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Science. Communication. Community.

Finding One’s Grit: A Look at the Thing That Drives Us

Does grit lead to success? Can someone choose to be gritty? A recent Ph.D.-recipient looks inward for the answers, but she only finds questions about this newly-defined personality trait.

by Jessica Morrison

In geology, grittiness is a characteristic of a mudstone taken between the teeth. In atmospheric chemistry, grit refers to solid particles suspended in the atmosphere. In journalism, gritty might be the reporter who digs in and doesn’t back down, the one who drinks and swears and smokes. But the most popular definition of late refers to what has become a desirable personality trait. In psychology, grit describes a quality of perseverance toward long-term goals.

In this 2007 journal article (subscription required), researchers from the universities of Pennsylvania, Michigan, and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point describe grit in this way:

Grit entails working strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity, and plateaus in progress. The gritty individual approaches achievement as a marathon; his or her advantage is stamina. Whereas disappointment or boredom signals to others that it is time to change trajectory and cut losses, the gritty individual stays the course.

So, why am I — a geologist turned chemist turned journalist — thinking about grit?

I received my terminal degree last Saturday, a Ph.D. from the University of Notre Dame, and the commencement speaker encouraged the graduating class of 2013 to become more gritty as a pathway to success. It’s a lovely thought, but it left me wondering if this could really be practical advice…ever?

As I sat beside my Ph.D. advisor, I listened to Dr. Nathan Hatch from Wake Forest University in North Carolina describe my peers as a generation of flighty, thrill-seeking narcissists, while he encouraged us — students having just completed advanced degrees — to focus and dig deep in one area, rather than move on to the next shiny thing that piqued our interests. He wouldn’t bless us with a promise that the road would rise up to meet us or that the sun would shine warm on our faces or that the wind would be always at our backs.

The whole thing was, at best, depressing.

Hatch offered two messages: the first championed intellectual curiosity; the second, grit.

If you take to Google, like I just did, you’ll find quite a few references to grit. Here, here, here, and here to list only a handful.

I’ve heard the word before a little closer to home. My therapist introduced me to the idea of grit after only a few sessions. I had it, she said.

I’d overcome the adversity of growing up in a low-income, single parent home; the trauma of a decade of bullying from my childhood peers; and the shock of suicide committed by a college boyfriend. I’d overcome what could have been permanent roadblocks to become a Ph.D. student at the esteemed University of Notre Dame. Although it was normal life to me, my therapist pointed out that what I had done was no small feat.

So I’ve wondered since then, where did my sense of perseverance come from?

Did living my version of normal develop some grittiness in me? Was it born from early challenges, a need to survive and escape my circumstances? Was it all luck? Am I charmed?

When Dr. Hatch encouraged us to seek grit because it leads to success, I began to entertain new questions.

Can grit be attained just because you want it? Or is it an unintended consequence of adversity? Can a person cultivate perseverance without adversity?

Please share your thoughts in the comments.

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One comment on “Finding One’s Grit: A Look at the Thing That Drives Us

  1. kelly tyrrell
    May 27, 2013

    It’s interesting you posted this. I covered the University of Delaware’s commencement Saturday and the school’s president centered his speech around grit, calling it the “cousin to perseverance.” He went on to list examples of students with grit, including a student-couple with a child, another who completed rigorous study after significant injury following an accident and a Chinese student who graduated with multiple majors.

    I don’t know what I think about grit. Certainly I think you have to be tried in order to develop it. Sailing through life relatively challenge-free would not seem to harden one’s character enough to become gritty. But not everyone challenged develops grit. What determines whether one is gritty or not? Do you have to have particular scaffolding for grit, and under the right conditions, it forms?

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This entry was posted on May 23, 2013 by in Uncategorized.
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