Grit: The dark side of deciding to 'tough it out'
Share on Linkedin
(Credit: Getty Images)
Grit is a widely venerated quality seen as a marker for future success. But our worship of it may be entirely misguided.

When Melbourne imposed a strict lockdown last year, Daniyal Khan found himself in a predicament. As an employee at a major departmental store retail chain, he shifted into a role at the group’s supermarkets – which were still open – but a lack of organisational support made that nearly impossible to sustain. “I wasn’t getting enough hours,” says Khan. “There was no-one to train me because things were so bad.” His weekly working hours were cut from 36 to three, and his income plummeted.

Before the pandemic, Khan, who is from one of Karachi’s less affluent suburbs, had been a tenacious high achiever, securing a place at an exclusive school and later working there as a programme manager. When he went to Melbourne, he was confident his work ethic would help him succeed – and at first, it did. At the retail group, he rose quickly from a role as a Christmas ‘casual’ to supervising the tech team. He also held down a driving job with UberEats, hustling cleverly for business. “I’d listen to the radio and get a feel for which restaurants had promotions, to anticipate where orders would come from,” he says, and even added Post-it notes with cheesy puns to the delivery bags (“Have a spec-taco-lar day” for Mexican orders; “Donut worry” for sweets) to bring in more generous tips.

But as Khan struggled to support himself, his goals of funding his Master’s in Business Analytics and ultimately using those skills to improve education management in Pakistan felt less and less achievable – and his grit reserves started to deplete. Despite his ingenuity and persistence, the combination of dwindling income and lockdown loneliness took its toll. When he experienced a racist encounter while delivering food – a lone incident, but one which exacerbated feelings of displacement – his mental wellbeing took a turn for the worse. Six months into the pandemic, Khan returned to Karachi. 

Often, we’re taught to believe that if we can only become the kind of person who sticks it out, we will succeed. This get-tough quality – grit – is usually presented as a silver bullet; a widely praised quality that is seen as a marker for future success. If you have grit, congratulations: the world is your oyster – and even a pandemic cannot derail you too badly. If not, be prepared to go back home.

When Daniyal Khan was driving for UberEats, he'd often leave funny notes on his deliveries to bring in more generous tips (Credit: Daniyal Khan)

When Daniyal Khan was driving for UberEats, he'd often leave funny notes on his deliveries to bring in more generous tips (Credit: Daniyal Khan)

But is our worship of grit misguided? Another view could be that in Khan’s case, a complex combination of socio-economic factors came into play, impeding his ability to tough it out. That’s an idea backed up by research, which shows that our grit reserves are intertwined with multiple external factors, some of which we can't control. Just deciding to ‘get through it’, in the pandemic or otherwise, may be much easier for some than others – and judging our own grit on short-to-medium responses to difficult circumstances can actually be misleading, and even dangerous.

Why we buy in to grit

Angela Lee Duckworth’s work has been pivotal in establishing the popularity of grit. The US-based psychology professor and researcher first noticed grit was important while teaching grade-seven maths students: persistence helped even less cognitively gifted students succeed. In many populations, such as National Spelling Bee finalists and US Military cadets at West Point undertaking a six-week orientation programme, she found that “sustained and focused application of talent over time” contributed to achieving difficult goals – in some cases, more than talent alone. 

Duckworth’s work shifted focus away from intellectual talent alone, effectively steering research and interventions toward non-cognitive factors as ‘ingredients’ for success. With her subsequent book and viral TED Talk, the idea that grit could predict success better than IQ captivated millions, leaving educators, organisations and individuals alike scrambling to grow more grit.

“The whole idea of grit is part of the zeitgeist of our time as a way of encapsulating this quality of certain people who are successful. It has a message we want to hear, that there’s this secret trait that unlocks success. People really want to buy into grit,” says John Houston, professor of psychology at Rollins College, Florida.

The emerging results from new studies on grit are starting to challenge the idea of grit as the ‘success trait’

Yet a new wave of grit researchers, including Houston, who recently published on the dark and bright aspects of grit, are now looking at grit more holistically, by including more diverse samples and time frames. The emerging results are starting to challenge the idea of grit as the ‘success trait’.

For example, new research from experts at Tel Aviv University and Ariel University, Israel, used representative samples, meaning the sample population isn’t restricted to a range of intelligence, as it was for many past studies. With a broader sample population and analysis of more factors, they found that the effect of grit on success was negligible. Intelligence contributes 48 to 90 times more than grit to educational achievement, and 13 times more to workplace success, whereas conscientiousness contributes twice as much.

Similarly, studies conducted in educational contexts, such as a twin study on reading comprehension, showed that intervening indirectly on grit is not as effective as working directly on the desired skill – in this case, reading comprehension. Another research paper published this year demonstrates that grit does not necessarily translate to academic attainment for students with low-IQ scores or delays in general cognitive ability. This dismantles one of the central promises of the glittering grit paradigm, that it could help level the playing field for disadvantaged students.   

