Why I'm Tired of 'Grit'
Rory Storm and the Hurricanes were a band from Liverpool, England, who went to Hamburg, Germany's Cavern Club in 1960 to make their mark on the emerging pop-music scene. They didn't do well, releasing only two singles, neither of which made the Top 40 charts. But Rory Storm and the Hurricanes had an opening act that did a tad better. They were named the Beatles. Both played the same club, alternating six 90-minute performances each night for months. But only one band became a household name, while the other became a mere asterisk in the British Invasion.
If you believe Malcolm Gladwell—he of the mindset that 10,000 hours of practice ("grit") will make even the biggest musical sow's ear into a silk purse—both the Beatles and Rory Storm and the Hurricanes should have been equally successful. But they weren't, causing me to question Gladwell's assertion in his 2008 book Outliers: The Story of Success that the Beatles would not have become the Beatles without the Hamburg experience. What distinguished these two bands? I'm guessing that the Beatles, as individuals, had something innate that Rory and his buddies didn't possess: musical genius that was enhanced by practice, but not determined by it.
The concept of "grit" has given both pop psychologists and those who discount the importance of genetics yet one more mantra on which to hang their pseudo-theoretical hats. Dismissing the role and importance of innate talents and abilities as true determinants of success, Gladwell chooses "practice, practice, practice" as the biggest driver of achievement. I half expected him to dedicate his book to Watty Piper, the author of The Little Engine That Could, as his views carry the same academic weight as that children's classic.
Why am I so tired of grit? Here are three reasons:
1. As a concept, grit offers simplistic solutions to the complex topic of achievement. Every human being succeeds or fails for a multitude of reasons. Sometimes we don't try hard enough. Sometimes we're just not interested in the topic we're supposed to learn. And sometimes we are in an environment that makes learning difficult, as when we haven't eaten breakfast before school started, or when "acting smart" is a social stigma that's not worth the hassle to endure. But with just a bit of grit, everything is solved as long as we think the right way and rise up after we fall. By not considering the context of the learning process, the degree of interest in the topic under study, or the life circumstances that have powerful control over both our achievement and our emotions, the concept of grit dismisses all too casually some of the most important factors that pave the road to success.
2. Grit relegates the role of genetics and innate abilities to an afterthought. Proponents of grit pay a passing nod to the fact that some people are better at things than others. However, whether they want to admit it or not, some people are intellectual superstars, while others struggle to learn; some are Derek-Jeter-quality baseball players while others can't make it beyond the Little League; and some musicians do become the Beatles, while others—well, just recall Rory Storm and the Hurricanes. By discounting the vital role of genetically endowed abilities in virtually every human dimension—academics, the arts, athletics—advocates of grit are ignoring a century or more of psychology that points to the importance of innate abilities and talents.
3. Grit attempts to equate unequals as equals. In 1784, Thomas Jefferson proposed the establishment of schools where "boys of best genius" from impoverished backgrounds would get an advanced education in Greek, Latin, geography, and higher mathematics. After a year's trial at these schools, the most intelligent boys were to be retained for six more years of education, and the "residue dismissed."
Granted, Jefferson's choice of the word "residue" is inappropriate, and his omission of females is patently offensive, by 21st-century standards, but his mission was clear: to identify and educate intelligent children in ways that respected their fine minds.
Nowadays, the mere mention of educating gifted and advanced students separately from others elicits cries of elitism, racism, classism, and too many other "isms" to name. But if you just had a little grit, then everyone could be gifted, right? Wrong. Jefferson was on point when he wrote that "there is nothing more unequal than the equal treatment of unequal people."
Sad to say, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, often dubbed "the nation's report card," is working to include measures of grit on tests beginning in 2017. And just recently, the U.S. Department of Education awarded three school districts and a charter school network $2 million in grants to help students improve the "softer skills" of grit that accompany learning. My prediction? Five years from now, grit notwithstanding, some kids will still be smarter, more athletic, and more artistic than other kids. I'll bet my Beatles record collection on it.
Vol. 35, Issue 20, Pages 20-21Published in Print: February 10, 2016, as I'm Tired of 'Grit'