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18 June 2016

The talent trap: why try, try and trying again isn’t the key to success

The idea of “grit” speaks to our deepest wishes: we all want to believe in our own limitless potential, and that of our children.

By Ian Leslie

Angela Lee Duckworth begins her book with a story that frames her life’s work as an act of retribution against her father. When Duckworth was a child, her dad would tell her, repeatedly, “You know, you’re no genius.” He was, she says, expressing the worry that she wasn’t intelligent enough to succeed in life.

In 2013, aged 43, Duckworth felt able to show her father how wrong he had been. She was awarded a prestigious fellowship for her work on the relationship between character and success – specifically her identification of “grit” as a critical component, perhaps the critical component, of educational achievement. The unofficial name of the award: the MacArthur Genius Grant.

Or maybe she proved him right. Duckworth’s work casts doubt on the very idea of genius. Her aim is to knock talent off its pedestal and replace it with strategically applied effort. Successful people, she argues, display a blend of passion and perseverance. They are motivated primarily by a love of what they do, as opposed to money or fame. They set long-term goals and seek to get better at what they do every day. They never give up, no matter what setbacks they suffer. Because grit is a practice, and not a gift, it can be learned.

Duckworth’s own success has been dazzling. Grit is already one of the best-known and most widely influential ideas to emerge from psychology in the past decade. Duckworth’s Ted talk has been viewed well over eight million times. She has advised the White House, the World Bank, the National Basketball Association and Fortune 500 chief executives. In the US, universities and schools are implementing programmes to raise grit levels among their students. In the UK, the Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, has announced measures to instil grit in disadvantaged pupils.

Duckworth accepted her father’s congrat­ulations on her award with a curt: “Thanks, Dad.” But she imagines what she would say if she could travel back in time, knowing what she knows now:

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I would say, “Dad, you say I’m no genius. I won’t argue with that. You know plenty of people who are smarter than I am . . . But let me tell you something. I’m going to grow up to love my work . . . I won’t just have a job; I’ll have a calling. I’ll challenge myself every day. When I get knocked down, I’ll get back up. I may not be the smartest person in the room, but I’ll strive to be the grittiest . . . In the long run, Dad, grit may matter more than talent.”

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Note how that final “may” undermines the force of her imaginary blast. Duckworth really wants to declare that grit does matter more than talent – that anyone can achieve anything as long as they persevere with their passion. But as a scientist, she knows she can’t make such a claim.

In Grit, a scientist explains her work to the public, as Daniel Kahneman did in Thinking, Fast and Slow. But whereas Kahneman’s book is dense with data and often difficult to read, Grit is a breeze. In fact, it reads less like popular science and more like a skilfully written example of the genre pioneered by Malcolm Gladwell and now adopted by many others, including Susan Cain, the author of Quiet. In these books, social psychology blends with anecdotes in the service of a lesson on life – a higher form of self-help. Cain and Gladwell, who both contribute blurbs to Grit, are writers; their primary responsibility as authors is to satisfy and delight their readers. Duckworth’s primary responsibility is to science: she is a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. So, is Grit science, or self-help?

Duckworth’s introductory story concludes on a note of unintentional dark comedy. When she finishes writing her book she takes it to her elderly father, now incapacitated by Parkinson’s disease. In an act of revenge worthy of Stephen King, she reads the whole book to him – every line of every chapter – while he listens in silence, expressionless. It takes days.

“. . . when I was done, he looked at me. After what felt like an eternity, he nodded once. And then he smiled.”


It is not surprising that grit has proved such a blockbuster of an idea. It speaks to our deepest wishes: we all want to believe in our own limitless potential, and that of our children. It also accords perfectly with an ideal of achievement with deep roots in Duckworth’s native country.

In the American dream, success is an act of individual willpower: anyone who works hard and does the right thing can make it. Grit appears to offer scientific confirmation of this, and it feels good to believe in it. As the physicist Richard Feynman remarked, however, the first principle of scientific investigation is that you must not fool yourself – “and you are the easiest person to fool”.

