True Grit

by Nan Petersen

I recently viewed a brief TED talk by Dr. Angela Duckworth, a former educator who turned to educational research after noting with wonderment that despite similar backgrounds, her students had widely different achievement rates. She wanted to know what made the difference.

After years of study, she has determined that the fundamental difference between students who succeed in the long term and students who don’t is grit—that hard-to-put-your-finger-on quality that is a mixture of hard work and tenacity and stick-to-itiveness that eludes far too many people. Dr. Duckworth’s work is primarily descriptive rather than suggesting any course of action, but in her brief talk she cites another educational researcher who may be able to help those seeking to develop that grit, a woman by the name of Carol Dweck.

In our schools, the Common Core has moved English students away from story texts into more informational texts (no time to bemoan or discuss that here). This year one of the required informational texts for my seniors was by Dr. Dweck. In the piece, she tells about her research, which groups people into two very broad categories of learners and workers: those with a growth mindset and those with a fixed mindset. These groupings can be observed anywhere from preschool classes to professional workplaces.

Growth mindset types believe that they can effect changes in their lives and learn more if they work hard. They believe that outcomes are directly related to their efforts and will do what is required to improve. Failure is seen as an opportunity to learn and a challenge to overcome rather than a stumbling block or reason to quit. Fixed mindset people, on the other hand, believe that most success is the result of genetics or talent or chance. With this mindset, it is easy to give up when things get too hard. Not surprisingly, as Dweck delved into the lives of growth-oriented individuals versus those more fixed in their thinking, she found that not only did they learn more at school and gain more success, but they were more effective (and happier) in their jobs and often had better jobs. The “Growthers” also had stronger relationships and were more likely to have happy relationships.

It should not be surprising which category is said to have grit.

Dweck believes that these mindsets develop early, possibly as part of genetics or personality, but also—and probably more directly—as a result of the way praise is given from a young age. Those with fixed mindsets are likely to have been praised by being told they were smart or lucky or talented. Growth mindset children probably heard more praise for their hard work or practice and less mention of natural abilities or even outcomes.

Dr. Dweck’s work really resonated with me, and I tried some of her suggestions on my seven-year-old. He has struggled to learn to read and struggles more with the strictures and expectations of school than my other two kids. I realized early this school year that much of my praise for him had been along the fixed mindset path: “Good job, smarty pants!” “This one will be easy for you!” “You are so good at this.”

Don’t get me wrong, praise of many varieties is really great, but I noticed a change when I shifted to saying things like, “I’m so proud or your hard work,” or, “This assignment was really hard for you; that was awesome how you stuck with it to the end,” or, “All your practice for that spelling test really paid off!” I found that he was more willing to work hard another time, and another. He is a very different little boy than the one who trotted off to second grade four and a half months ago. While aspects of school still seem to be a struggle for him, he is more willing than he once was to take these problems by the horns and wrestle with them.

Through Aspiring Mormon Women we often talk about helping young people achieve their potential—becoming self-reliant and self-actualized. Hard work has long been preached as a fundamental principle of the gospel of Jesus Christ as we understand it. The idea of growth and progression is likewise a profoundly wonderful part of our doctrine and at the heart of understanding the Atonement. If such an outlook is the key to spiritual and emotional happiness as well as the secret to success in our families and jobs, then how can we gain this perspective? What are some things we can do to inspire a growth mindset in ourselves as well as in those around us? What does it mean to have grit?

3 Comments on “True Grit

  1. I love this post! I’m with you about how we praise our kids making such a difference! When my daughter shows me a drawing she has made I try to focus on the details of the drawing and how she worked hard to draw it, instead of telling her how pretty it is. Because like you, I want my daughter to be rewarded for her efforts and develop a growth mentality, or GRIT. 🙂 I work at BYU and am sad how often I see a sense of entitlement amongst the students and how they demand to be rewarded for minimal efforts. It bothers me because that attitude isn’t serving them at all in their future success and also, if they do get rewarded, what does that convey to those who really work hard? I believe the value of a lesson is learned in the effort! Anyway, thanks for writing about this concept!

  2. I too have been very interested by this research. I focus on helping others grow and develop in the workplace, and I’m also a mom helping my four-year old to grow and develop. I read an article on this topic about a year ago and have also tried to incorporate it into my parenting. I would love for my son to grow up to be a hard worker with tenacity, who believes he can positively impact his own life.

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