Thursday, January 5, 2012
The top national spelling bee champions are not the kids with the highest verbal ability or the kids who simply have short-term self-discipline. They have something else: what researcher Angela Duckworth calls "grit." It very likely applies to all of us determined to log those 10,000 hours-- which I mentioned yesterday -- in order to get our basic writing toolbox in order.
Duckworth, a former student of positive psychology researcher Martin Seligman, developed the grit concept and a 12-question test -- free to take here, but you have to register -- to measure the trait which she likens to tenacious, dogged perseverance in pursuit of a long-term, focused, passion-fueled goal. In other words, grit goes beyond simple persistence or resilience.
(That and other definitions here at wikipedia, if you really want the nitty-gritty on grit. For example, the difference between grit and "need for achievement" is that grit encompasses unwavering dedication to a goal, regardless of the presence of feedback. In other words, the truly gritty are willing to go it alone, even without an immediate audience or reward; indeed relevant to writing, yes?)
Duckworth has employed the grit scale in several settings, including West Point, where it was found to be a better indicator of which cadets would survive a summer training course, called Beast Barracks, than the academy's own previous complex metrics, which included everything from physical fitness to academic grades.
In September, the New York Times ran an article, "What if the Secret to Success Is Failure?" suggesting that for schoolchildren to do well, and to rebound from the necessary failures and esteem-shaking trials that true education requires, they may need certain performance character traits, as distinguished from the moral character traits that schools sometimes encourage ("be kind," "be fair" and so on). Everyone agrees those moral traits are worth promoting, but performance character includes traits like self-control, optimism, and Duckworth's "grit," which may be necessary for all kinds of high achievement, inside and outside the classroom.
The New York Times article got me thinking about how we excel as writers, as well as how we teach and encourage other writers, including our friends and peers. Initial talent may not matter very much-- that's a point I've heard from teachers, editors, and authors alike. Deliberate practice seems to be required, and what makes that kind of practice different from the more typical kind is that it focuses on what is hardest and most uncomfortable.
In other words, just getting words on paper -- impressive as that is -- may not be enough. Truly deliberate practice may mean targeting weaknesses, studying models, focusing on the elements of writing that do not come naturally to us. And keeping going at that deliberate practice -- staying focused, and staying passionate -- may require grit.
Duckworth has studied how to measure grit, but I haven't found any solid info yet (despite the youtube video's opening premise) on how instill or increase grit. For now, perhaps just knowing that grit matters is a step in the right direction. Whether we're considering our own achievement trajectories, or trying to cheer up a writer friend who hasn't yet achieved his or her goals, we might want to focus on applauding long-term, passion-fueled stick-to-itiveness. If you love something deeply and you're giving it your all with no intention to quit, you're ahead of the game, no matter what any publishing scoreboard says.
Stay gritty, friends.