Researchers have discovered the secret of success, and it doesn’t lie in intelligence, social savvy, or personality. Which character traits have been proven integral to achievement — and how can we help our children hone these qualities?
Angela Lee Duckworth, a seventh-grade math teacher, was flummoxed by the academic performance of her students. Some of her brightest pupils seemed to barely coast by, while she had other students who earned grades that far outshone their IQ scores. Despite tests that seemed to attest to the contrary, she remained convinced that each of her students was capable of grasping the material. So why did some kids flourish while others floundered?
Duckworth decided that educators needed a better grasp of how — and why — kids learn. Positing that “character is at least as important as intellect,” Duckworth embarked on a journey to find out precisely which character traits played a role in success. There was surely one quality found in high achievers across the board. But what was it?
Until fairly recently, psychologists had assumed that IQ played the largest role in achieving success. Other theories speculated that perhaps it was social or emotional intelligence, or charisma, confidence, or sheer talent. But as her research led her from public-school classrooms to the highly competitive United States Military Academy at West Point to the National Spelling Bee, Duckworth suggested that the key to success lay in a completely new quality. She called it grit.
Live Life Like It’s a Marathon
“Grit is living life like it’s a marathon, not a sprint,” Duckworth said in a speech she delivered for TED Talks Education, an international forum for sharing innovative ideas. “Grit is passion and perseverance for very long-term goals. Grit is having stamina. Grit is sticking with your future, day in, day out, not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years, and working really hard to make that future a reality.”
“Grit is about commitment and effort to pull through a difficult task,” says Rabbi Selig Lover, a mechanech and business coach from Detroit. “We want to be able to hand our kids everything on a silver platter — they shouldn’t have to struggle too much, they shouldn’t have to work — but the struggle is where the growth is. Often, when we try to make it easier for our children, we’re crippling them and actually making it more difficult for them.”
Gritty individuals set long-term goals and stick with them, over obstacles and through challenges. And willpower isn’t enough motivation — gritty individuals have a passion for their goals that enables them to push past setbacks and persevere.
To assess the “grittiness” of her subjects, Duckworth designed a simple questionnaire that asked participants to select how strongly they identified with statements like “I finish whatever I begin” and “I have overcome setbacks to conquer an important challenge.” This simple test proved to have astonishing predictive powers. Grittier students were more likely to graduate high school. Gritty salespeople were more likely to succeed in making tough sales.
Duckworth’s 12-item questionnaire was even able to predict which cadets would make it through West Point’s grueling training program. It proved to be more accurate than the comprehensive assessment tool — which includes tests of physical fitness, psychological assessments, and academic examinations — used by the military itself. Interestingly enough, grit existed entirely independently of intelligence and talent. In some cases, it even seemed to be inversely related to these qualities — that is, smarter or more talented kids didn’t try as hard.
Duckworth’s findings raised as many questions as they answered, with the most prominent: What now? Can we help our kids get grittier — and if so, how?
Sure, some kids are naturally grittier than others. Some people seem to be born raring to fight every setback, while others flinch at the first sign of failure. But unlike intelligence, physical health, or strength, grit is not an innate, fixed trait. Grit can be taught, developed, and strengthened — an encouraging prospect for teachers who want their students to learn, for parents who want their children to grow, and for anyone harboring secret dreams they hope to fulfill.
“It’s much harder nowadays,” says Rabbi Lover. “We’re living in a society where everything is immediate. Nobody is used to saying no to anything — if I need it, I need it now. Years ago, things were different. Nobody bought anything on credit; instead people saved up money for something they wanted. Society fostered the idea of having to work for something to get somewhere. Today, the minute we don’t get something immediately, we go from the comfort zone to the panic zone — there’s no learning zone. What grit is really about it is learning how to work for a long-term goal.”
And the time to teach kids this skill is when they’re young, says Rabbi Lover. “There are certain skills a child will master when he’s older, but overcoming taavos, accepting delayed gratification — that’s almost an impossible thing to teach later on. Then you’re talking about changing natures, which is a very, very hard thing to do. When kids are young, you’re building natures. That’s the time to do it. The Vilna Gaon speaks at length about building good habits when children are young.”
“The point is not to change your teva, but to use it in the best way you can,” adds Joel Pomerantz, a psychologist who practices in Yerushalayim and Beit Shemesh. “Every one of us is born with innate qualities. We don’t get to decide what they are or how much of them we have, but we can certainly work with whatever we have, and that’s really our job in life. There are going to be people born with more resilience, or with a more optimistic approach, and that’s a gift. There are people who naturally have less resilience. But that doesn’t mean parents are helpless in the face of kids who tend toward pessimism. We can use our influence and the child’s environment to develop grit, like any other behavior.”
Much of the research about building grit centers around an idea called the growth mindset. Growth mindset is the belief that basic qualities — like intelligence and ability — are not fixed traits, but can be honed, molded, and developed through hard work. Kids with this mindset are more likely to push past obstacles and keep trying until they succeed. By teaching that their ability is not static, that they can develop their talents through effort and persistence, kids learn to view themselves and their capabilities differently.
“When kids read and learn about the brain and how it changes and grows in response to challenge, they’re much more likely to persevere when they fail,” Duckworth says. “[That’s] because they don’t believe that failure is a permanent condition.”
