In a TED talk last April, psychologist Angela Lee Duckworth described her notion of grit as a key indicator of success, more important, in many ways, than intelligence. Grit, she argues in numerous papers and reports, “is the tendency to sustain interest in and effort toward very long-term goals” (Duckworth, Peterson, Matthews, & Kelly, 2007). Building upon her work and that of others, the US Department of Education’s Office of Educational Technology (2013) drafted a report that described grit as the “Perseverance to accomplish long-term or higher-order goals in the face of challenges and setbacks, engaging the student’s psychological resources, such as their academic mindsets, effortful control, and strategies and tactics.”
This report stresses the importance of the learning environment, saying:
Learning environments can be designed to promote grit, tenacity, and perseverance. Our research pointed to two potentially important factors. First, students need opportunities to take on “optimally challenging” goals that, to the student, are worthy of pursuit. Optimally challenging goals are those that are within the student’s range of proximal development—not too difficult and not too easy. Students will find goals worthy of pursuit when the goals resonate with their personal values and interests. Second, students need a rigorous and supportive environment to accomplish these goals and/or develop critical psychological resources. As students engage in pursuing their goals, there is a wide range of challenges they may encounter, such as conceptual complexity, distractions and boredom, lack of resources, and adverse circumstances. Students will be more likely to persevere when the learning environment has a fair and respectful climate, conveys high expectations, emphasizes effort over ability, and provides necessary tangible resources—materials, human, and time (US Department of Education, 2013)
Duckworth and her team have looked at grit and self-control in a myriad of settings to predict success, including spelling bee competitors, first year teachers and West Point cadets. While there has been a great deal of focus on grit on children, the same cannot be said for working adults.
Yet, I’d argue that grit is invaluable for workers to have in a globalized, highly competitive, knowledge-led economy marked by volatility and ambiguity. While short-terms wins are always going to be desirable, the ability for workers to sustain interest in pursuing longer-term goals in the face of boredom, obstacles, and adversity seems highly valuable. Such grit may be underestimated by managers and leaders in creating a success-driven organizational culture.
Part of building such a gritty work culture would be to adapt the learning environment. We could glean much from the description above of the desired learning environment for child students. Factors such as the opportunity to take on challenging goals that are worthy of pursuit and a supportive yet rigorous environment in which to achieve goals would elevate how many managers and workers alike conceptualize learning and development. By nurturing such factors, workplaces would not enable the grittiness of their workers over the longterm, but create a distinct workplace culture where grit, perseverance and endurance are linked to desired employee performance and learning outcomes. In this way, for learning and leadership professionals, the important work of developing others requires that our learners/workers build a cognitive mindset where grit is encouraged. This would enable them, and ultimately the organization, to triumph and succeed against odds and obstacles.