In recent years, a slew of books, Ted talks and commencement speeches has delivered a message similar to Duckworth’s: talent is overrated; effort (or practice, or self-discipline) is what really counts. Carol Dweck, also a psychologist, has achieved comparable fame for her concept of a “growth mindset”. Kids who believe in innate talent, and have a “fixed mindset”, will do less well at school than those who believe that their abilities are malleable. If you have read the work of Dweck, or Gladwell, or Daniel Coyle, Duckworth’s arguments will sound familiar.

It may not be a coincidence that this theme is being harped on so widely at a time when the dream seems more distant than ever. A 2010 study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development found that earnings are more tightly linked to parental earnings in the US than in any other OECD country, except the UK and Italy. It also found that achievement at school is more dependent on parental background in the US than in any other OECD member – much more so, than, say, Germany. Hard work appears to be losing its battle with ­inheritance, economic and genetic.

These books all insist that we get success wrong in the same way. But, far from undervaluing effort, Americans seems to overestimate the potential of their own endeavour. A 2014 study by Pew Research found that 73 per cent of Americans believe that hard work is very important to success, the highest out of all the countries surveyed. Only 49 per cent of Germans agreed.

We know, from a growing pile of evidence from many different sources, that while innate ability is far from the only contributor to success, it is probably the best predictor of it. This is particularly true of cognitive ability. On average, people with higher intelligence earn more money, are healthier, live longer, and are less likely to die in ­traffic accidents. True, there are dumb people who succeed and clever people who fail, but they are exceptional – even if it didn’t feel like that at the office today.

Although a person’s intelligence can be raised by education, it remains fairly stable across the lifespan. In 2011 and 2012, a group of 90-year-olds in Scotland was given an IQ test they previously took at age 11; their scores matched across the decades. Studies of twins suggest that at least half of the variation in intelligence across a population can be attributed to genes, and the correlation between our intelligence and that of our parents only gets stronger as we age.

Talent is not a myth; neither is it endlessly mutable. In sport, too, physical gifts count. David Epstein’s book, The Sports Gene, comprehensively demolishes the idea that winners are merely the ones who work hardest (if that were true, Lleyton Hewitt would be the greatest tennis player ever). But perhaps I should stop here – nobody wants to hear this stuff.

None of this is to say that raw talent is a passport to success. Yet you can’t be a high performer without it, while I’m not sure the same is true of grit. Consider one of grit’s two components, passion – a powerful inner drive to achieve in your chosen domain. Mozart, as biographers have attested, was driven to create masterpieces more by money (what psychologists term an “extrinsic motivation”) than by love of his art. Anyone who has read Andre Agassi’s memoir, Open, will recall that far from loving what he did he hated tennis, but was compelled to play it by his overbearing father. Only in late career, with several Grand Slams under his belt, did he start to enjoy the game.

As for perseverance, the story of the most successful pop group ever suggests that it isn’t always a necessary trait. According to the Beatles’ biographer Mark Lewisohn, they very nearly split up in 1961, despite ­being kings of the Liverpool scene, because they were bored. Only the injection of ambition that came from a fortuitous meeting with Brian Epstein kept them together. As Lewisohn remarks, the amazing thing isn’t that the Beatles disbanded in 1970, but that they stayed together for so long.

These are just anecdotes, of course, but Duckworth relies heavily on the same. The evidence base on which she draws is surprisingly thin. It consists of a questionnaire she calls the “grit scale”, which she has used to assess the personalities of people in high-achieving, highly motivated fields: including spelling bee competitors and cadets at West Point military academy. The space in her book devoted to scientific data is dwarfed by the pages and pages of inspiring stories. There are stories of successful people, interviews with successful people such as the Olympic swimmer Rowdy Gaines and the CEO of JPMorgan Chase, Jamie Dimon, even an interview with someone who has interviewed successful people.

All of these paragons display grit in ­abundance. But then, we all like to believe our achievements are down to hard work. Nowhere does Duckworth grapple with the problems of self-reporting, or offer counter-examples. Why not interview people who have gritty personalities but have not been a success? And if they don’t exist, perhaps that’s a signal that the theory is circular: that we call successful people gritty because we attribute grit to successful people.

