Let’s Get Gritty

On my summer reading list for 2015 was Mindset by Caroline Dweck. Dweck’s research looked at ‘growth mindset’ vs.‘fixed mindset.’ The book is intriguing and I was disappointed that I had let it sit on my shelf for so long. A colleague had lent it to me and at first blush it seemed rather dry. I was pleasantly surprised from page 1. I would describe the book as ‘easy to put down’ or more appropriately ‘necessary to put down.’ I don’t mean that negatively but it is a book that will cause you to be introspective. When you start reading a passage that you identify as your own personal fixed mind set it startles and frustrates you and you need to put it down to reflect on that trait in your psyche.

The reason for me writing this is that in conversations that I have had I believe many people confuse the growth mindset with grit. Or maybe they don’t and I have a different connotation of grit. Angela Duckworth out of the University of Pennsylvania studies grit at the Duckworth Lab at UPenn. She defines grit as the tendency to sustain interest in and effort toward very long-term goals. The assumption is that grit is more important in determining success than talent or IQ.

In that definition, grit and the growth mindset are definitely comparable. The growth mindset as defined by Dweck is when people believe that their basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work. Both imply that success, in any pursuit, requires practice and resiliency. The ability to see one’s mistakes and begin to do the work it takes to remedy those mistakes. The desire to work hard at your craft and to stand up every time you fall.

In Dweck’s book, she mentions General James Stockdale. Stockdale is also a player in Jim Collins’ book Good to Great where he writes about the Stockdale Paradox. Collins described the paradox as accepting the brutal facts of your present reality but maintaining faith that you will prevail in the end. Stephen Covey’s ‘Sharpen the Saw’ draws on a similar mentality: Stay active in physical, social/emotional, spiritual and mental self-renewal. All of these writers/psychologists have hit upon the same notion, becoming an overnight success takes a long time and a lot of work. Malcolm Gladwell attempted to quantify becoming an overnight success in his book Outliers. By his estimate it takes about 10,000 hours of work to become incredibly successful at anything.

That is the background of where I am coming from today. The notion that hard work is important and, despite your limitations, with a little talent or at least average intelligence, anyone can be a success. I love the idea but this is where our roads diverge. One characteristic that isn’t mentioned is that all people don’t come from the same socioeconomic condition. I know there are plenty of examples of people pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps but the reality is that many more don’t even have bootstraps. In Dweck’s book she compares the fixed mindset of Sergio Garcia to the growth mindset of Tiger Woods. A great comparison but both of them were born into opportunity. Can we even imagine the amount of talent, creativity, intelligence that never gets the opportunity to work hard? Those whose long term goals are to survive. Those whose brutal facts of reality have crushed their faith and optimism. How many talented, intelligent, athletic people use up there 10,000 hours caring for sick children or parents, working extra jobs to feed their family, searching for a place to spend the night? I agree with Dweck and Duckworth and Stockdale and Covey but some people use up their resiliency just trying to survive.

This is where I believe that public education is exceptionally important. I believe that schools are one of the only mechanisms that are readily available to break the chain of lost opportunity. Schools need to be the places where talents are recognized. Schools need to be the places where students’ experiences are broadened. Schools need to be passionate about helping to break the chain. We have to be able to be a place of respite for the weary. A place for empathy and a place for caring.

As we begin a new school year please remember that hard work, resiliency, optimism are important. We should be careful though to not assume that everyone comes to the table with the same experiences and the same opportunities. While mindset and grit, resiliency and practice lead many to be successful, many need to have their basic needs met first.

I’ll end with this Tweet for the Blunt Educator:

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5 thoughts on “Let’s Get Gritty

  1. Good insights.

    While I think grit and the mindsets (growth/fixed) can cross paths, I definitely see them as different vehicles.

    When I’ve read Dweck, I never understood her to suggest that everyone can or more importantly will succeed if only they try hard enough. Instead, it’s (mindsets) the basic philosophy one has about growth: are our abilities/talents largely innate, or do we have potential to change and influence them? (Accompanied by research that shows how instructing students on the mindsets can itself lead to greater growth.)

    Someone with a growth mindset could fail to have the self-driven attitudes to reach their potential, even if they believe it is possible.

    I don’t see Dweck disagreeing with your note that starting status impacts success. Nonetheless, regardless of where that starting point is, we should want to work toward our potential, and having any possible tools is better than having none.

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    • I was in a Twitter chat last night and mentioned Dweck. Immediately someone tagged a reply with grit. I agree that they are not the same. I can follow Dweck better than Duckworth. Dweck has really gotten me to reflect on my own mindset. I think I have both mindsets in different parts of my life but have always pushed my kids to believe in the growth mindset. Going to try to live it better.

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      • I love this post. Partly because it hits on my own concerns about the current celebration/fixation on “grit” in education, and partly because it’s very well written. In particular, I love the line “I know there are plenty of examples of people pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps but the reality is that many more don’t even have bootstraps.” The American Dream myth is one I’ve heard criticized (and criticized) myself many times, but that line was the most succinct and effective take-down of it I’ve encountered.
        I agree with Andy’s comment in that what I’ve seen in conversations about growth mindset haven’t touted it as the reason everyone can succeed (without acknowledgement of socioeconomics), while that’s definitely part of the grit conversations.

        Been meaning to read this Alfie Kohn post on grit but haven’t gotten to it yet. Bet it has some similar thoughts to yours: http://www.alfiekohn.org/article/downside-grit/

        But here’s my question for you as an educator: teachers love to tell kids that hard work is all it takes to succeed (maybe not in that phrasing). And it wouldn’t be great to tell kids “hey, the playing field’s not even, so don’t bother” … so how do you encourage kids to strive without ignoring/eliding/erasing the real structural inequalities that are present in our society, and therefore in schools?

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  2. Thanks for the compliment, Kara. Every once in a while I throw down an epic line. Hopefully Andy will chime in here too but I will attempt to respond to your question. The role of education has to be getting the most out of what you have. Getting away from the notion that something is “good enough,” that “i am not good at this,” and “this is too hard.” is a good start. Teachers need to be better at reinforcing effort and not intelligence/talent. The reality of socioeconomics on achievement is on a far greater plane than just mindset and even grit. The single greatest indicator of student achievement in this country is the education of the mother. What we need to do in education is supplant the absence of an uneducated mother. I think that the growth mindset can do lead us in this direction. We have to want more for our students and in many cases we have to be the provider of more. I do think that we should also get away from the notion that you can be anything you want to be. In the long run I think that is more harmful than good.

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  3. I’m appreciating the good conversation, Kara and Jeff. Your responses have me thinking about how I would answer Kara’s thoughtful question about the manner we as educators (and I’d suggest parents, mentors, etc.) approach self-growth, success, roadblocks, etc.

    My response might sound incredibly corny, but it probably does reflect where I’m at as an educator and human. Fairly recently Jeff and I had a brief exchange about being at a place where the destinations have become less important, with the journeys instead taking the focus. In an ideal educational world, I’d want to take predefined definitions of success out of the picture, and instead use mindset discussions and other tools to reframe the topic to one of growth, not only in the moment, but long term.

    We don’t all have the same opportunities for success in traditional terms, and even the road to personal growth may have more hurdles for some, but the beauty of growth is its starting point is always right where we’re at now. If we can help a kid leave from our schools with the desire to continue to grow, we’ve probably done a good day’s work.

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