongest predictor of academic and military grades, but noncognitive attributes were more prognostic of other achievement outcomes, including successful completion of initiation training and 4-y graduation. We conclude that noncognitive aspects of human capital deserve greater attention from both scientists and practitioners interested in predicting real-world success.
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