Review: 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.


3/5 stars

Play games

Today, as I sat waiting for my plane to New York to take off, I had a moment of witnessing one of those strange cultural assumptions in action that make no sense to me.

I heard a woman seated in the row behind me tell a young kid, presumably her son, that he could watch two movies on our flight, but she wouldn’t want him to play video games for five hours. To my surprise, the kid readily agreed. Ok, he said, as though it made any kind of sense. Since it wasn’t not my kid, and this didn’t exactly constitute an abuse worthy of an intervention, I kept my mouth shut, but here’s what I would have liked to ask her.

image via qui.
[image via qui.]

Why would you not allow your child to play video games for a few hours during a flight? Can you think of another way to more fully engage the mind? Do you know that games are one of the most effective teaching tools? Do you know that games can help people learn everything from new vocabulary and languages to quick reaction times, decision making and reasoning skills? Do you know that today’s games are incredibly complex and sophisticated, that a few hours of playing a game might help your son level up in Spanish or Econ?

Why would you prefer that your son passively watch idiotic movies for five hours? Current mainstream cartoons and children’s films generally have a low level of sophistication and emotional intelligence. Most mainstream kids films serve only as vehicles for product placement, embedded advertisements, mindless catchphrases, toy tie-ins, and the relentless reinforcing of insulting stereotypes about gender, race, age, class, etc. Would you truly rather subject your kid to five hours of passive brainwashing as opposed to five hours of engaging interactive play? Isn’t the possibility of interactivity and creatively always better than passive viewing?

When people over 40 say the phrase “video games” they tend to call up a set of sinister stereotypes: pointless numbing violence. Don’t get me wrong, plenty of popular video games are full of violence, as well as the endless sexism, product placement and so on that I just accused kids films of peddling. But games at least offer choices, decisions, the activation of the brain.

It always surprises me when I hear people discuss games as inferior to films or books, as though one format of content delivery could be objectively inferior, and that games were that inferior format. To use violence as an example: If a similar level of violence is present in a game or a film, do gentle parents prefer the film because their child is not pulling the theoretical trigger and is therefore less complicit in the violence, less responsible for their consumption of violence? I’d argue that passive consumption is almost always the “inferior format” if such a thing exists.

Play games, kid. Play lots of games.