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The problem with grit

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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.

VALUE JUDGEMENT

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 BENEFITS?

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. 

MARSHMELLOW TEST

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.

HOW THIS CHANGED ME

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.

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