The psychological perspective on the role of personalised medicine
13th June 2016
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Grit – a new measure of success

For years we have been measuring and comparing individual’s intelligence quotient (IQ) to assess how smart they are. We have assumed that the higher this is, the more successful someone will be. Indeed this measure has been used to place students into schools, assess intellectual disability and filter job applicants.

However, in practice, there is something else that is a better predictor of success – the ability to bounce back from setbacks – what Professor Angela Lee Duckworth calls ‘grit’.

Professor Duckworth describes her ideas in a TED Talk which has gone viral and has now been seen by nearly 11.5 million people (at time of writing). As a secondary school maths teacher in New York, Prof Duckworth noted that IQ was not always determining how well her students did.

As part of her PhD in psychology she decided to explore this further. She found that the characteristic she calls grit identified those people who went on to have success, irrespective of their IQ.

She describes grit as – ‘a special blend of passion and persistence for long term goals’. To be ‘gritty’ you have to care about your goal to the point where no obstacle you encounter will knock your motivation to achieve it. This applied to all the groups Prof Duckworth studied – from children in a spelling bee to cadets in military training. Grit applied to people from all backgrounds – whatever the socio-economic variables were the importance of grit remained.

‘This concept also applies to healthcare’, says Andrew Martello, Head of Behavioural Science at Sciterion. ‘Understanding what motivates people to achieve their health-related goals is critical to developing meaningful and tailored communication programmes. We find that those who are intrinsically motivated and self-determined to achieve a positive health outcome fare much better than those who find their motivations extrinsically in the form of fear or rewards. Therefore the concept of ‘grit’ in healthcare is one that we must recognise and fully understand.

Prof Duckworth is now the Founder and CEO of Character Lab, an organisation which aims to define the science of character development. Her research focuses on grit and self-control, and she has recently published a book on these topics.

Practical ways to build grit:

  1. Fail the right way. Failure is often inevitable, but if we learn to embrace failure as an opportunity to learn, improve, and get back up again, we’re more likely to succeed in the future. To develop more grit you must start with failure, and learn that it’s alright to fail as long as you use it to fuel future success. Prof Duckworth welcomes failure – she describes it as a necessary process to developing grit. So next time you get frustrated, remember that it is just one step closer to succeeding.
  2. Have a purpose. The word purpose gets thrown around a lot. What’s important isn’t that you find some natural calling, but instead find something you feel passionate about and that keeps you motivated to get better even when you fail. Prof Duckworth recommends looking back to your adolescence if you are struggling to find something you are passionate about, as this is when many people find their lifelong interests.
  3. Time: Anything worth achieving, and anything that takes grit, takes time. Having a ‘growth-mindset’ can help you stick something out for the long run. According to Prof Duckworth, having a growth-mindset involves recognising that humans are designed to change and grow over time. Therefore you are prepared to tough it out when you need to.

How gritty do you think you are?

Take Prof Duckworth’s online questionnaire – the ‘grit scale’
Watch Prof Duckworth’s TED talks here