Gritting Your Way…Toward What?

Growing for the sake of growing is a mindless exercise.

Most human beings are complex, capable of holding several ideas at the same time. Yet, many of us are also keen on catchy phrases and regard a few bumper stickers as profound philosophies. Nothing wrong, just is. Still, it behooves those of us who yearn for deeper meaning and lively discussion to be more aware of the pitfalls of attractive one-liners or descriptors.

I am coming to the main point.

Grit” has been the buzzword in the education field for quite a few years by now. The researcher, Angela Duckworth, who coined the term in her years of study was granted a MacArthur Fellowship award in 2013. That further bolstered the attractiveness of the concept. Students possessing grit, the ability to sustain interests and meet challenges over a long period of time, do better academically than those who give up more easily. You want the workplace staffed with adults who had this trait developed during childhood. I wonder how that applies to hedge fund managers… Anyway, the majority of the parents would say, “But of course,” and wish their children to acquire more grit.

Naturally beautiful even as petals drop...

Understandably, children with grit are likely to carry that attitude and habit into adulthood. On the other hand, it would take much longer and more effort for adults to develop grit. I can just see some HR (human resources) departments requiring interviewees to submit their “grit” scores from 2nd grade. I am betraying my bias, and I will explain it after I introduce another concept, “growth mindset.”

The term “growth mindset” is usually presented as the contrast to “fixed mindset.” In the former, a person holds a dynamic view of the world and of herself, and so she would always strive to improve herself regardless of her endowed talent and intelligence. The “fixed mindset” sees the person’s talent as a be-all-end-all attribute; if he doesn’t have talent in a particular area, hard work alone isn’t going to lead to significant achievement. People with “growth mindset” regard failures as the inevitable byproduct of improvement; people with “fixed mindset” regard failing to meet standards as a profound blow. I described these differences more closely some time ago. At first glance, this seems to make sense. On looking closer, the wording of these concepts reveals underlying biases: Who wants to be labeled as “fixed” and not desiring “growth?” Not surprisingly, growth mindset overlaps with grit; both entail working hard to better oneself.

How can anyone argue against instilling resilience and bettering ourselves? Having the grit to grow one’s mind is admirable. But there is a key ingredient missing in these equations: Toward what end?

This is similar to the critique of “goal” by a prominent scholar, James March: Being goal-oriented or having goals is fine, but how do we evaluate the content of goals? For instance, is pushing for 100% safety record a good goal for an R&D entity? Would 93% be acceptable? Would 80% be considered a failure? Should diversity for, say a 5,000-employee organization, perfectly reflect the society’s racial composition?

Dramatization certainly makes it interesting...but beautiful still?!

In perpetuating some of these catchy concepts or phrases, we often pay too much attention to their potential benefits and neglect what it is we hope to achieve and more importantly, why. In the education arena, adopting “grit” and “growth mindset” has lead us to emphasize “praising the students’ efforts” while overlooking the content of their learning, and abandon the hope that learning itself is an exciting enterprise. Our sole goal seems to be that our students strive to test well. Good signals? I grew up in an all-grit educational environment; it was grueling at some times and pointless at most times.

These days, when kids hear “You’ve tried really hard, don’t worry about the outcomes yet,” they can’t help but think “Oh, I am really not good enough.” Students hear “trying/working hard” as code for “not very smart in the first place.” Put it differently: If we ask 100 kids picked at random to practice the violin with all the grit they can muster, how many do you think you’d enjoy listening to? If 10 students perform well, what should we do with the other 90? Tell them to develop more grit? Instead, how about we try harder to discover what would really make the other 90 kids excited, for which they would be “happy” to generate more grit, without being asked to? Applying this same principle to organizations: Wouldn’t it be more productive to task people with the activities they are naturally good at, and for which they would willingly “grit” their way to accomplish more than expected? Wouldn’t this be the win-win we truly desire?

But the way things are practiced in schools and organizations, the message is still that we need external definition of what we ought to do and external rewards for our “improvement” at it. Remember, intrinsic motivation is a whole lot more effective than extrinsic rewards. This notion has been robustly proven and resonates with almost everyone; however, it is largely ignored in organization (and school) life. People, of all ages, see empty praise and compliments for the manipulative moves they are. As Alfie Kohn, an independent scholar and a proponent of progressive education, puts it succinctly, “…the most salient feature of a positive judgment is not that it’s positive but that it’s judgment; it’s more about controlling than encouraging.”  Positive judgment may tickle us for a little while, but only fleetingly.

This doesn’t mean that we should forego all compliments and praise, but offer them with concrete evidence and useful feedback. People, again, of all ages, welcome specific information; they can better grow their minds knowing what, how, and why.

more like devil here, thanks to photoshop!

Another missed dimension in typical self-help promotional materials is the assumption that if only individuals did their part… In other words, adjust yourself to adapt to the changes. This is the fundamental flaw in the “Who Moved My Cheese?” which I wrote about before: You don’t get to question the content of the changes; you just need to adjust your own attitude and behavior. So, one of my favorite examples concerns the low rate of young women studying science (and I include math and engineering under that umbrella). Applying the “growth mindset” and “grit” concepts, we only need to focus on telling women that it’s all in their own minds. There is no institutional sexism in society; organizations really welcome all talent. Right, and I’ll win the next lottery.

My final point is this. There are valuable aspects of “grit” and “growth mindset.” But let us please grow our minds to go beyond the either-or mindset. Let’s develop our individual minds so that we can better evaluate our environment and question the structures of our schools, work organizations, governing entities, “smartphones” (maybe rename them “effortphones!”), the internet of things, etc. Let’s honor people’s desire to be autonomous, master their desired skills, and locate their own sense of purpose. Sometimes, it isn’t about us; sometimes, we need to strive for changing our environments and systems.

Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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