I spent a decade, from ages five to 15, learning to play the piano.
By “learning,” I mean that every week the piano teacher would visit my parents’ apartment and guide me through a classical or jazz piece, listening patiently as I plunked out the tune as best I could and politely offering suggestions for improvement.
I hated those lessons. I was a terrible pianist, and it seemed to me that with each passing year, I somehow got worse.
It’s possible that I did, and I’ll tell you why: I never practiced. Really, I have not one clear memory of sitting down to the piano in between those weekly lessons, working on my scales or arpeggios or the piece I’d just learned.
Those 10 years of piano lessons kept coming back to me as I read “Grit,” a new book by Angela Duckworth, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. Duckworth credits “grit,” a combination of passion and perseverance, for success over intelligence or innate talent.
Duckworth won the MacArthur “genius” award in 2013, for her research on the psychology of achievement. The same year, she gave a TED Talk on grit, which has since been viewed millions of times.
The book’s central thesis is that perseverance, even in the face of obstacles, is key to success. “Gritty” people simply go farther in life than everyone else.
In one of the book’s early chapters, Duckworth lays out two equations that show how you get from talent to success:
Talent x effort = skill
Skill x effort = achievement
Duckworth is quick to note that external opportunities, like having a great coach or teacher, matter too. But when it comes to the psychology of success and achievement, effort is huge.
In other words, even if I wasn’t a virtuoso pianist at age five, if I’d put in enough (or really, any) effort, I could potentially have developed the skills necessary to become one. I never gave myself the chance.
In the book, Duckworth provides multiple examples of grit trumping talent or intelligence.
For instance, she conducted a study that found “grittier” kids — those who studied more and competed in more spelling bees — were more likely to perform well in the Scripps National Spelling Bee. To be sure, verbal intelligence also mattered, but verbally talented spellers didn’t necessarily study or practice more.
Similarly, Duckworth found that West Point cadets who scored higher on the grit scale were more likely to stick it out through “Beast Barracks,” an intensive seven-week training program. (The grit scale includes items like “I don’t give up easily” and “I have overcome setbacks to conquer an important challenge.”)
Grit was a better predictor of who would stay through Beast than things like athletic ability or SAT scores.
As Duckworth writes: “Our potential is one thing. What we do with it is quite another.”
If this idea seems obvious, it’s not really. Recent research suggests that we prize natural talent over hard work in others, even though we say we value hard work more.
When it comes to our own success, assuming that our progress in life is dependent on the inherent talents we do or don’t have is something like laziness.
When Duckworth visited the Business Insider offices in April, she explained how it’s easy to lean back and assume you’ll never make it to the top:
The attraction of thinking that people are gifted, or talented, special in a way that we’re not special, call it the “X” factor or call it “genius,” I think it derives from our insecurity, really.
Because if I say that Einstein’s a genius and Mozart’s a genius and nobody can run as fast as Usain Bolt or swim as fast as Michael Phelps, then you don’t have to compete with those people because they’re just not in your category.
When you say, “You know what? A lot of that success comes from dedicated hours of practice and thought,” then you are a little bit responsible to see how well you can do.
In other words, believing in grit is about believing that your personal and professional success is largely in your own hands.
There’s no guarantee that, if I’d committed to practicing piano every day after school, I’d be Mozart by now. But by giving up before I’d even tried? I all but guaranteed my failure.
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