Monday, July 30, 2018

The problem with grit

Grit is defined as the ability to keep persisting in something, regardless of personal discomfort, until you succeed or die trying. Grit is said to be a good predictor of future success, meaning that grittier kids have something in them that makes them able to take the necessary beatings in life to make it work out in the end. This concept is popularised by Angela Duckworth's TED talk, which I think many of you had seen before.

Let's deconstruct grit.


Grit involves value judgement. When someone didn't do homework all the time, that is grit. When someone plays truant in school despite knowing all the possible punishment that may come, that is also grit. When a gamer sits at home all day to work on his Xbox, that too is grit. But somehow these activities are perceived unfavourably by society, hence it is not considered as examples of grit. Usually, when we talk about grit, we see them through a lens of what we think is the idealised version of a successful person. Working through the night to do homework, or sucking it up and working OT to do a project, or working over the weekend...these are activities that are judged favourably by society. Hence, when we say someone has grit, it also means that society has judged whether it is worthy or not.

Look at the picture below. 

The person below doesn't have grit because he didn't persist. And he is inches short of hitting pay dirt and would have realised his rewards if he just persists for a little longer. That is a value judgement. Why? Economic work and earning more money is seen as a good thing by society. Nobody talks about the sacrifices these people have to give in order to do these work.

Perhaps the person below gives up digging because he realised that having more diamonds isn't what he wanted in the first place. He already had diamonds, in the form of living, warm-blooded people sitting at the dining table waiting for his return. There's no need for more. But somehow he is defined as a failure in the eyes of society, for having given up early before hitting pay dirt. He doesn't have the grit in him to succeed.

Did we also impose our values onto others when we use the word grit?


Who actually benefits from people having grit? To persist in doing something despite it being boring and still continue doing so seems a little psychotic to me. It depends on who says that, isn't it? If it's the employers complaining that workers are not gritty these days, then we need to think why they want employees to do that. Perhaps the conditions are really bad and the salary really low, and since there is nothing material to be hopeful of, they use ideology as a self-control mechanism to exert influence on behaviour. Employers do need employees to have grit if they are going to exploit them by squeezing more of their labour output for the salary given to them.

If it's by teachers, we also need to think hard on who benefits. Maybe grittier students are less troublesome to teach and it's much less work compared to a student who is less gritty. When we frame it like this, the conversation shifts away from asking ourselves why the students are subjected to learning uninteresting things, rather than something that interests them. I've not seen people describing doing something that they are passionate about as grit. The usage of the word implies doing something distasteful in the hope of getting something good in the future.

Usually, grit is determined by people with positions of power and authority. We just need to trace the path to see who benefits to understand why they complain people are not gritty enough. 


In the 1960s, Mischel did an experiment regarding children and different treats, including the infamous marshmallow. Basically, the children are given a treat, which they can choose to eat right away or wait until the researcher comes back with two. This becomes known as the marshmallow test that is designed to determine self-control and delayed gratification and how it leads to success, better health, happiness and so on. Though it's not specifically used to test for grit, it's related. Grit is how much you can endure shitty situations while waiting for the payload at the end, and that requires a lot of self-control plus the ability to delay gratification. It's commonly concluded that those children who pass the marshmallow test, meaning that they get two treats by waiting instead of satisfying their gratification of one treat right away, are predicted to be more successful in the future.

But there are many reasons for this. It could be a sign of class differences. If you are a child who has access to different kinds of treats all day long, (including marshmallows), you can delay your gratification longer than someone who only eats it once every blue moon. The different access to treats, because of the child's background, could play a part.

And there is a value judgment again when we deem that the child who eats two later is somewhat stronger in willpower than a child who chooses to eat it right now. In an environment where food is scarce, it is irrational to delay satisfying your food craving and hold on for a bigger reward in the future. Due to the difference in the child's background, forgoing present rewards and gunning for a bigger one in the future might not be rational because trusting that the future is going to be better is highly dependent on past experiences by the child. A promise of a better future is going to be harder to fulfil to a child in a lower class than a higher one.


In light of these reflections, I want to be less judgemental. I'm a tutor and I face students who don't want to study all the time. Not too long ago, I have a tendency to judge students who are less gritty as having less motivation to do well and thus, a predictor of future failure. I mean it's so easy to blame it on grit and wash my responsibility off because I don't have to do more work for students who are gritty. The truth is a lot more complicated than this. Judge less.