Other researchers have assessed how grit contributes to success across different time frames. Duckworth herself published a follow-up study in 2019, analysing data on more than 10,000 West Point cadets across a full decade. Unsurprisingly, cognitive ability best predicted success in academic and military grades, whereas physical ability was the strongest marker for predicting physical performance. “Grit, in contrast, contributed only modestly to academic, physical and military performance but was the only reliable predictor of completing Beast Barracks, the initial summer training during which attrition from the academy peaks,” she wrote.

Findings from a decade-long study of US Military cadets showed that grit only contributed modestly to academic, military and physical performance (Credit: Getty Images)

Findings from a decade-long study of US Military cadets showed that grit only contributed modestly to academic, military and physical performance (Credit: Getty Images)

All this means our enthusiastic embrace of grit in wildly different contexts may have been premature. For example, most workplaces offer very different challenges to the gruelling – but short-term – Beast Barracks six-week orientation programme. And during a pandemic with no definitive end date, continuing to live on grit alone might be counterintuitive or, at the very least, exhausting.

The inequality of grit

The ability for someone to simply grind it out successfully is also very situationally dependent. Contrary to the image of a solitary person with infinite reserves of grit toiling away, recent research shows that work-goal progress is not necessarily directly proportional to grit. The study, which sampled 293 university professors, suggests that success may result from an interaction between personal resources and perceived organisational support – the belief employees have about the extent to which their organisation values their contributions and cares about their wellbeing.

This is particularly important for marginalised populations. “If we have begun to acknowledge – as we have over the last year ­– that people belonging to minority backgrounds have been systematically excluded from mainstream institutions and debates, then by extension we need to acknowledge how much harder it is for them to be part of these institutions, and how much harder it is for them to keep staying there without robust and consistent organisational support,” says Dr Moizza B Sarwar, a research fellow for ODI Global’s Equity and Social Policy Programme, who analyses inequality in access to public institutions for minorities.

The concept [of grit] fails to take into account starting points, specifically for people from low-income backgrounds – Moizza B Sarwar

Findings from a recent study that analysed how grit impacted student performance chime with this. The researchers found that grit was not enough for Latino and African American students to overcome other barriers to college success, especially when compared to their white and Asian American peers. The study results suggest that achievement gaps were caused by a missing sense of belonging – feeling like one is ‘meant’ to be in college – or by academic mindset, rather than a lack of grit. African American students in the survey had the highest levels of grit, but the lowest levels of academic performance, potentially due to inadequate interventions improving their sense of belonging or to cultivate an academic mindset. By contrast, Asian-American students often had the highest grades, yet reported the lowest levels of grit.

“The concept [of grit] fails to take into account starting points, specifically for people from low-income backgrounds,” explains Sarwar. “It discounts the different type of grit it took to overcome institutional barriers to gain access to these workplaces in the first place, such as making it all the way in higher education or gaining access to networks that land jobs.” 

Essentially, grit is shorthand for privilege, believes Sarwar. “There’s an assumption of having no other battles to fight in one's daily life than emails sent by one's boss or a deadline from a client and an assumption that an employee will know exactly how an organisation's culture works because they somehow come from the same class and educational background as the leading team.”

Some research shows that even those who have the most grit don't necessarily excel most, since situational factors have bearing on ultimate success (Credit: Getty Images)

Some research shows that even those who have the most grit don't necessarily excel most, since situational factors have bearing on ultimate success (Credit: Getty Images)

It’s not just down to you

So, despite the glorification of grit, pressure – self-imposed or otherwise – to both judge ourselves by grit and tough it out is potentially dangerous. Had Khan adamantly stuck it out in Melbourne, his persistence might well have come at the expense of his finances and mental wellbeing.

Today, he heads the business and systems development team at a school in Karachi, back on track with his long-term goal of improving education management in his homeland. He doesn’t view his return as a failure, but as a way of pivoting in tough times. “I know I’ll go forward, but I also know there are dead-ends and sometimes, I need to step back and try a different approach,” he says.

Stepping back is something gritty individuals may struggle with, yet being pragmatic in pursuing more realistic goals is an important part of adaptability. Blind persistence can be costly – Houston is testing the potential of grit to exacerbate perfectionistic tendencies – and it takes courage to know when it’s time to cut your losses. “Be gritty about reaching the end goal. Not the approach to get there,” says Khan, a sentiment Duckworth echoes while explaining how to 'Find Your Grit in a Crisis'.

Of course, the underlying ethos of grit appears to be positive. “Extreme cases aside, gritty people tend to be psychologically well adjusted, conscientious and goal directed,” says Houston. But he adds a note of caution: “Like all adaptive traits, too much or too little of a good thing is not a good thing.”

And ultimately, applauding individual grit can’t be grounds for offloading systemic and structural responsibility. According to Sarwar, the cult following for grit at a time of worsening global income inequalities isn’t a coincidence: “It is a way of trying to drag attention back to the individual rather than the larger economic and social structure the individual is embedded in.” 

In the current situation, like Khan, we all need to be part of a tightly knit – albeit socially distanced – social tapestry, with all the belonging, inclusivity and support we can get. Because even the grittiest attitude can’t produce a pearl through sheer determination alone. It needs the environment of the oyster.

Around the BBC