Monday, November 16, 2015

The Grit Project: Achieving a Growth Mindset

Apparently I live under a rock. A week ago, while at a conference in New Orleans, I learned that having “grit” and “a growth mindset” are some of the best indicators for potential success. I’ve since discovered that “Grit,” in particular, has recently become a meme in a myriad of contexts including education, parenting, and the workplace.

I’ve always thought that the keys to career success were hard work coupled with a certain amount of intelligence, but according to The GRIT Project, “perseverance and passion for long-term goals” and being “open to increasing one’s innate abilities and talents and believing in the power of effort”—a/k/a “grit” and “a growth mindset”— are far better predictors of success. If you like taking quizzes, you can get your own grit and growth mindset scores on the American Bar Association’s Commission on Women in the Profession’s website. The project aims to give women the tools to help them rise in the legal world, where the leadership is still overwhelmingly male.  

These concepts obviously translate to a wider audience and are useful in many other contexts, too, because doing just about any difficult thing really well requires grit and a growth mindset. In fact, as I started to think about it, it became so obvious to me as to be almost ludicrous that it even needed to be discussed. I mean, of course you need perseverance and of course you need to be interested in learning and believe that your efforts will yield growth in order to be good at something.  

Here’s the thing, though: I don’t think we’ve internalized that as a culture.  In support of my hypothesis, here’s my unscientific and purely anecdotal evidence:

Before I was an attorney, I used to be a professional cellist in a symphony orchestra. As all of my musical colleagues can attest, most people’s immediate reaction upon learning that you’re a classical musician is something along the lines of: “Oh, you’re so lucky!  You must be so talented!” (As an aside, now that I’m a lawyer they add to that: “So what on earth made you want to become a lawyer?”)

The assumption underlying that common reaction is that talent is the primary factor in becoming a professional musician and that it was inherited (and therefore otherwise inaccessible). Sure, a certain aptitude is essential, but honestly, when I look back, I just remember the hours spent practicing every day for decades. Which brings us back to perseverance and passion for long-term goals and being open to increasing one’s innate abilities and talents and believing in the power of effort. Anything difficult requires grit and a growth mindset.  Playing the cello, practicing law, running or starting a business, parenting—you name it.

I have to admit that I struggle with how grit is different than just plain old hard work, but The GRIT Project makes a distinction by stating that grit is “about working in very deliberate, focused ways to improve your performance over a long period of time.” My own interpretation: work smarter, not harder, and do it for a long time.

So what about those articles lately that talk about how grit may actually not be so beneficial after all? How sometimes the effort expended to complete or to persevere through something difficult is not worth it. This is certainly sometimes true, and exerting too much energy in pursuit of every single goal isn’t the smartest use of everyone’s finite resources. But if we narrow the parameters, maybe we can agree that in the context of a “worthwhile” long-term goal, grit and a growth mindset are boons to most endeavors.

Is all this just more pop psychology? Perhaps, but like much of pop psychology, it may contain kernels of wisdom, too.  It’s a good reminder when you’re feeling discouraged or overwhelmed that 1) most difficult things require perseverance, and 2) believing that your efforts will yield positive results does make a difference.

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