Praise the Process
Another key point is delivering praise — the right kind of praise. Pomerantz cited a famous study conducted by Carol Dweck of Stanford University in the 1990s, where researchers gave two groups of students some problems to complete. Both groups completed the task well. The first group was praised for their intelligence: “Wow, you did really well! You must be smart!” The other students received process praise; they were praised for their efforts, with researchers telling them, “You did great! You must have worked so hard!”
The next week, researchers gave these same children a new set of problems. This time, the problems had been deliberately designed to be beyond the children’s abilities. None of the kids were equipped with the knowledge needed to solve the problems. But the students who had previously been praised for effort kept trying for significantly longer, got closer to the right answer, and reported more enjoyment of the task.
“How we phrase things and how we encourage our children can have a profound effect on how motivated they are and how likely they are to stick with things,” says Pomerantz. “It’s not useful to say to kids, ‘You’re so smart; you’re so beautiful.’ Think about it from the kid’s perspective: If I see something is really difficult and I can’t do it, does that mean I’m no longer smart? Kids might stop doing something to protect their self-esteem, as stopping allows them to defensively explain the situation, by believing ‘Oh, I just didn’t try.’ However, if how smart I am is not up for discussion, and that’s not what’s at stake, then you open the door for the possibility of the child being willing to work for it. It’s not a test of self-esteem anymore.”
Based on this belief — that ability and talent are malleable and can be strengthened — Pomerantz recommends that parents condition themselves to believe in their children’s growth. If a parent wants to help a child overcome a specific issue, “rather than thinking of it in terms of a personality trait,” he advised, “think of it in terms of specific behaviors.”
“In behavioral terms, perhaps grit can be defined as ‘Sticking to the task even though it’s hard,’$$separatequotes$$” says Pomerantz. “Figure out something that the child enjoys, something that she’s good at, and look for glimmers or some spark of the desired behavior. Naturally occurring behaviors are ideal, but if you have to go ahead and manufacture activities that the child will be motivated to do and do well and stick to, that’s also good. Don’t forget to then find that trait and reinforce it.”
So, if you wish your daughter could complete the assignments in her handwriting workbook, start small, by having her work on writing just two letters, Pomerantz says. Then, no matter how well — or poorly — she demonstrates her perseverance, the parent should recognize her efforts. “Obviously, you have to be genuine,” Pomerantz cautions. “But if the child puts forth even that little bit of effort, you might say something like, ‘Wow, that looked like it was hard for you and you stuck with it to the end. I’m so happy to see that. Good job!’ With this, you’re very specifically praising that precise behavior that you want to encourage.”
And, of course, some adults may want to take a good, hard look in the mirror. “You can’t help your kid get grit if you’re not willing to get grit yourself,” stresses Rabbi Lover. “Adults think, ‘I should know how to do this already; if I don’t, I must not be good at it.’ The biggest killer is that our kids are born with grit and we take it away from them. We teach them to be afraid of trying things. As an adult, if you had to learn to walk now, how many times would you fall down before you said, ‘Forget it, I’m just never going to learn to walk’?”
“We excuse our kids, we don’t push them; when things are hard for them in school, we call the rebbi and ask him to ease up on the kid, which doesn’t help him. We need to ask the kid, ‘How do we approach this so that we can win the game?’
Lose Battles but Win Wars: The Torah Perspective
Adapted from an article prepared by Rabbi Selig Lover
It’s no surprise that Angela Duckworth’s ideas stem from roots far older than her study. As the Gemara says, “Yagati u’matzasi, ta’amin.” True success comes only through toil.
Getting there can be hard. Rav Matisyahu Salomon, shlita, asks a question about the Gemara we’ve all rattled off countless times, “Kol haschalos kashos”—all beginnings are difficult. Why is the word “beginnings” written in the plural form? Rav Matisyahu explains that anyone starting something new—whether it’s a new kabalah or work on a new middah—will have more than one beginning, as the person tries, fails, and has to start again. There can be no one beginning, since any new initiative will take multiple attempts.
Rav Yitzchak Hutner, too, explains that difficulties and failures are a necessary part of the growth process. In a moving letter sent to a talmid who had written lamenting his struggles, Rav Hutner writes:
“A failing many of us suffer is that when we focus on the ultimate level of the attainments of great people, we discuss how they are complete in this or that area while omitting mention of the inner struggles that had previously waged within them. A listener would get the impression that these individuals came out of the hand of their Creator in full blown ideal form. Everyone is awed at the purity of speech of the Chofetz Chaim, considering it a miraculous phenomenon. But who knows of the battles, struggles and obstacles, the slumps and regressions that the Chofetz Chaim encountered in his war with the Yetzer Hara?
…Know, however, my dear friend that your soul is rooted not in the tranquility of the yetzer tov, but rather in the battle of the yetzer tov. And your precious, warm-hearted letter ʻtestifies as one hundred witnessesʼ that you are a worthy warrior in the battle of the yetzer tov. The English expression, ʻLose a battle and win a warʼ applies. Certainly you have stumbled and will stumble again (a self-fulfilling prophecy is not intended) and in many battles you will fall lame. I promise you, though, that after those losing campaigns you will emerge from the war with laurels of victory upon your head and with fresh prey quivering between your teeth. Lose battles but win wars.
…When you feel the turmoil of the yetzer hara within yourself, know that with that feeling you resemble great men far more than with the feeling of deep peace, which you desire. In those very areas where you feel yourself failing most frequently—particularly in those areas—do you have the greatest potential for serving as an instrument of distinction and honor of HaShem.”
(Originally featured in Family First Issue 371)
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