Are there any negatives to being
gritty? Could too much grittiness
become stubbornness, for
It’s a good question. Can you have
too much of a virtue? Can you be too
kind or too honest? [Psychologist] Ed
Diener recently wrote — and this really
resonates with me — that it may not be
that having too much of a good thing
is a problem, but instead the problem is
having too much of that good thing in
the absence of another good thing.
For example, that could be grit
without judgment. So when you talk
about stubbornness, it could mean
pursuing something when there’s
obviously no chance of it working, that
is grit without judgment.
Also, it may be that the kinds of things
that gritty people do, like not valuing
opportunity costs, may mean they miss
opportunities. Maybe that’s one of the
tradeoffs. In situations where there really
are high opportunity costs, then gritty
people could lose out. So, for example,
those people who don’t drop out of West
Point, maybe they could have found
something better for them [if they had].
That’s my thought, but really this is
not only a philosophical question, it’s
an empirical question. I haven’t seen
any curvilinear trends where the more
gritty fives are worse off than the less
gritty fours. But I’d love for somebody
else to test it.
Where is your research going
I’m going to continue the work on
grit and self-control, and I’m going
to continue it in two directions —
measurement and intervention. Our
measures of personality generally,
and our measures of grit and self-
control, could be a lot better. I’m
particularly interested in measures
that are behavioral, as opposed to
questionnaires. I think the limitations
of questionnaires are quite obvious to
all of us, but we use them because of
our familiarity with them and a lack of
really good alternatives.
And then there’s intervention.
In self-control, I’m interested in the
strategies that Walter Mischel identified
as helpful to the preschoolers in his
seminal work. Too little has been
done to follow up on those findings.
So I would really like to identify, in
a systematic way, the strategies that
people can use [to improve self-control], why they work and which
strategies work best in which situations.
For grit, I’m particularly interested
in the beliefs that seem to characterize
gritty people. So for example, believing
that practice can be extremely effective,
and believing that practice ought to feel
hard and confusing.
We’re trying to do interventions,
particularly with kids, in both those
things. We have a particular interest
in low-income and lower-achieving
children, but we work with kids across
the spectrum. We work with the most
elite private schools in the country and
with the lowest-income ZIP codes in
the country. What we find is that the
processes that underlie these things, the
things that kids talk about grappling
with, are actually remarkably similar.
There’s a kind of universality here.
How will the MacArthur grant
affect your work?
I guess the question for me is: What
could I do with the money — it’s
$125,000 a year, no strings attached —
how can I use that money in a way that
would be better than just using it in the
way I would use any other grant? What
are the things that I think are worthwhile,
that would be hard to get funded?
I have two ideas. One is the idea
of bringing together teachers with
scientists, in workshops and retreats.
Selfishly, as a scientist, I want to
hear what the teachers have to say
about improving these qualities and
measuring these qualities. They have
a perspective that’s informed by direct
interaction with children on a daily
basis. I proposed this idea to a large
foundation, but they said, “Oh, that’s
very interesting, but it’s not in our
portfolio.” There’s no RFP for it.
The second thing is … I was on the
Today show yesterday, and I was on
a segment with these two great high
school kids. In the hour we had before
we went on, I was asking them about
who dropped out of their school and
why, and who’s successful, and, in their
opinion, what does intelligence mean to
them? It was clear that they had highly
developed metacognitive awareness.
They were aware of what they did that
was adaptive and what they did that was
not, and they had this kind of proactive
attitude toward changing behavior and
developing habits that worked better.
Their observations were so keen that
I emailed them as soon as I got back to
the office, and I said, you were the best
part of my day. So I think that one of
the things I really need to do is engage
students because they have, again, a
perspective that we’ve been missing.
We’ve since interviewed both of those
kids; they are the first members of a
student advisory board we created to
guide our future research. n