Is Grit More Important Than Intelligence?: How to Make Sure Our Children Have Both

October 21, 2014

By Mark Erlandson

Mark Erlandson, the parent of a gifted student who presently attends a boarding school out East, is a former lawyer and public high school English teacher from Wisconsin starting a new business as a legal writing consultant.

girl writing with concentration

Grit. I’ll admit I didn’t have it. Twice now I have put this blog down and stopped writing because I felt uninspired and bored. Weeks have gone by, and too many times to count I have ignored that voice telling me the deadline was approaching and I needed to get finished. So how essential is grit to success, and more importantly, how do we teach our children to get it?

“Grit,” otherwise known as persistence or determination, is currently a passion (some would call it a fad) in certain educational circles today. Angela Duckworth, a University of Pennsylvania psychologist, is a leading advocate of the importance of tenacity in life. Watch her TED Talk here for a fascinating explanation of the results of her research in the area. Basically, she concludes, based, among other things, on her research of West Point graduates and National Spelling Bee contestants, that what correlates with success most is grit, not intelligence. Similarly, in the area of gifted students, the most famous study, conducted by University of Connecticut psychologist Joseph Renzuli, director of the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented, concluded that “task commitment,” together with ability and creativity, was, indeed, one of the three essential components of giftedness.

Duckworth believes that grit can be quantified. Her University of Pennsylvania website has a “Grit Scale” survey that can be found here. (My score was a 2.25 on a scale of 1 – 5 ,with 5 being the grittiest, and concluded I am “grittier than at least 1% of the U.S. population.” Ouch, no wonder I can’t finish this blog.)

So what can we do to ensure our children will have grit when they need it?

First, stop praising your child for his or her intelligence. A Stanford University study found that children praised for their intelligence learned to care more about their grades than about learning on subsequent tasks, and after failing, they were less persistent than their unpraised peers. Instead, praise your children for their hard work and determination. Also emphasize to your children that intelligence can be improved through hard work. Another Stanford study concluded that students who believed that intelligence is malleable earned better grades during the next two years than those who believed that intelligence was fixed. (Carol Dweck, a Stanford University psychology professor, has a “growth mindset” test here designed to measure to what extent you believe that success comes from effort rather than innate intelligence or talent.)

Next, show kids the effect of grit in the real world. Everyone, for example, has heard the story of how Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team but continued to practice. Other examples might include Steve Jobs, who failed at several Apple projects and ended up losing control of the company for several years, and Andrew Wiles, a mathematician who ultimately proved Fermat’s Theorem after years of failure. Of course, as always, modeling for your children where you have used grit to be successful may be the best teacher. (Maybe I can get my daughter to read this.)

Watch for when your child becomes frustrated. Use this as an opportunity to discuss the everyday nature of frustration, and explain to him or her that this is an opportunity for growth.

Finally, according to Paul Tough in his book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power Of Character, the best thing to do to develop the character of our children is to let them experience failure. As he states,

American children, especially those who grow up in relative comfort, are, more than ever, shielded from failure as they grow up. They certainly work hard; they often experience a great deal of pressure and stress; but in reality, their path through the education system is easier and smoother than it was for any previous generation. Many of them are able to graduate from college without facing any significant challenges. But if this new research is right, their schools, their families, and their culture may all be doing them a disservice by not giving them more opportunities to struggle. Overcoming adversity is what produces character. And character, even more than IQ, is what leads to real and lasting success.

So now that this blog is done, maybe it’s time to get that unfinished novel out again and prove Duckworth’s test wrong.

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Duckworth, A. L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M. D., & Kelly, D. R. (2007). Grit: perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Journal of personality and social psychology, 92(6), 1087.

Duckworth, A. L., & Quinn, P. D. (2009). Development and validation of the Short Grit Scale (GRIT–S). Journal of personality assessment, 91(2), 166-174.

Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. Random House LLC.

Dweck, C. S. (2000). Self-theories: Their role in motivation, personality, and development. Psychology Press.

Tough, P. (2013). How children succeed. Random House.

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