Does Grit Matter? Not As Much As You Think

Zachary Walston

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What is the key ingredient to success?

Hiring managers, school admissions teams, coaches, and electors all want to know this answer. The opinions are numerous. Some learn toward the intellectual side - IQ - and others the emotional side - emotional intelligence (EQ). If you ever scroll through the top TED talks of all-time list, you will come across Angela Duckworth's grit talk.

Duckworth, and many others, believe Grit is that key ingredient.

Recent research challenges that belief.

What is grit?

Duckworth describes grit as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals.” In an interview, she elaborates stating, "grit is not just having resilience in the face of failure, but also having deep commitments that you remain loyal to over many years."

In a series of six studies, Duckworth aimed to validate grit and test it across several different populations. Her research team found grit was responsible for 4% of the differences in success outcomes. The looked at grade point average among Ivy League undergraduates, retention at West Point, and the National Spelling Bee rankings. While grit did not relate positively to IQ, it was better at predicting succes.

Research shows intelligence is a strong predictor of achievement, but Duckworth wanted to look beyond intelligence. That is why she chose West Point as a starting ground. The military academy only accepts students with pristine applications. All cadets have perfect or near-perfect grades, letters of recommendations from U.S. congressmen, and extra-curricular activities to fill a 26-hour day. So, what separates the highly intelligent hard workers from the other highly intelligent hard workers? Why do some make it through the grueling initial 6-week training - known as Beast Barracks - and others don't?

Duckworth followed 11,258 cadets over a 10 year period to see if grit was the answer. She found cognitive ability - measured by IQ - was negatively related to physical ability and grit. Cognitive ability is still vital - without it the cadets likely would never have become cadets and their military grades would suffer - but more was needed to success at the academy. Overall, physical ability and grit were better predictors of achievement outcomes, including making it through Beast Barracks and Graduating.

This research suggests grit should be screened for regularly. Or should it?

The problems with grit

A recent study by Chen Zisman and Yoav Ganzach challenges the wide-held belief that grit is more important than intelligence for success. As you have seen, most of the studies on grit look at relatively homogenous groups (West Point Cadets) rather than a representative sample (all 10th graders from a school district). The studies don't translate well to the real world.

By only looking at West Point Cadets, Ivy League undergraduates, or National Spelling Bee competitors, you only looking at highly intelligent achievers. This is a great strategy for determining what seprates high achievers, but it is a poor strategy for determining what is the most important trait for all achievers.

The Zisman and Ganzach study found intelligence, not grit, was the primary difference maker for educational success. This was expected, even when looking at the Duckworth studies. The difference was surprising thought. The unique variance intelligence accounted for was 16-30 times higher than the unique variance explained by grit. Intelligence is by far more important.

What about job success?

The unique variance explained by intelligence was 13–90 times higher than the unique variance explained by grit. Yep, intelligence was far more important than grit in a representative sample. What does this mean?

If intelligence is the same, grit may be the differentiator. But, if determining which is more important, intelligence likely wins out.

This research builds off a previous study, which showed that most, if not all, of the effects of grit on indicators of success were associated with perseverance. They found efforts to improve ones grit had little effect on performance and success.

Improving grit may improve perseverence, but perseverence alone is not enough.

Does grit matter?

Absolutely. Is it the most important character trait for success? Doubtful.

I think it is important point that one trait is never the most important. Just because intelligence is the most predictive trait for success does not mean intelligence guarentees success. Furthermore, it doesn't not mean high levels of intelligence are necessary.

Success is never dependant on a single factor. Emotion intelligence, experience, grit, intellect, connections, and luck all play a role. Then you need to layer in socioeconomic status, location, timing, culture, and other factors that may or may not be within our control.

When evaluating talent or trying to bolster your own chances for future success, you should never put all your eggs in one basket. Developing grit and perseverence can be beneficial, but they are not enough.

The one-size-fits-all approach is dangerous. Looking for a single character trait limits our perspective. Still work to develop grit, but don't forget about all the other character traits worth developing.

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I am a physical therapist, researcher, and educator whose mission is to challenge health misinformation. You will find articles about health, fitness, medical care, psychology, and professional development on my site. As the husband of a real estate agent, you will also find real estate and housing tips.

Atlanta, GA
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