I think being a parent made me a much more empathetic person. I can imagine all the good and bad students as being an innocent baby once. No matter what I do, at the end of the day, show compassion and show love. Long after the incident, that might be all that they remember of your interaction with them.

I also want to stop using grit, because it's so cringe-worthy. It's like the word 'passive income'- everytime someone uses that, my soul dies a little. There's a lot of negative connotation in using the word 'grit', so I'll stop using it.


Unintelligent Nerd said...

Hi LP,

"When a gamer sits at home all day to work on his Xbox, that too is grit."

This reminds me of two incidents (one I seen firsthand, another I heard before)

As an arcade music gamer, I recall playing with a pro who failed to get 100% perfect for a difficult song. In anger, he whack the arcade machine and violently shook it.........while I was standing next to him. :O

Another I heard was too engrossed with perfecting the song and hit a passerby who was not self-aware that music gamers are very space-conscious. :O

Sillyinvestor said...

I think at a young age, grit is a great value. We all know life is not a bed of roses.

Even if we are doing what we like, we need grit to have mastery. Think of sports, we all start off as fun. The learning curve is easy in the beginning, then the beauty of the sports start when u have to sweat it out to improve. To condition your muscles so that your reflexes is built in and u are not actually thinking when that ball flies at u at 50 km per hour .

But, where does all the tainted lenses come in? Beside shepherd who try to send sheeps to their shavers, it's about results.

Who said a wonderful sportsman need to represent the country or win trophy, otherwise it's a waste of talent?

Who set those benchmarks and milestones ... So that every hurdle cross is a medal of grit on the chest.

Grit is dogmatic because I feel it worth it, the rest is bullshit.

la papillion said...

Hi UN,

Woah, I didn't know you are one of the arcade music gamer :) I used to frequent arcades too, perhaps too much. But you won't see me at the music machines, nor the fighting games, nor the race cars...cos I'll be at the shooting games haha

la papillion said...

Hi SI,

What you said is very true. When results come into the picture, the whole beautiful scene is tainted. It's really good to see a person showing good attitude, whatever the outcome is.

Singapore Man of Leisure said...


You are better at throwing stones into glass houses than me ;)

Words are powderful right?

Especially when we used it on others; and not other people's meaningless soundbites affect us/

When I want to do cheerleading or encourage you to continue in the same direction, I'll say true grit to your face. Don't give up! If you think you can, you can! Where's your conviction? Soldier on!

But now I want to steer you into another direction, I'll knock your head and say insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result!? Hello! Wake up!

I'll be the bad guy and say it out loud.

It may take a lifetime to purge the poison our parents have unwittenly implanted in us.

Encouraging kids to think and figure things out for themselves is a lot messier than simply just telling them to do as they were told!

You are a thinking parent ;)

gagmewithaspoon said...

Wow, this is a very thought provoking article.

I used to think that if you don't work hard, then you deserve what you get. If you did not bother studying hard when you were younger, then you deserve that lousy paying job. The same idea that if you do not have grit or resilience, then you get what you deserve. As I grew older, I found out that lots of people did not get what they deserve, some got more some got less. Some is obvious that they did not deserve what they were being served with in life - like ill health, bad circumstances; some not so, maybe due to circumstances they joined the wrong crowd, due to lack of self-esteem they craved acceptance elsewhere. these people are harder to identify with, but they don't always deserve the tragic circumstances they end up in. indeed, there but for the grace of God, goes i.

I also like what you said about being careful on who's calling out these ideology. The buzzword now is creativity and entrepreneurship. why? coz that is what the current economy calls for. You don't hear these words in the 80s - it was all about discipline and tenacity. Why? we needed factory workers and middle management then. Why is self-reliance such a buzz word as well? doesn't family mean that we can support and rely on each other? so that society can reduce welfare and social services? we like to say that families that chose to have more children have themselves to blame, and they shouldn't expect any help at all. or if you are sick and old, perhaps euthanasia should be an option. what good does these serve? the economy or human dignity?

a lot of food for thought.

Mrs Spoon.

Anonymous said...

Everyday,Push a big stone up the mountain and let it roll down.Repeat everyday.hehe.

la papillion said...


