There is considerable conversation about the need to address non-cognitive skills in our educational system and one of the most frequently mentioned non-cognitive skills is the acquisition of Grit. Duckworth, a University of Pennsylvania psychologist and a preeminent researcher on Grit, describes this trait as high motivation or passion focused on a long term goal pursued with diligence and perseverance, despite the obstacles and even during times of boredom.
In their book Grit to Great, Thaler and Koval ascribe attributes of Grit with a clever acronym:
While the value of developing Grit has only recently been scientifically investigated, it is not a new concept. Indeed, Grit has been considered a desired trait and reinforced to children for centuries. Its resurgence in the educational system is part of an attempt to level the socioeconomic field by teaching success strategies to children as they move through the educational system.
Educational standardization, a product of the No Child Left Behind era which many now view as a drill and kill mentality for academic performance, is increasingly sharing space with developing empowerment and success through personal responsibility and free will. Grit, like success in life, is not tied to IQ, talents or socioeconomic status, but to a skill set that levels the playing field.
You Have to Fail to Succeed
The “you have to fail to succeed” attitude from parents and educational systems is gaining momentum as an integral part of creating an environment that fosters success as adults. Success requires diligence, perseverance and tenacity.
Duckworth asserts that talents, intellect and a strong supportive social and home environment are insufficient for long term success. A “Yes, I Can” approach goes a long way even when a child wants to throw in the towel.
Perseverance builds resilience, which helps us continue to pursue a difficult challenge. Suffering through a difficult challenge is not only inevitable but necessary for achieving success. Confusion, frustration and even feeling overwhelmed often come with the territory.
Tenacity keeps us on track toward a goal even through the tedious or boring aspects of reaching mastery. Langer has found that one component of high life satisfaction is openness to new experience. Creatively approaching a seemingly insurmountable barrier to a highly prized goal enhances the development of grit. Finding interesting or novel ways to approach a problem balances the suffering and builds resilience, persistence and self-discipline.
Wait Just a Minute!
While many parents and school systems have jumped on the bandwagon to support academic persistence over academic achievement, others are raising concern. Opponents argue that emphasizing non-cognitive skills like Grit in an educational system denounces creativity , reduces diversity of interests, teaches conformity without question and focuses on narrow behavioral expectations rather than motive or desire. Some assert that reinforcing Grit can lower well-being if a child is expected to persist toward an unattainable goal or a goal of which they have no interest.
While there is merit to each of these concerns, let’s look back to the Duckworth definition of grit. Grit is accessed when one is highly motivated or passionate about gaining mastery over a skill or reaching a long term goal.
Duckworth describes a household rule in a recent article called the “Hard Thing Rule.” Family members choose one hard thing and work deliberately and consistently toward mastery over the chosen skill or activity for a specified period of time. They don’t give up or stop midstream, even if they have become bored or experience feelings of being overwhelmed. After a specified time, like a semester or a year, the family member can reassess their level of interest and negotiate to stop pursuit if they no longer have interest in the activity.
As parents, we all want our children to grow into successful, productive contributing adults. The question remains whether reinforcing Grit belongs in the home, in the educational system or in a combination of both environments. ###
Daniel Trussell, Ph.D., MBA, LPC, NCC, CPCS is author of The How Families Flourish Workbook and How Families Flourish. He is a certified Professional Counselor supervisor and conducts training for both professionals and families in incorporating the findings from positive psychology into daily life. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. [website]