I interviewed, musicians and professors, and the like. And people would often say, the people who are top in my field, they are the really talented ones. But just as often, and in fact I would say more often, people said that these individuals at the top of their fields had this kind of tenacious, dogged perseverance unlike anyone else that they knew and it was actually that which vaulted them to the top. So I called it “true grit” after this movie which is really about a young girl from Yale County, Arkansas who like in typical western form, her father is unjustly murdered, she spends the rest of the movie avenging his death, and Rooster Cogburn plays the one-eyed, semi-alcoholic sheriff who follows her along. And everyone thinks that true grit is really about John Wayne, of course, and it’s really about this young girl who against all odds pursues a very long term, almost impossible goal and eventually — with the emphasis on eventually, succeeds in that goal. And this is the quality that I study.
Charles Darwin had a half cousin named Francis Galton, and they shared a correspondence. I like to think that correspondence today is as rich and personally revealing as it was when you had to put a pen to paper. So, maybe if they had emailed they would have shared the same kinds of conversations. This conversation, this quote, this is actually the letter on the left and, maybe a little more legible on the right, was Charles Darwin’s response to Francis Galton who had written a book called “Hereditary Genius.” Francis Galton made the claim that genius had 3 parts: one part talent, one part passion or zeal and one part hard work.
And Charles Darwin’s response to that was, “That’s a really interesting idea, I thought it was all the hard work and the passion, maybe there’s a role for talent after all.” Charles Darwin himself didn’t actually consider his intellect to be at all special. He thought he had a quite ordinary mind. But a very specific interest and focus and a lot of zeal and hard work.
Moving up a little closer to where we are in time, there was a graduate student at Stanford named Katherine Cox, she was a graduate student of a professor there named Lewis Termin, he gave us, possibly the most widely used intelligence test today, the Sanford-Binnet IQ test. She was doing her graduate work in a lab where everybody studied intelligence and how to measure it and was it possible to measure it very early in life and could we predict genius and so forth.
And Katherine took a very different take on her own research. She wanted to know what are these other qualities that make for genius, that make for realized genius, people who are actually going to do something in the world. So she read the biographies of 300 well known geniuses and she isolated a few qualities which really distinguish the geniuses who made a mark on the world.
One of them was the tendency not to abandon task from mere changeability in her words. In other words not being a dilettante, not being a flake, not being me from the age of 22 to 32. Right? Sort of from one award to another, from one career to another, never actually setting sights on a port that I was going to consistently work towards, right? And I think we know many many extremely bright people who don’t have the capacity to stay on task, towards one goal and keep switching from one to the other.
I teach at Penn, I see hundreds and thousands of kids pass through Penn’s, you know, Ivy League portals and they have this conception that essentially when they go off into the world it will be an OK and good strategy to go to law school and if I don’t like law, I filled my pre-med requirements so I could always go back and do medical school and if I don’t like that there’s always management consulting; the fall back of any Ivy League graduate, right.
And what I want to tell them is that history and psychology tell us that changing around a lot is actually not a good way to get anywhere. The other quality that she isolated in her work, in her sort of reading of biographies was probably more predictable. I think many teachers and even many kids might recognize that having perseverance in the face of adversity, setbacks, failures, that is important. And that it’s the combination of those things that I call grit. So it’s this stamina quality, not just being passionate but sustaining that passion for a long time. And these are items that I give in a questionnaire when I try to measure this quality in studies.
Then the perseverance part as well, right. Setbacks don’t disappoint me, I finish whatever I begin, I’m determined. I’m going to walk you through a couple of studies, and then I am going to speculate and it’s only going to be a speculation about what we could possibly do for young people to cultivate this quality.
The first study I want to tell you about was done at West Point Military Academy. The first summer when you go to West Point is called “Beast Barracks.” So you show up, they check you for tattoos, can’t have a tattoo if you go to West Point, they shave your hair, they sit you down and you take a very very long battery of psychological intelligence tests. So I slipped in the grit scale, on this second day of training for a group of cadets. And I like many other psychologists had my battery of measures kind of hoping that I would be able to predict something over and beyond, what else is being collected at West Point.
West Point has been collecting data for many years on what predicts survival through “Beast Barracks.” So they lose a good number of their cadets every summer that they do this, the first year of cadets even though they try to select the sort of people who obviously are not going to drop out.
So here are the results, grit is the dark blue line and essentially how to read this graph is that on the left is the percentage of the cadets, who actually retained through the summer, the summer of “Beast Barracks.” And on the X axis is what quartile you’re in. So at the far right hand here, we have people in the top quartile on grit scores – 96% of those cadets actually stayed through the summer. And you can see, essentially, that there’s this positive relationship — more grit more likely to stay.