Sticktoitiveness, grit, persistence – whatever you call it, it predicts future success better than raw talent alone. I came across a story on Boston.com last week that got me thinking about this. In it, Jonah Lehrer, reviewing a recent study on grit, points out: “While researchers have long focused on measurements of intelligence, such as the IQ test, as the crucial marker of future success, these scientists point out that most of the variation in individual achievement – what makes one person successful, while another might struggle – has nothing to do with being smart. Instead, it largely depends on personality traits such as grit and conscientiousness.”
I used to think about this when people would comment regarding some activity I was moderately good at: “You must have a natural talent for X.” It always chafed, because most of the things I am even moderately good at involved endless practice, obsessive repetition, and in the case of distance running – and managing to make it through complex choreography of the first dance at my wedding – months of blisters. Why do some people start novels and finish them and others start a dozen and never finish one? The people who finished simply kept writing. It’s not about time or IQ or any of the dozens of other reasons someone might give for not finishing a long project. It’s just about not stopping.
Now I think of this need for persistence most in terms of how I raise and encourage our kids. Kristen and I have tried to practice the sort of praise Lehrer illustrates in his story by describing a study by Carol S. Dweck. Dwek, a psychologist at Stanford University, observed children taking tests in the New York City school system. In the study, some children were praised for their intelligence following rounds of test taking, some for their effort. According to Lehrer, “The students who had been praised for their effort raised their score, on average, by 30 percent. This result was even more impressive when compared to the students who had been praised for their intelligence: their scores on the final test dropped by nearly 20 percent. A big part of success, Dweck says, stems from our beliefs about what leads to success.”
Which is not to say that we don’t tell our kids they are smart, wonderful, and sweet; we do, often. But we also tell them how important it is to keep trying hard – to keep working through tough trials, despite frustration and even tears. That’s how you learn to read so easily the novel becomes a great, effortless escape and solace, how a bicycle gets to be as fast and intuitive to ride as a magic carpet, and how a 16 mile run becomes a gentle way to unwind on an early Saturday morning. It’s how massive projects get knocked down to size, a chip at a time, how lifelong relationships get built and how the impossibly complex task of rearing kids is achieved. It’s the long, slow pressure that polishes a life and a soul into shape. It’s grit. Here’s to keeping at it.