In the summer of 2004, Angela Duckworth, then a graduate student in psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, went up to West Point to study 1,200 new cadets. The first-years were about to start “Beast Barracks,” an infamous seven-week training program during which they’d toil in the classroom and on the field for 17 hours every day without a break. Many would drop out. Duckworth wanted to find out why some cadets managed to endure this challenge, while others just gave up.
Scientists have tried to solve this puzzle for more than 50 years, writes Duckworth in her new book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. But even the school’s best means of screening its applicants—something called the “whole candidate score,” a weighted mixture of a student’s SATs, high school ranking, leadership ability, and physical fitness—does not anticipate who will succeed and who will fail at Beast. So Duckworth designed her own way of scoring candidates, giving each a survey that tested his or her willingness to persevere in pursuit of long-term goals. She called this measure “grit.” And guess what? Grit worked. The cadets’ survey answers helped predict whether they would make it through the grueling program.
Duckworth’s best-seller peddles a pair of big ideas: that grit—comprising a person’s perseverance and passion—is among the most important predictors of success and that we all have the power to increase our inner grit. These two theses, she argues, apply not just to cadets but to kids in troubled elementary schools and undergrads at top-ranked universities and to scientists, artists, and entrepreneurs. Duckworth’s book describes a wide array of “paragons of grit,” people she’s either interviewed or studied from afar: puzzlemasters and magicians, actors and inventors, children and adults, Steve Young and Julia Child. Grit appears in all of them, sprinkled over their achievements like a magic Ajax powder. In tandem with some feisty scrubbing, it dissolves whatever obstacles might hold a person back.
With Grit, Duckworth has now put out the definitive handbook for her theory of success. It parades from one essential topic to another on a float of common sense, tossing out scientific insights as it goes along. How to raise your kids, how to unearth your inner passion, how to find a higher purpose—like other self-help authors, Duckworth finds authoritative answers to these questions, promising to change how we see the world. And like other self-help authors, she pulls a sleight of hand by which even widely held assumptions end up looking like discoveries. It’s as important to work hard, the book contends, as it is to be a natural talent. Who would disagree with that?
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