Grit, Grinds, and Living the Low Stress Life

Update (7/8/09): I’ve returned from California and am once again online. (The picture below is of the trip; I’m the guy in the back.) I have 30 – 40 e-mails from readers, built up during my absence, that might take me a while to work through, so excuse the delay in my responses. I will eventually get back to everyone.

In Praise of GrittinessCal in Cal

While on vacation, I read two books. The first was Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work, which has been causing an idealistic stir among the usually cynical intelligentsia. The second was Winifred Gallagher’s Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life. Both intrigued me, though I’ll admit that I’m still processing the ideas. You’ll probably hear more about them from me at some point in the future.

Today, however, I want to briefly mention one piece of social psychology research, described by Gallagher in Rapt, that resonates well with our conversation here at Study Hacks.

Gallagher cites the research of Angela Duckworth, a psychologist from Penn. Since 2005, Duckworth has been studying a trait called “grit,” which she describes as follows:

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…

She maintains that grit is “essential to high achievement.”

Quoted by Gallagher, Duckworth also notes: “We don’t give enough attention to the ‘effort’ and ‘duration’ pieces of accomplishment…Life is relatively short, so don’t labor under the delusion that you can keep switching your focus from goal to goal and get anywhere.

But what if you’re not sure what goal is right for you?

“[Eventually] perhaps you should settle down with the best thing you’ve found, and focus on it,” she concludes.

As usual, there’s also a nice selection of peer-reviewed research to back up these ideas. In a 2007 paper, for example, titled Grit: Perseverance and Passion for Long-Term Goals, Duckworth, along with collaborators from the University of Michigan and West Point, demonstrate that grit plays an important role in achievements spanning from becoming spelling bee champion, to Ivy League GPA, to overall educational attainment in life.

Grit vs. Grind

The idea of grit is not new to Study Hacks readers. With sufficient squinting of the eyes, it can be found at the core of the Steve Martin Method, my pleas for more boredom tolerance, the A* strategy, and, most recently, my coronation of hard focus, just to name the most obvious examples. In short, I’ve informally observed this trait to be important for achievement for quite a while. It’s only now, however, that I’ve learned that (at least some) researchers agree.

That being said, I must admit that reading Duckworth’s articles, with their straightforward praise of gutting it out (“his or her advantage is stamina,” she said, describing a gritty personality), inspired a tinge of doubt: What separates the lauding of grit from the lauding of the grind lifestyle? This question is crucial to our mission here, as, of course, being happy and low-stressed is one of the key pillars of my philosophy.

After some thought, I arrived at an answer:

  • The grind lifestyle involves filling most days with an unhealthily large amount of work. It treats the overwork itself as the goal, not its results. This chronic overwork, in turn, generates stress and deep procrastination.
  • Grit, on the other hand, is about persistently accomplishing a reasonable amount of hard work. For example, consider my book writing. I spend 1 – 3 hours a day, most days, on this task. I’ve been doing this off and on for six years now. These are hard hours, requiring real hard focus. But they’re not many hours — so they’re not a source of overwork or stress in my life.

A Familiar Mantra

This distinction highlights the central message of the grit philosophy: maintain a small number of things that you return to, and do hard work on, again and again, over a long period of time. Choose things that actually interest you, but don’t obsess over choosing the perfect things — as perfect goals, like perfect majors, probably don’t exist. Keep this hard work quarantined to a reasonable number of focused hours each day, and harness the rest of the time to recharge, relax, and, in general, enjoy life. Or, to put it in a more familar wording: Do Less. Do Better. Know Why.

Sounds about right to me…

15 thoughts on “Grit, Grinds, and Living the Low Stress Life”

  1. Keeping your focus on one thing, for a long time, but for a small amount each time, is really hard for me, and many. Especially when you don’t see any result. Especially then is it hard to keep focussing every time.

    But does it work? I do think so, recently I wrote a post about two types of students, I resembled them with competitive swimmers.
    One who is a swimmer for a long time, doesn’t train really much and is improving his technique till perfection.
    The other one, who starts swimming and want to be a champion, trains many times a week and does some weightlifting besides it and all. But at the end, who will be there, at the national championship? The first one.
    He persists, doesn’t risks injuries and the sport keeps fun for that guy. The other one over trains himself, get injured or doesn’t like the sport anymore.
    I don’t need you to tell you the resemblence between these swimmers and students of course you will get it.

    Good post Cal, I like the idea about doing less and doing it better! Thanks for the inspiration, always.

  2. Glad you are back and posting.
    I enjoy you sharing what you are reading and thoughts on books you’ve recently read.

  3. Great philosophy, I’m heading out on a road trip across Quebec (which is a province in Canada) and I’m looking forward to doing some reading during the trip.

    Here is my current list:

    Getting Real (How to run an online business manifesto, technically already skimmed it but really want to sit down and go through it)
    Emergency by Neil Strauss (Just a fun read)
    Reassembling the Social by Bruno Latour (been putting this off for 2 years, a recent publication that is changing the face of sociology and social psychology)

    I know this is a little off topic but I’d like to add another book (on education.) Specifically something that looks at the changing face of contemporary university education (kinda like ‘The world is flat’ for education.)

    Any suggestions?

  4. “It takes 10,000 hours to master a skill. Most people quit after 5,000 hours.” “The Craftsman” – by Richard Sennet (who lectures at MIT by the way) supports your thesis of spending a long period of time with one or a small number of skills. Sennet also describes what you call hard focus and improving your capability to focus over a long period of tiem; one example would be playing the Violin, which takes little practice aka hard focus in the beginning (maybe half an hour) and more than six hours when mastering the instrument. Of course this principle can be applied to almost any skill. It is thereby not only helpful to extend one’s hard focus, but necessary in order to improve.

    @VTAMethodman: There’s your book suggestion 😉

  5. I think the hard part in all this is defining appropriate constraints to maximize output. To get things done, you frequently have to make the “hard push” (e.g., all-nighter, marathon study session) Once you do this once, it becomes tempting to think: “what if I could do this hard push more often?!? I’d get tons done.” This train thought invariably leads to a path of crash and burn as energy is cyclical. The trick is to systematically discover your own energy cycle. This, I do not know how to do.

  6. Interesting contrast between this and, say, Tim Ferriss, who holds that major accomplishments can take very little time if popular assumptions are questioned.

  7. Interesting contrast between this and, say, Tim Ferriss, who holds that major accomplishments can take very little time if popular assumptions are questioned.

    I agree that questioning assumptions is important. But major accomplishments almost always require a lot of well-focused time.


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