Nor does Duckworth confront the question of biology. Her chapter on genetics is cursory and superficial, and she does not explore the literature on genes and education. One recent study, led by Robert Plomin of King’s College London, found that grit is highly heritable – in other words, that it is a talent in its own right. That doesn’t mean it cannot be increased (though there’s not yet much evidence it can), but it does make her antagonistic positioning of grit v talent unsupportable.

The consensus among scientists who have tested Duckworth’s theory rigorously is that grit probably is a distinct trait that does count towards academic achievement. However, its effect is very small, certainly compared to that of intelligence. Duckworth’s peers also regard these findings as less than a breakthrough. Grit is a variation on already well-studied personality traits: in particular, “conscientiousness”, or self-discipline (which undoubtedly makes a contribution to achievement, just not as large a contribution as intelligence).

In other words, grit is not nothing, but neither is it new, or anything like the secret of success. Essentially, it is an exercise in rebranding, and a rather effective one.


And what, you may ask, is wrong with that? Duckworth’s book is enjoyable. It contains some interesting ideas for parents, such as her suggestion that everyone in the family pick a Hard Thing: something that requires practice and demands long-term commitment. School reformers in the US and UK have found the notion of grit a useful weapon with which to combat the low expectations that can constrain the potential of disadvantaged children.

But this brings us to the sticky matter of social class. As some of Duckworth’s critics have pointed out, a belief that grit is all-important can slide into a belief that poor kids only need to work harder – be stronger characters – in order to get ahead. I don’t think Duckworth believes this (in a past career she taught at inner-city schools), but her book offers no discussion of what might be holding back poor children other than their lack of grit and our misguided attachment to talent.

It doesn’t consider, for instance, how difficult it is to find time for Hard Things when you’re someone for whom the hard things are getting fed and avoiding bodily harm. (In another example of something that sounds like a joke but isn’t, Duckworth tells us what her husband has chosen as his Hard Thing: he is trying “to get better and better at being a real-estate developer”.)

Duckworth particularly commends Harvard for making extra-curricular, supposedly grit-enhancing pursuits part of its admissions criteria. She does not ask whether this adds another barrier to working-class kids seeking entry to elite universities, a problem documented in detail by the sociologist Lauren Rivera in her 2015 book, Pedigree. It’s hard to join a rowing club when you’re working weekends at Taco Bell and you don’t know anyone else who rows.

The problem is not so much that the questions raised here prove that Duckworth is wrong; it’s that Grit doesn’t engage with them at all, which is why her book is a pleasant but unsatisfying read. In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman describes a research programme he designed with his most prominent academic opponent, so as to stretch his theory to its limit. Establishing exactly how one might be wrong, and then fearlessly exploring that possibility, is what distinguishes science from storytelling. Duckworth seems incurious about how it might be that she is being fooled, which makes Grit’s argument closer to self-help, or even religious instruction, than to science.

If you can’t be wrong in a big way, you can’t be right in a big way either. When it comes down to it, Duckworth is proposing a minor change of emphasis rather than a meaty, testable hypothesis. She doesn’t deny that there is such a thing as innate ability: she just wants to highlight the role of a certain kind of effort. But given that everyone – scientists, laypeople, teachers – agrees that effort is important, she exaggerates grit’s significance, pitching it into a meaningless war with talent. In the resulting fog, nobody is really right or wrong. Her father was wrong to say she wasn’t a genius, and also right, as genius doesn’t exist.

In an interview to promote her book on the Freakonomics Radio podcast, the host, Stephen J Dubner, asks Duckworth: “What if you’re just wrong about grit?” She concludes her answer thus:

“Am I wrong? I guess it’s just hard for me to believe that in 20 years, research comes out to say that the quality and quantity of your effort doesn’t matter . . . So, you know, I could be wrong; it’s just really hard for me to imagine at that fundamental level that I am.” 

Grit: the Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth is published by Vermilion (352pp, £20)

This article appears in the 14 Jun 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Britain on the brink