It’s the single most famous story of scientific discovery: in 1666,
Isaac Newton was walking in his garden outside Cambridge, England.
He saw an apple fall from a tree. The fruit fell straight to the earth,
as if I pulled by an invisible force.
(Another story is that the apple hit Newton on the head!) This ordinary observation
led Newton to come up with the concept of universal gravitation,
which explained everything from the falling apple to the orbit of the moon.
There is something appealing about such stories. They reduce the scientific process
to a moment of sudden inspiration: there is no description of his hard work.
There is just a new idea, produced by a genius. Everybody knew that things fall—
it took Newton to explain why. Unfortunately,
the story of the apple is almost certainly false.
Even if Newton started thinking about gravity in 1666,
it took him years of hard work before he understood it.
He filled entire notebooks with his rough ideas. The discovery of gravity,
in other words, wasn’t a flash of insight—it required decades of effort,
which is one of the reasons Newton didn’t publish his theory until 1687.
Although many people have long celebrated Newton’s intelligence,
it’s clear that his achievements were not just a result of his high intelligence.
Newton also had an amazing ability to carry on in the face of obstacles,
to continue working with the same puzzling mystery—why did the apple fall,
but the moon remain in the sky? —until he found the answer. In recent years,
psychologists have come up with a term to describe this mental trait: grit.
Although the idea itself isn’t new—”Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration,”
Thomas Edison famously said—researchers are quick to point out
that grit isn’t simply about the will to work hard.
Instead, it’s about setting a specific long-term goal and doing whatever it takes
until the goal has been reached.
It’s always much easier to give up, but people with grit keep going.
Stories of grit have long been related to self-help manuals and life coaches.
Samuel Smiles, the writer of the famous Victorian text “Self-Help,” taught
the importance of working hard.
However, new scientific studies rely on new techniques for reliably measuring grit
in individuals. As a result, they’re able to compare the related importance of grit,
intelligence, and innate talent when it comes to determining
achievement in a person’s life. Although this field of study is only a few years old,
it has already made important progress toward identifying the mental traits that allow
some people to accomplish their goals, while others try hard and quit.
Grit, it turns out, is an essential (and often overlooked) part of success.
“I’m sure that there isn’t a single highly successful person
who hasn’t depended on grit,” says Angela Duckworth, a psychologist
at the University of Pennsylvania who helped pioneer the study of grit.
“Nobody is talented enough not to have to work hard,
and that’s what grit allows you to do. The hope among scientists is
that a better understanding of grit will allow educators to teach the skill in schools
and lead to a generation of more successful children. Parents, of course,
have a big role to play as well, since there’s evidence that even simple things
—such as how a child is praised—can heavily influence the manner
in which kids respond to challenges. And it’s not just educators and parents
who are interested in grit: the US Army has supported much of the research
as it looks for new methods of identifying who is best suited for each field.
The new focus on grit is part of a larger scientific effort to study the personality traits
that best predict achievement in the real world.
While researchers have long focused on measurements of intelligence
such as the IQ test as deciding markers of future success, these scientists point out
that most of the variation in individual achievement has nothing to do with being
smart. Instead, it largely depends on personality traits such as grit and honesty.
It’s not that intelligence isn’t really important —Newton was clearly a genius—
but that having a high IQ is not nearly enough.