Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance

Sep 18th, 2017 | Category: Book Reviews
By Michelle Turner Mangan

Author Angela Duckworth is a 2013 MacArthur “genius grant” Fellow who is best known for discovering the common characteristics of grit and how it is commonly developed across fields. She is a noteworthy psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania and a mother of two children. Her 2016 book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, is an easy-to-read New York Times bestseller that keeps those of us just below genius level still striving for our best.

Reading from the perspective of a Lutheran educator, there are many practical lessons to glean from Duckworth’s research findings. Yet the applicability of her work doesn’t stop there. It is inspiring on both personal and professional levels, with specific suggestions for how to push yourself. She highlights examples from corporate sectors, K-12 classrooms, professional athletic teams and a whole host of other motivational geysers. Finally, as a parent, she connects with the reader who wants to know how to develop or support grit as a character trait in their own children. Duckworth seamlessly writes for these multiple audiences while staying true to her singular purpose in life to “use psychological science to help kids thrive” (p. 159).

One surprising lesson I learned is that grit (i.e., showing passion and perseverance for long-term goals) is about abandoning some of your goals so that you can focus on a more cohesive and smaller number of goals (p. 68, 216). This culling and narrowing seemed counter-intuitive to me at first, but the more I thought about it, the more I agreed that one person cannot excel in a limitless number of areas. It is why we hear stories of Olympic gymnasts who experienced an unusual childhood because they were always practicing or competing instead of playing with friends and going to traditional schools. The applicability to our own professional goals is quickly apparent once you start creating the long list of things you do as an educator. Are there things we can give up? Do we have a cohesive philosophy guiding our career? The main take away is to thoughtfully map out and focus your occupational goals. This focus on purpose is pervasive throughout Duckworth’s book, and for Lutheran educators, comes to a head on pages 149–153 where she discusses the difference between a job, a career, and a calling. (For those of you skillful skimmers, I suggest jumping ahead to this part of the book.) It supports the Lutheran idea of being called to your work—Lutheran educators, feel free to give yourselves a pat on the back because Duckworth states that those who consider their occupation a calling are “significantly grittier” than those who describe it as a job or career (p. 150). Not only that, she reports those who are called to their work “seem most satisfied with their jobs and their lives overall” (p. 150). She even cites a study that found these workers missed one-third fewer days of work. Duckworth agrees with Yale professor Amy Wrzesniewski that “how you see your work is more important than your job title” (p. 152). Professor Wrzesniewski suggests “job crafting” which is to “think about how, in small but meaningful ways, you can change your current work to enhance its connection to your core values” (p. 166). To me, this is both goal setting and taking responsibility for creating your own happiness.

Due to page limitations and a real desire for others to read Grit for themselves, I will not go into depth about the four psychological assets for grit (interest, practice, purpose, and hope). Instead I will end by sharing tips for the practical application of grit development in the daily lives of Lutheran educators. First, Duckworth suggests aligning with three key traits of gritty parents/teachers: warm, respectful, and demanding (p. 214). She says you have to model grittiness. She shares researcher Benjamin Bloom’s recommendations to:

• model work ethic,

• do your best in whatever you try,

• believe work should come before play, and

• work toward distant goals. (p. 216)

In the classroom, Duckworth highlights psychologists David Yeager and Geoff Cohen’s study on high expectations and unrelenting support. The key intervention in the study was a post-it note on graded papers that said “I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them” (p. 219). The results of the study showed students were twice as likely (40% of students in the placebo group who decide to revise and resubmit their assignments versus 80% of students who revised and resubmitted work after getting the encouraging message). After reading this, I immediately used the supportive feedback approach with a doctoral student who was on his umpteenth revision of the first chapter of his dissertation. It was a way to soften the blow that he was not yet ready to move on to chapter two. It was an amalgamation of being demanding and supportive.

Overall, grit is not the end-all-be-all character trait. According to a 2014 study on how we perceive others, morality is the most important (p. 273). Duckworth notes honesty, integrity, and trustworthiness are especially vital to how we are viewed by others. I would argue that though it is superseded by morality, grit is a central component to self-actualization—and luckily for Lutheran educators, those personal and professional levels are combined as a calling. I highly recommend Angela Duckworth’s accessible read; in lieu of New Year’s resolutions that have most likely fallen by the wayside now that summer is fully upon us, start writing up your goal hierarchies (p. 65) and commit to a real plan for realizing your God-given potential. LEJ

Author Information

Michelle Turner Mangan, is Associate Professor of Research at Concordia University Chicago.
She earned her Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin Madison in educational leadership and
policy analysis, with a minor in statistics. In addition, she holds an M.S. in education from the
University of Pennsylvania and a B.S. in psychology from the University of Illinois, One of her
research passions is equity in school funding

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