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Grit Needs Passion, Not Fear

It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.” — Albert Einstein

When I first started writing about how to foster “grit” in kids years ago, I thought I’d found a parenting silver bullet.

Early research from the celebrated psychologist Angela Duckworth showed that grit—or “perseverance and passion for long-term goals”—is one of the best predictors of elite performance, whether in the classroom or in the workforce. This was great news, it seemed to me, because while we can’t control kids’ (or our own) intelligence, we can grow grit, dramatically influencing their odds of succeeding.

But my thinking about hard work and grit has changed in the last few years, especially having recently read Duckworth’s excellent new book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. It’s definitely not a panacea for our high-pressure, low-happiness culture.

Let me explain. On the one hand, I credit most of my success to my single-minded and relentless pursuit of task completion. In high school and college, I studied harder than anyone I knew. I did ALL my homework, sometimes more than once. (My high-school English teacher, Michael Mulligan, still publicly teases me for re-writing the paper I wrote on the Lord of the Flies a half dozen times, a blatant grade-grubber trying desperately to improve the B+ he originally gave me.)

On the other hand, I also credit the anxiety disorder I suffered from in my early 20s to my single-minded and relentless pursuit of task completion. See, until my mid-30s, I did pretty much everything I thought I “should” do, as perfectly as I could. I also did everything everyone else thought I should do. I people-pleased up the wazoo.

I was nothing if not persistent. I would have maxed out Duckworth’s Grit Scale, giving myself a 5 out of 5 on items like this:

“I don’t give up easily”

“I am a hard worker”

“I finish whatever I begin”

“I am diligent”

“I have overcome setbacks to conquer an important challenge”

But actually, I wasn’t all that gritty in the way that Duckworth actually defines grit (vs. how she measures it). Duckworth defines grit as persistence AND passion towards one’s long term goals. Mostly, I was just perfectionistic and persistent.

In many realms, I was missing the passion part of the grit equation. I was driven by fear, not love. I knew exactly what other people wanted me to pursue, and I could do it. And because I was so clear about what other people expected of me, I was sometimes a little shaky about what I really wanted to pursue for myself.

So that is why I deeply believe that grit isn’t something we should measure in adolescents to see if they can hack the stress that an academic institution is going to hurl their way. Nor should we admire or foster a character trait we call “grit” but that is really relentless, persistent perfectionism, absent the intrinsic motivation. Passionless persistence might lead to achievement, but it is joyless, anxious achievement at best.

But true grit — the kind that is equal measures passion and persistence — is a solid strategy for both success AND happiness. And it is something we can easily foster in ourselves, and in our children.

First, find and fuel passion. If you are a parent or teacher looking to foster grit in kids, the first step is to let go of what you want for them, and watch for what they are passionate about. Then, simply support their passions.

In order for kids to even know what they are interested in, they need exposure to a lot of different things. They will never know that they are passionate about tennis or Shakespeare or rock-climbing or piano if they never have a chance to try those things out. Parents, teachers, and coaches are important here; we must be willing and able to provide racquets and lessons and instruments.  The first sparks of a passion need oxygen before they will ignite.

Moreover, we must be willing to let an initial interest develop from fun, and from play. It has to have an ease to it at first. Adults can encourage, but they must remember that joy is their best tactic at this stage. A true passion never begins with hard work and practice — it begins with genuine interest and fun.

You can do this for yourself, too: Pay attention to what you actually yearn for, and practice ignoring what other (well meaning) people expect of you or even want for you. Does the thought of a particular project or activity make you feel light and free, or does it make you feel heavy? Pushing yourself towards the things that you dread may make you persistent, but it will not, ultimately, make you gritty. Or happy.

Second, practice tolerating discomfort. Given that life includes a boatload of disappointment, risk, pain and even failure, we need to develop an ironic comfort with discomfort if we are going to be able to persist in the face of challenge towards our goals.

The key is to notice where your comfort zone is, because it is often the very thing that is blocking your success and happiness. Perfectionism, ironically, used to be my comfort zone, for example. I was most “comfortable” relentlessly fulfilling everyone else’s expectations of me, and I felt uneasy and uncomfortable doing things that I feared would let other people down. It was hard for me to have the courage to pursue my own passions.

But we obviously need to have the courage to do the things that make us profoundly uncomfortable without becoming overly anxious or stressed out. Sometimes hard things are just hard things: There is difficulty, or even pain, but it isn’t worthy of a full-blown stress response. There isn’t actually anything to be afraid of.

The simplest way to increase our ability (and, frankly, willingness) to experience discomfort is to simply put ourselves in situations that make us uncomfortable. Take baby steps, and practice staying calm despite the discomfort. Keep taking deep breaths. Keep relaxing your shoulders. Notice your discomfort, and welcome it. It’s nothing to be afraid of.

Have difficult conversations. Take risks in relationships by showing people who you really are, or sharing what you are truly feeling. Let yourself notice when other people are suffering, and reach out to them; their discomfort, too, is nothing to be afraid of. Do the right thing, even when the right thing is hard.

These days, I don’t really know where I’d score on Duckworth’s Grit Scale. I practice being gritty in some arenas, downright flaky in others. In the same way that having a super-high IQ can make people so socially awkward that their relationships suffer, I think having a super-high persistence score used to threaten my happiness.

So does grit matter more than intelligence, as Duckworth’s early research implied?

It turns out that grit, at least the way it’s been measured for research, is no silver bullet. A recent meta-analysis of research on grit concluded that Duckworth’s grit scale doesn’t actually do as great a job at predicting success as the original research led us to believe.

At the same time, true grit — persistence AND passion — is clearly something we want both for our kids and for ourselves. Fortunately, the life-skills that make us gritty can be learned and practiced. When we identify what we are passionate about, and build the skills we need to be persistent in our pursuit of these passions…Watch out world. Little else will have a larger impact.