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Editor’s note: This article is part of a new MIT SMR series about people analytics.
I’ve been studying grit for 15 years, but the notion that some people stick with things much longer than others is not at all new. A century ago, Stanford psychologist Catherine Cox studied the lives of 301 eminent achievers. Cox concluded that the artists, scientists, and leaders who change the world have a striking tendency to hold fast to their goals and to work toward these far-off ambitions with dogged tenacity.
Picking up where Cox left off, I wanted to see whether grit — the combination of passion and perseverance toward long-term goals — would predict achievement in the 21st century. I was curious about how this aspect of our character relates to age, gender, and education. I wanted to unpack grit’s motivational, behavioral, and cognitive underpinnings. In short, my aim was to study grit scientifically. To do so, I needed to measure it.
Why are scientists like me obsessed with measurement? In the immortal words of Lord Kelvin: “When you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meager and unsatisfactory kind; it may be the beginning of knowledge, but you have scarcely in your thoughts advanced to the stage of science, whatever the matter may be.”
That is, a valid measure illuminates what you’re trying to understand, and understanding is the whole point of scientific inquiry.
Questionnaires are one way to assess personal qualities like grit. Performance tasks, informant ratings, biodata, and interviews are alternatives. But in psychological research, in part because of their low cost and ease of administration, self-report questionnaires are far more common.
The disadvantages of asking people to rate themselves are obvious. You can, if you’re motivated, fake your way to a higher score. You may interpret the questionnaire items differently than other people. You might hold yourself to higher (or lower) standards. The list goes on.
But self-report questionnaires have unique advantages, too. Nobody in the world but you — not your boss, your best friend, or even your spouse — has 24/7 access to your thoughts, feelings, and behavior. Nobody has more interest in the subject (you) than yourself. And collecting data using questionnaires can be incredibly efficient: In my experience, it takes about six seconds for the average adult to read, reflect, and respond to a questionnaire item.
For those reasons, I decided to develop a self-report questionnaire for grit. I began by interviewing high achievers. I asked these exceptional women and men, who had all garnered accolades in their respective fields, how they had become successful. And I inquired about their heroes and what they most admire about them.
Next, I distilled these observations into self-report statements that, whittled down to the 12 most reliable and valid, became the Grit Scale. Further streamlining those to eight items, I then created the Short Grit Scale. Perseverance was indexed, for example, by items like “I finish whatever I begin.” Passion indicators were harder to develop, in part because when you ask people whether they have long-term goals, they tend to answer affirmatively. So instead, I wrote reverse-coded statements like “I have difficulty maintaining my focus on projects that take more than a few months to complete.”
With this questionnaire, I discovered that grit predicts professional and academic success, particularly in domains that are both challenging and personally meaningful. I found grit to be essentially unrelated to talent and intelligence. Instead, grit predicts how much you practice in order to improve. Grit scores increase with age and, perhaps relatedly, go hand in hand with the motivation to seek purpose and meaning in life, as opposed to pleasure.
As a scientist, I hadn’t thought much about the effect that taking the Grit Scale might have on people. Then I met two visionary educators named Dave Levin and Dominic Randolph. Dave cofounded the KIPP charter school network, and Dominic is the head of school at Riverdale Country School.
Both educators were passionate about character development and wanted to help their students grasp what it means to exemplify character strengths like grit, gratitude, and curiosity. In their experience, talking about character in the abstract was fruitless because, well, exhortations like “Show some grit!” are utterly mysterious to a 13-year-old who can’t read your mind.
Their intuition was that young people would benefit from knowing about qualities like grit in more granular detail. They believed that engaging in conversation — not just once but repeatedly — about specific thoughts, feelings, and behaviors exemplifying character would scaffold self-awareness and, in turn, growth. In sum, they believed that carefully crafted questionnaires might make that conversation easier to have by laying the foundations of a shared language of character development.
Together, Dave, Dominic, and I worked to develop a questionnaire that became known as the Character Growth Card. Unlike the original Grit Scale, items for grit and other character strengths were written with adolescents in mind and in fact were generated in collaboration with middle school students and their teachers.
