The Problem With Grit
The popular psychological construct can propel you forward — but it can also set you way back
In my junior year of high-school, I applied to the prestigious Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. I didn’t get in. Over the years, I’ve submitted essays and articles to all kinds of publications, from my local newspaper to the New York Times. Countless more have been rejected than accepted, and on a significant order of magnitude. I’ve been ghosted by so many editors you’d think Casper runs all the big magazines and newspapers. No large publisher wanted to buy my first book. But I kept trying, and trying, and trying; never taking no for an answer. Sounds like the embodiment of grit, right?
There’s also this: my junior year of high-school, I found chemistry to be quite challenging. I decided that rather than trying my hardest to get a good grade, I’d just phone it in and take a low C, diverting my effort to getting good grades in other courses and football. So much for being a doctor… Meanwhile, my senior year of high-school, I was invited to take the advance placement math course. I lasted two weeks before dropping out. In college, I thought I was going to major in economics and apply to the undergraduate business school. After two lectures in Econ 401, Intermediate Microeconomic Theory, I quit not only the course, but also any thoughts of majoring in economics or business. Whatever the conventional definition of grit, this certainly sounds like the opposite.
So which one is it? Am I gritty? Or am I a quitter?
The answer, of course, is it depends. I am a gritty writer, and I am proud of it. I am not, however, even close to being gritty at math and science. I am a gritty writer because I like writing; and because I like writing, I am willing to endure setbacks and challenges. I am not gritty at math or science because I do not like math or science. It is more than mere liking, too. Even though Medill rejected me, I am actually half decent at writing. I scored toward the top in writing and reading comprehension on all the standardized tests. I scored close to the bottom in math.
My path out of math and science and into writing happened long before I had language to describe it. Now, thanks to the work of the writer Dave Epstein, I have a conceptual model for what was going on. In short: grit is only valuable if at first you have fit; tapping into the power of grit — of passion and perseverance — is a lot easier, and more effective, if you’ve first found something that you like and are reasonably good at.
One of the six principles in my new book, The Practice of Groundedness, is be patient and you’ll get there faster. Patience and grit are important, I argue in the book, but I also argue that there needs to be some nuance. In Groundedness, I write about a 2018 study from the prestigious journal Nature that shows irrespective of field, from science to the arts, most people tend to have hot-streaks (periods where everything is clicking and they are crushing it) after a period where observable progress was much less significant. If these individuals hadn’t been patient and gritty, they wouldn’t have had their hot-streaks; there’d be no vaccines, theory of evolution, or masterpieces like Starry Night. At the time, I was confident based on my research and reporting that many of these people had already found the right fit before they leaned on grit, and I wrote as much in the book. A new study (September 2021) shows my research and reporting holds up.
Also published in Nature, this time researchers dug even deeper and found that most hot-streaks follow not only a period of less observable progress, but also a period in which the individual who had the hot streak sampled broadly before going deep on a given pursuit, angle, or line of research. In other words, their sampling period allowed them to find fit. Once they found fit, only then could they rely on grit to keep going toward a hot-streak.
This is, of course, precisely what happened in my own life. I tried a bunch of stuff in high school and college and found fit in writing and reading. Then, I had to be quite gritty before getting some lucky breaks and experiencing observable progress. If I had been too gritty in math and science none of my writing work would exist, and I’d probably be a more miserable person. This lesson is so important. Not only does grit not help if you don’t first have fit, but grit also hurts, because it can keep you from quitting something that you’ll never like or be good at. Imagine if I had forced myself (or if my parents had) to be super gritty in math and science. Sure, I probably would have eeked by, but to what end? A job I don’t particularly like and am mediocre at? Instead: I quit, found fit, and only then tapped into grit.
The million dollar question is how do you know if a breakthrough is around the corner or if you should quit and try something else. I wish I had an easy answer but I don’t. I do, however, explore this question in detail in The Practice of Groundedness, so you can learn more there. For now, the main thing I hope you take away is that grit is a superpower, but only if you first have fit. Like all superpowers, applied in the wrong circumstances, grit actually becomes a weakness. Proceed with this nuance and you’re already on the right path.