Review: The limits of “Grit”

Grit is considered a “must-read” by many in my professional circle. For good reason – it’s an engaging, thought-provoking book. It’s useful and satisfying for its clear explanation of the core concept of grit (which is essentially: passionate perseverance) and its many inspirational stories. It’s also frustrating as hell for the nuance it lacks.

On the surface, this book is about the power of effort, and how deeply, mistakenly, undervalued the power of personal will is in our society. Modern people tend to romanticize and over-value “natural talent” and under-value sustained effort – to the great disadvantage of many.

It’s a wonderfully empowering idea, and one that Duckworth meticulously supports with research.

Much of this book consists of stories supporting the simple truth that talent is an inferior predictor of success in one’s career, to the ability to continually try hard. Those of us who aren’t born with genius level IQs should take heart – the brain is plastic, we all have the power to increase our mental abilities, and the work of exercising our minds to achieve excellence is something anyone can do.

The problem with this line of thinking is that is quietly ignores everyone who has tried very hard – has demonstrated lots of “grit” – but has still not succeeded. There are millions like that on Earth, yet only tangential mention of their predicament in this book. I believe Duckworth is an extremely smart and savvy psychologist and researcher, and I believe in her seductively simple explanation of the power of consistent effort to transform lives – to a point.

Her obvious intelligence is a source of frustration for me, however, because I don’t understand why someone so smart and so dedicated to their craft would choose to “sell out” and write a relatively shallow popular self-help-style business book full of rah-rah feel-good stories, instead of aiming higher and discussing the nuances of the topic of human effort and its relation to professional success.

I’m interested in the topic of how we can apply effort and intrinsic motivation to improve our lives and careers. But I’m even more interested in how we can better arrange and nurture a society that rewards effort most reliably and fairly. It seems to me that psychologists are uniquely positioned to opine on this, so I turned the last page with a wistful sense of wasted opportunity.

To get the gist quickly, her TED talk is good.

Book review: Grit, by Angela Duckworth

3/5 stars

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