After establishing that the Character Growth Card was reliable and valid both in its self-report version and as an informant rating form designed for teachers to assess their students, Dave and Dominic invited students and teachers in their schools to complete the questionnaire at the end of each marking period. Next, the item-level data was openly shared with each student, their teachers, and the students’ parents. Unlike academic grades or standardized achievement test scores, there were no stakes: This information was not used to reward or punish “good” or “bad” behavior. Instead, openly discussing these observations was the whole point.
In his famous Last Lecture, Carnegie Mellon University professor Randy Pausch said that “educators best serve students by helping them be more self-reflective.” And Dave and Dominic saw the questionnaire as a tool to do exactly that.
So did Anson Dorrance, a soccer coach I met a few years later.
Anson is the most decorated coach in women’s soccer history and among the most celebrated coaches in any sport. His team, the University of North Carolina Tar Heels, has won a record 22 national championships. He coached the U.S. women’s national team to their first World Cup title and more recently racked up his record 1,000th career victory.
In our very first conversation, Anson told me he decided to give the Grit Scale to all 31 players on his team. I was surprised. In such a tiny sample, the questionnaire would not be precise enough for scientific research. Two beats later, I realized that Anson wouldn’t be doing scientific research, anyway.
So why go to the trouble?
“I give it so that my players have a deeper appreciation for the critical qualities of successful people,” Anson explained. “In some cases, the scale captures them, and in some cases, it exposes them.”
Year after year, returning players take the Grit Scale again. Anson thinks that reading the Grit Scale questions and then reflecting on how they do or don’t apply helps his players see how gritty they are now, relative to before. The questions don’t automatically make anyone grittier, of course. But self-awareness, he reasons, is one step toward self-actualization.
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Frankly, the idea that a questionnaire like the Grit Scale might be useful as a tool for self-reflection hadn’t occurred to me until Dave and Dominic, and then Anson, suggested it. But in retrospect, the notion seems blindingly obvious.
After all, in my former career as a management consultant, I’d taken the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). Despite doubtful psychometric properties and limited predictive validity, human resources specialists recognize, respect, and administer the MBTI more than any other measure. If you’re reading this article, there’s a good chance that you’ve taken the MBTI — and taken its four-letter horoscope seriously. (I am, for the record, an ENFP.)
Because the limitations of the MBTI have been so eloquently described elsewhere, I’ll simply point out that millions of people might be wrong about the validity of its insights, but they aren’t wrong about the need — urgent and sincere — for insight itself. We pay good money and invest precious time in the MBTI because we want to know ourselves better.
Do I know for sure whether self-report questionnaires indeed accomplish that purpose? Was it helpful to publish the Grit Scale in my book at the behest of my editor, who said, “Angela, trust me. People will want to take the scale. They want to learn something about themselves”?
There’s indirect evidence that reflecting on the items in self-report personality questionnaires might catalyze self-awareness and personal development. We know, for example, that asking hypothetical questions about a specific behavior can bias us to engage in that behavior in the future.
It is also well-established that self-monitoring, the intentional and consistent observation of your own behavior, supports self-control in domains as diverse as dieting, abstinence from drinking, and schoolwork.
More recently, a handful of positive psychology intervention studies suggests that identifying and then being encouraged to develop your strengths may increase well-being.
Although more research is needed, I am compelled by the possibility that questionnaires might deepen self-awareness of strengths like grit. I am intrigued by the possibility that questionnaires used in this way might contribute to shared language, common understanding, and, ultimately, a culture of character.
For a century, psychologists have been obsessed with measurement for the purpose of scientific research. For much longer, human beings have been concerned with self-awareness and self-development.
How gritty are you? As a scientist, I’d like to know. But perhaps you, too, are just as curious. And perhaps the same measures developed for research might help you know yourself a bit better. If self-awareness illuminates the path to self-development, a questionnaire is a good place to begin.