Photo by  Jaco Pretorius  on  Unsplash

“In the realm of ideas everything depends on enthusiasm… in the real world all rests on perseverance.”

— Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Is grit really one of life’s power-potions? Can it really determine whether we succeed or fail? Controversies are common in the world of psychology research, and grit is no exception. Recent conversations have questioned whether grit science is mostly hype. With the shadow of the hotly-discussed replication crisis looming over researchers, news writers eagerly await the next topic to bash. The bashing is not necessarily unfair or misguided; much of the reporting on grit has been surprisingly sensible. But often, in the midst of the media storms, it’s easy for us to lose track of the original point.

More than 10 years ago, Angela Duckworth and her colleagues published a seminal paper all about the power of grit. They defined it as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals”. It’s important to revisit this definition and the original research, especially because somewhere along the line, many of us forgot the second fundamental principle within the concept of grit: passion.

In labeling new ideas, it is common for researchers to adopt an existing word that is similar to their imagined idea, before formalizing it as a distinct scientific concept. This helps scientists get a quicker intuitive grasp of the concept, but leaves us with two versions of the same word, each with a subtle but critically different meaning. One circulates in the scientific world, while the other circulates in the mainstream world, and occasionally they will uncomfortably butt heads.

Grit may be one of these stories. Its original usage as an English noun came before the 12th century in referring to gravel or sand. Toward the end of the 16th century, “gritty” was used as an adjective to describe a resemblance to small hard granules. Then, in the early 19th century, it entered American slang with a link to courage and persistence. We still use it in this same sense today, but at the start of this millennium, psychologists and researchers also began using it as label for a character trait defined by passion in addition to persistence.

So therein lies the potential for conceptual conflict. When someone refers to grit, are they talking about perseverance or are they talking about perseverance plus passion? In a paper published in late 2018, one group of researchers suggests this simple conceptual confusion could be responsible for swaying the data on grit from “powerful” to “so-so”.

* * *

Before I jump into this recent paper, what exactly was so exciting about grit in the first place? In Duckworth’s original research, a person’s level of grit (perseverance and passion) predicted their success in life. That success included educational grades, retention in a military academy, and ranking in the National Spelling Bee. So over and above intelligence and other personality traits, grit played a critical role in the difference between progress and failure in several domains.

The question now is whether the research as a whole supports the idea of grit as a uniquely meaningful predictor of success, or whether it reveals a faux concept riding the coattails of other personality traits like pure perseverance or conscientiousness.

Photo by  Cam Adams  on  Unsplash

Photo by Cam Adams on Unsplash

With the original findings on grit out of the way, let’s return to the 2018 paper from research groups in New York and Frankfurt. The researchers argue that a bulk of science and commentary on grit either ignores its core pillar of passion or fails to adequately measure it. Frequently used measurement scales for grit equate passion with “consistency of interests”, which they explain is actually different to passion and more similar to perseverance. Imagine a writer with a consistent interest in proofreading and correcting typos in their text. That writer will not necessarily have a sense of passion or drive to complete that activity; they simply do it because they should.

So in running their own studies to test the effects of grit, the researchers combined the typical questions used to measure grit — in their mind perseverance — with more specific questions for measuring passion, asking for example whether people feel as though they lack sufficient passion in their everyday work.

With their revised assessment method in hand, they approached a tech company, and measured both perseverance and passion for over 400 employees. They found that employee job performance was best predicted by using both perseverance and passion in calculations. When an employee had little passion, high or low perseverance had little effect on their performance. But when their passion was high, perseverance did make a difference: high perseverance led to better performance than low perseverance.

The researchers then recruited 248 university students, collected their GPA scores, and assessed their perseverance and passion. In an additional twist, they also measured each student’s levels of immersion in their work by including questions about how well they could block out all other distractions while they studied.

The results replicated what the researchers found at the tech company: both perseverance and passion mattered when it came to performance. In addition, the passionate students showed a meaningful connection between perseverance and immersion. Perseverance improved performance partly through increasing students’ immersion while they studied, but only when they emotionally cared about their work.

In a final part of the project, the researchers combined and re-analyzed data from previous studies on grit and performance. After analyzing 127 studies, they first replicated the results of a preexisting meta-analysis by finding only a small benefit of perseverance on performance overall. But then, they additionally recruited independent judges to quantify the relevance of passion for participants in each of those studies. As an example, passion would be highly relevant in a study that recruited entrepreneurs starting their own companies, but would be less relevant in a study that recruited students taking compulsory tests.

Consistent with the results of the researchers’ own experiments, their new meta-analysis showed that the relationship between perseverance and performance was stronger in the context of high passion relative to low passion. Hard work and persistence pays off most when you are passionate about what you’re doing.

* * *

“Life is not easy for any of us. But what of that? We must have perseverance and above all confidence in ourselves. We must believe that we are gifted for something, and that this thing, at whatever cost, must be attained.”

— Marie Curie

Grit is more than perseverance, and it is also different — although correlated — to what we might call self-control or self-discipline. We can persevere without having grit. And we can resist unhealthy temptations without having grit. Grit’s special predictive power in our victories comes from a combination of both perseverance and passion toward a particular long-term goal.

When we have the choice, we need to find paths that matter and mean something to us. If a task has no personal importance in our lives, we struggle to find any motivation or driving force to push us toward the best possible answers, even if we are capable of working hard. And if a task is personally important but we cannot trigger the gumption to work hard, we never make sufficient progress. To reliably improve performance, whether at school or at work, we need to train perseverance while crafting a context of passion. That symbiosis is the only real sense in which we can have grit.