I’d like to talk about psychologist Angela Duckworth’s concept of grit. She describes grit as the quality of being resilient in the face of failure, while remaining deeply committed to that activity over the long-term (Duckworth, 2016). It’s one of those concepts that very nicely sums up the combination of resilience, inner strength, passion and perseverance even in the face of struggle. Some of the grittiest people I know are fellow colleagues and musicians, and it’s a powerful thing to give this combination of qualities a name.
As told in Duckworth’s book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, one of her first studies on the topic took place at West Point Military Academy — an extremely difficult program not just to get into, but to graduate from. Admission is based on one’s “whole candidate score,” which takes into account SAT scores, high school rank, leadership potential, and physical fitness. Of more than 14,000 applicants, only 1,200 are admitted, and roughly one in five will drop out. Many quit in their very first summer, during a demanding seven-week training course called the “Beast Barracks”, which is a program that involves a 5:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. daily schedule, no weekends, no breaks other than meals, and no contact with anyone outside of West Point. But the whole candidate score, formerly thought to be the best predictor of success and also the basis of admission to this rigorous program, did not predict who stayed and who quit. The best predictor was grit.
This brings us to the talent vs. hard-work debate once again, with Duckworth’s research supporting the perspective that having talent (ie. natural aptitude towards a skill) can only get you so far; you also need grit (ie. persistent effort) to power you through. In an interview, she gives the example of a student whose only goal is to get an “A”. A talented student might get there faster than one who is struggling, but the talented one might just stop when they arrive at that threshold and actually work “less” hard. On the other hand, a student who is both talented and gritty may instead not impose any thresholds or limits, continuing to work hard to maximize their outcomes and surpassing those who are just talented (Perkins-Gough, 2013).
You and I can probably think of many examples of gritty individuals within the music community. For me, one of them is Hilary Hahn. Her #100daysofpractice videos on Instagram offer a candid look on her practicing, on life as a working mother, on motivational obstacles during the pandemic and on her own mental struggles with getting back into shape. Her talent is most definitely way off the charts, and it’s easy to focus and be blown away by that when watching her performances. It wasn’t until I started watching her IG videos that I began to appreciate how much dedication, perseverance and self-sacrifice it must take for her to 1) get to where she is today in terms of skill level, and 2) consistently maintain that level over many years and decades.
Finally, Duckworth argues that the cultivation of a skill is as a result of talent multiplied by effort. The cultivation of achievement occurs when that skill is multiplied also by effort. In other words, “effort counts twice”:
Duckworth’s studies were focused on academic achievement, which I think has nuanced differences to musical achievement. But I think the idea is still applicable: while talent makes things easier, effort counts twice.
I also want to add that I had some difficulty in reconciling this concept with some other things in my mind, having to do with how upbringing and childhood experience can hinder one’s natural development of grit. Duckworth’s book was a little bit of a difficult read for me because of this, which reminds me of once talking to a friend who felt a similar kind of rub towards mastery goals, when reading Dweck’s book on mindsets.
But right now, I am of the opinion that effort can mean different things for different people, and being gritty can also look different depending on an individual’s personal circumstances. I think of grit simply as the idea of showing up, even if I don’t want to. If that means taking the violin out after a long day and playing just for 5 minutes, so be it. In addition to cultivating grit, I think it’s also important to give yourself compassion in the process.
I hope this was helpful!
Duckworth, A. (2016). Grit: The power of passion and perseverance. Scribner/Simon & Schuster.
Perkins-Gough, D. (2013). The significance of grit: A conversation with Angela Lee Duckworth. Resilience and Learning, 71(1), 14-20.
Disclaimer: I’m not a mental health professional and am not qualified to give medical advice.