I think definitely a lot messier. But it's also up to the parents to lose control a little so that they can fly higher. Very much like flying a kite :) Suitably timing of loosening and tightening will make sure the kite's string is always taut. Requires a lot of wisdom, and hopefully, I am able to do so :)

la papillion said...

Hi Mrs Spoon,

I think someone has an agenda when they throw some buzzwords, especially when it's to be applied to others. Nassim Taleb will call this game 'skin in the game'. It's easy to say this and say that when the people saying have all the upside and no apparent downside. Our job is to see through the murkiness and the fog and try to steer our ship in the direction we want.

Thanks for dropping by :)

temperament said...

i remebered i was in my primary one or two when my teacher wrote this in my report book.

" Temperament is a very determined boy".

What did she meant?

Stuborn or what?

i really don't know till today.

i only know with so little education and technically trained as a technician, without telling myself i too can learn in my own way as much as possible (at the age of 40) about investing in the stock market and with some luck aka God Blessings, i may have to work at Macdonald.

Err.... What is meant by "U are a determined boy?"

And at the age of 40, what?

Still determine applicable?


la papillion said...

Hi temperament,

Thanks for dropping by :)

I think 'determined' depends on context haha, but regardless of what she means, she wants to encourage you. So that's the more important thing to me.

EY said...

Hi LP,

Every so often we latch on to a new buzzword that merely gives the old wine a new bottle. 'Grit' is exactly that.

I grew up being told I had been underachieving and that I was capable of better results if I worked 'harder'. Even at work, the bosses would tell me I'm capable of making 'greater contributions'. Whatever the euphemism, it is simply that they expect me to work my ass off (without more pay that commensurate with the additional efforts). I didn't see and still don't on how grit is going to make me more 'successful' when my success is defined by happiness?!? Unless I'm a rabbit, dangling a carrot isn't gonna work and neither am I the tiger in the circus that would succumb at a crack of the whip.

For someone like me who enjoy being distracted by a load of things, keeping my nose to the grindstone all day on one thing just doesn't cut it. Having been on the other side of the fence, I know what not to tell my boys.

We do what motivates us. Motivation and grit are two ends of a continuum. The more we have of one, the less we need of the other. :)

la papillion said...

Hi EY,

Yup, I remembered you saying you only have financial aspiration but not career aspirations :)

It's true if we do what motivates us, grit is not so important. Grit is only used only we are doing things we don't want to be doing. There's value in it, of course, but we have to stop every now and then and ask ourselves why are we doing it in the first place :)

temperament said...

So at the age of 40 was it motivation or grit or self bias like the name of your blog?

la papillion said...

Hi temperament,

Why don't you share with me? haha

temperament said...

i guess a little of all 3.

i also believe anyone can be an "expert" in some subject in his own way by reading and trying.

For me of course the "Bo Tak Chet" way of understanding investing in the market.

So i am self bias like U say or think?

Ha. Ha.

la papillion said...

Hi temperament,

I also believe anyone can learn on their own. That's a better guide to see who is educated, rather than looking at certifications. You might not have the certs to show to others, but you are certainly educated.

simplefolk said...

normally youngsters (unless good parenting / mentoring drives them) usually lack long term vision & unsure of what they want. so they end up emulating whatever they saw on TV, MTV, movies etc or maybe their favorite uncles / aunties

while grit is important, it's even more important to be very sure of ones vision.
i think most of the time, they may think they found their vision only to become unsure of themselves later. that's where good parents & mentors can help

low ses parents in the past weren't very concerned here, they are probably interested child getting good grades. if you fail you get caning.

so yes grit is poor judgement of child talents ... blame the parents hahahaha ...

la papillion said...

Hi simplefolk,

May I ask how does one be sure of one's vision, esp at a young age? I personally don't have a vision of what I want to do until very recently. Even then, it seems that it changes when I thought it to be permanent.

simplefolk said...

i think one can't sure of one vision after few tuning & adjustment
vision also changes during various stages of life

for adult, since they are already in working world. so have more channels to seek guidance, affirmation

but youngsters, if parents not guiding them, i guess they seek guidance from media TV on what they should do. you should have notice many prefers to be project superstar, models, footballers, chef. so who wants to study?

not sure how relevant, but a good read

finnegan said...

I like the illustrated example.

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