The Books

Book #11

Grit – why passion and resilience are the secrets to success, Angela Duckworth

Recommended by Rhiannon Burr. Rhiannon arrived at York House at the beginning of my second year, as one of the first recruits of the new Head who had started at the same time as me. Although initially appointed to be Head of Girls Games (a post she still holds), it was quickly apparent that this was a fiercely independent, very ambitious and incredibly hard-working lady. Rhi has polished off an MA since I met her, and embarked on a PhD whilst teaching full-time, has overseen the rise of a girls games department that started with around 10 girls and now has something like 80, and to add a little spice to the mix, is also now a Year 4 form teacher.

And then she recommended this book. It was immediately obvious to me that it needed to feature near Bounce, and coupling that with Find a Way before hand felt that this would be a pretty inspiring few weeks on the reading challenge. I have not been disappointed. Those of you who have read my review of Bounce will not be surprised to learn that the central message of Grit, embodied within the surtitle, is one that I wholeheartedly endorse, but I found Duckworth selling the message in a different enough manner that I was never bored of hearing the message.

Duckworth has dedicated her professional career to researching “grit” – how it helps people achieve, how to develop it and how to nurture it. Numerous studies are referenced, along with a huge number of illustrations from interviews she has conducted with “grit paragons”. Some might find the unashamedly American writing jarring at times, particularly the assumption that all readers will understand what a GPA is in terms of further educational achievement, but personally I don’t mind that. There’s nothing wrong with having to check a dictionary or other reference tool to ensure understanding – one wouldn’t complain about coming across an unfamiliar word in Hemingway or Joyce, why should it matter in a more academic book?

A few moments stood out for me. Firstly the acknowledgement that Nietsche was there before Dweck et al:

“Do not talk about giftedness, inborn talents! One can name great men of all kinds who were very little gifted. They acquired greatness, became ‘geniuses’ (as we put it)….  They all possessed that seriousness of the efficient workman which first learns to construct the parts properly before it ventures to fashion a great whole; they allowed themselves time for it, because they took more pleasure in making the little, secondary things well than in the effect of a dazzling whole.”

More importantly than that though are the signposting of studies that I will use as justifications in my professional life. With apologies to any Aldwickbury parents or colleagues that will have to sit through my next Director of Activities sermon on why the Year 7s and 8s should embrace all the opportunities open to them, the flagging up of Warren Willingham’s work in the Personal Qualities Project is hugely helpful. Fundamentally, his research showed huge linkage between children who pursued extra-curricular activities for a sustained period with measurable improvement and their later success in life. My mathematical background of course flags up worries between correlation and causation, but the social sciences are never going to be able to be quite as cut and dry in terms of results.

There is a thought-provoking chapter on how to parent (both as a biological and by extension as any form of guiding adult) children so that they develop a more gritty outlook on life. Duckworth is quick to accept that a) there is plenty of more work to do in this area and b) it’s never going to be easy to achieve obvious trials when one is thinking about experiments that potentially affect young people’s futures, but her observations and thoughts are definitely worth considering, particularly given they tally with theoretical models proposed by Bloom (he of the taxonomy fame).

Further thought seems necessary to me however – I don’t think it follows necessarily that because Duckworth’s paragons display strikingly similar gritty characteristics that anyone who strikes up these characteristics will succeed. There is a lot of corporate-style upselling of her ideas, and I think that some of the conclusions might take the arguments a little beyond their realistic conclusions. Ultimately, however, I entirely concur with the basic idea – if you want to get on in life, find something you are passionate about, worked damned hard at it, in an environment where you can be given constructive and regular feedback, with good mentors, and you will certainly get a huge amount better at it.

One gripe. There are a huge number of notes at the end of the book, but these are not referenced to in the text, so unless you continually cross reference (I didn’t), there’s quite a lot of extra, interesting information that you need to revisit at the end, rather than concurrently. I get that some people might find constant reference numbers irritating, but this is a relatively academic book, and that surely comes with the territory?

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