Book Review – Grit

What was the last thing you or your kids quit? Cooking lessons, dance classes, soccer, or piano. How many times have you heard “I don’t want to ____”. Fill in the blank… practice, do my homework or anything that requires a little fortitude…

It happens to me all the time. My kids have the worst attitude when it comes to doing something hard. “I can’t do it” “It’s too hard” or the dreaded “I’ll never be able to get it”. Now, granted my kids are young and many of the things they do are new and are hard. But I still hate that attitude.

I’m not always the hardest working person, but I have always had the attitude that I don’t quit. I will have to pull a hamstring before I stop running a race. In fact, many years ago, I was dreadfully out of shape, and my then girlfriend convinced me to complete a 5k run with her. I’ve always hated running, and at the time, the idea of running 5k was the equivalent of asking me to run a marathon naked. But she persisted, and I relented.

I still remember the look on her face as I approached the ‘finish line’. She was terrified. Why? Because there was no longer a finish line. The race had finished so long ago that all the race signs had been packed away. She was sure something must have happened to me because she couldn’t find me. But I was still chugging along, living up to my high-school basketball nickname ‘Grimace’.

I’ve since become a decent runner, but my point is that I would rather finish way past dead last, then give up. And that has always been my attitude about hard things. My challenge has been moderately hard things. The things I know I can do, but I also know would require a sustained effort over months or years. That is when I throw in the towel. All of this is to say Grit is something that has been on my mind for some time.

If Yoda were to write a book, this would be it.

Why can I put in the effort today, but find it difficult to sustain that effort over a month, or a few years? How do I get my kids to be and stay ‘Gritty’? Luckily for me, I now have some strategies to try, thanks to Angela Duckworth and her book Grit.

I received a copy of this book a few years ago after attending a lecture she gave at UofT. She has been a reoccurring guest on the Freakonomics podcast and is a thought a leader in Behavioral Economics, a branch of Economics that I’ve been fascinated with for some time. Since I’ve heard her speak, I was in no rush to read her book. I’m thankful that I finally sat down to read it because it provided a lot of insights on the topic of being gritty.

Talent vs Effort

I’ve read in several places that it is better to encourage and praise our children’s efforts and not their talent; and Grit reinforced this point. It went into great depth about how many people say they believe effort trumps talent but unconsciously think the reverse. Duckworth’s section on mindset reinforces the need to focus on effort vs talent. She demonstrates that with a growth mindset, we are more able to accept that with effort, you can gain skills, and achieve more. I’ve been lucky to have always had a growth mindset, but it is informative to realize that there are some out there who do not, and how that can affect not just their ability to learn, but their willingness to do so as well.

Practice

You may have heard of the 10,000-hour rule from Gladwell or others. The rule states that if you practice for 10,000 hours or more, you will be successful. I’ve known for some time that this ‘rule’ is more of a guidepost. However, if you consider how much effort is required for success and you start to dig deeper into what type of effort is necessary to achieve it, then that rule makes a bit more sense.  Duckworth makes a case for effort throughout her book and goes further to explain what kind of effort is needed.

If you consider ‘effort’ to be practice, then effort alone is not sufficient for success. Duckworth defined the type of practice that is necessary as deliberate practice. She describes ‘deliberate practice’ as

  1. A stretch goal
  2. Concentrated effort
  3. Immediate and informative feedback
  4. Repeat with refinement

Take my running, for example. It was only because I continued to run after that first 5k with the deliberate goal of increasing my speed, that I was able to get down to a more respectable time. But if I were to have had a coach to provide feedback, and continued to dedicate time to the sport, my speed would have doubtlessly increased in orders of magnitude more than it did.

Parenting

Duckworth is clear to say that a lot of the research on grittiness in children and parenting styles is still not conclusive, but given her work, to date, she does make a lot of recommendations based on what has been observed. If you have read a parenting book in the last few years, you would have likely also landed on ‘authoritative parenting’. This is what she calls wise parenting, not to be confused with ‘authoritarian’. Wise parenting is both supportive and demanding. That is, they give their children the emotional and physical support that they need, but also require their children to finish their homework, participate in the recital even though it is scary, or complete the soccer season even though they may not be that good at the sport. It is an effort to get the child to do “hard things” without quitting.

She also strongly recommends extracurricular as a path to build grit since it does give children a chance to practice hard things that can offer both challenge and fun, which few other opportunities do.

There are so many tips in this book that I want to tell you about. Duckworth’s family challenge to do one ‘hard thing’, her research on how children who participate and stick to their extracurricular in high school have higher levels of success after school.

It was an easy read, and I thought it was packed full of useful information. I know I will be applying a lot of the advice provided to help mould my kids, but even more immediately to help me continue to grow and be more gritty.  If you want a preview of Duckworth, check out her TED talk.  Oh and my 5k is down to a respectable 30 minutes or less now.

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