From the movie, True Grit (1969 version):

Mattie Ross -  the young protagonist -  asks the local Sheriff,  “Who's the best marshal they have?”

The Sheriff replies, “Bill Waters is the best tracker. The meanest one is Rooster Cogburn, a pitiless man, double tough, fear don't enter into his thinking. I'd have to say L.T. Quinn is the straightest, he brings his prisoners in alive.”

Mattie Ross: “Where would I find this Rooster?”

* * *

University of Pennsylvania professor Angela Lee Duckworth is known from her 2016 bestseller, “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance,” and her nonprofit, the Character Lab.

Unlike the description of Rooster Cogburn, her 21st Century descriptors of grit includes passion and perseverance for long-term goals, but she adds to her description what grit isn’t.  

She says that, “Grit isn’t talent. Grit isn’t luck. Grit isn’t how intensely, for the moment, you want something. Instead, grit is about having what some researchers call an”ultimate concern”–a goal you care about so much that it organizes and gives meaning to almost everything you do.

Grit is holding steadfast to that goal. Even when you fall down. Even when you screw up. Even when progress toward that goal is halting or slow.”

She also made a test called the Grit Scale. It has ten questions and scaled response options.

She has critics - as does everyone who is well-known and makes a little more money than others -  and there really isn’t a marketed program to develop “grit” in people. There also isn’t any real avenue to apply to any kind of “Grit Development” programs for young people. But her simple definition of grit - that grit is the quantity of enduring focus and determination to meet a goal and get something done - is worth understanding.   

Tom Corley studied the common practices of highly successful and effective people. He lists the following as common to most successful and effective people:

  1. They read every day, but rarely for entertainment. They mostly read non-fiction.
  2. They exercise regularly.
  3. They have healthy relationships and supporting networks.
  4. They make goals and then make plans to obtain them.
  5. They have regular sleep patterns (they use their brains, so they get tired!)
  6. They have multiple income streams.
  7. They see the use of time as an investment.

He also has a model that sounds a lot like Grit:

“Those who succeed in life focus on their destination. They do not allow anything to distract them or take them off their path. They are only focused on one thing – moving forward. Anything that does not help them move forward, they ignore, shake off or avoid.”

Grit Is Holding Steadfast To Your Goal

Successful people - including students - have the internal courage to to tolerate risk and to endure conflict and social disapproval  in order to meet desired goals but only when they can manage a critical mass of the variables.  In other words, they know the odds going in. Likewise, both in adults and students, they are constantly conducting informal risk assessments.

High performers value Maslow’s ego needs - Maslow’s highest levels are in areas of self-respect, accomplishment, creation, and independence of action.  On this level, people are driven by internal goals and self-determined measures. They aren’t doing things because their boss is making them. And our model of education isn’t very good at developing independence in students. In weak schools, it is compliance that is the most important trait of school culture.  Only in the best schools are the needs of each student always the institution's top priority. Only in the best schools do students hear a consistent message to try something new, to experiment with and explore knowledge, to do something to observe what happens. To collect skills and talent and observations until they become inherent to the identity of the person.

The next obvious question - shouldn’t these habits should be the exact same things we are encouraging our students to acquire? Read, stay fit and healthy, create healthy relationships and build networks, and go to sleep at a decent time and stay asleep all night. Work on building high-wage or salary skills in an area you enjoy. Don’t waste time - do something and be somebody.

Like all masses, people are subject to momentum and inertia.  Momentum is the product of the mass and velocity of something. Inertia is the measure of how much energy it will take to to influence the speed or direction of something. If something is at rest, we have to apply a force to it to get it moving. If it is moving, we have to apply a force to it to get it stopped or redirected. This grit - this determination - is a matter of using your will as a force that creates and maintains personal motion.

Marshmallows and Focus

Duckworth has also examined the famous study of self-control and discipline: the famous “marshmallow”research by Walter Mischel at Stanford almost 50 years ago. He offered 4 to 6 year old children a treat (marshmallows or Oreos) and they were told they could eat it. But...if they waited for 15 minutes and didn’t eat the treat, he would come back in and bring them a second one as well. About a third of them could tolerate the wait, and they got a second treat. Some ate the first one right away. But what was interesting was the follow up in examining those students as students and young adults. The children who had the strongest self-discipline seemed to end up being higher-performing students, and a later experiment connected self-discipline and SAT scores.

Duckworth then did her own studies - one of 140 8th graders and one with 164. She found that self-discipline (measured by grades, attendance and participation in competitive or selective programs) accounted for more variance in test scores than even IQ. As we’ve seen, proneness to boredom also factor in reducing performance and self-discipline.

Grit is holding steadfast to your goal. There are many words we can use to encourage and reinforce it: courage, mettle, stamina, resolve, heart, moxie and pluck.

The Old Norse Viking word for endurance or courage is eljun, pronounced, “Ul-yoon” - not a word likely to catch on in the English-speaking world, so Grit is probably the best word for Dr. Duckworth to have chosen. But I do like eljun - Someday I’ll use it. t.


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