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For Learning, Grit Matters More Than Intelligence

Tuesday 31 March 2015, by Lewis Swift

People often assume that intelligence dictates achievement, but this is just not true.

What is grit?

Grit is a personality trait, a way of describing a person's character. It refers to a person's ability to persevere, even though tough times.

A screenshot of Dictionary.com's definition of 'grit'

While it's not uncommon to believe that a person's personality traits are fixed, they are actually very fluid. They change naturally over time, and can also be affected by a person's life experiences.

Certain philosophies even suggest that someone's personality, their 'self', is not even a real thing at all. However, that discussion is outside the scope of this article! (Try this Ted talk if the idea interests you.)

Modern research strongly suggests that not only are personality traits fluid and changeable, but that belief in their changeability makes them more changeable.

So if reading this article makes you feel more confident that you can increase your perseverance skills, then you will find it easier to do so!

Anyone can have grit, and anyone can increase the amount of grit in their character. Even if you might think of yourself as struggling to persevere through difficult challenges, that doesn't mean you need to always struggle.

Increasing your grit will help you get through all kinds of challenges, from learning a new skill to starting your own business or getting a new job.

Grit is, therefore, one of the most valuable characteristics we can nurture in ourselves. Alongside, somewhat ironically, the skill of letting go of things that we don't need, which might seem like the opposite of perseverance.

Life is certainly a balancing act. So let's focus on grit first.

Why does grit matter?

As mentioned, people often assume that intelligence or natural aptitude dictates how much someone can achieve in their lives.

If true, this would suggest that being born without the right characteristics would mean that you couldn't expect to accomplish as much in your life as someone born with 'more intelligence'.

However, modern research (download this study for an example) shows that our ability to learn & achieve is actually affected most by factors other than the characteristics we were born with.

These factors include mindset, grit and our social support network, which includes the people who influence us (positively or negatively) as well as the people who help us and encourage us (or not) directly.

All of these factors are extremely fluid and depend mostly on the circumstances in which we find ourselves. Not the qualities we may or may not have been born with.

And it looks like these factors may be far more important than any so-called 'inherent intelligence'. If we benefit from a growth mindset, lots of grit and a good support network, our cognitive abilities and achievements increase.

Conversely, if we don't have these things, we are less likely to reach our full potential. Although it is still not impossible and—most importantly—we can find ways to acquire these positive factors.

And as life now requires continuous learning, due to the rapid changes in technology and the economy, we should try to make learning as easy as possible for ourselves.

While learning is incredibly rewarding, it also involves many challenging and tough stages. The following graph illustrates the many uphill struggles that a learner goes through, no matter their chosen subject:

A diagram of the learning curve of an individual

The precise points on the graph will differ for every learner, of course, as we are all unique individuals learning in our own unique circumstances.

But it's clear that learning involves many struggles, and that's why grit is now pointed to as one of the most important character traits that we can have.

During the stages of learning where progress seems slow and the demands of time and energy seem high, it is our grit that helps us persevere until we break through. And this perseverance is the only way to succeed in learning. There are no clever shortcuts or quick tricks.

Getting more grit

Since grit is so useful, we'll benefit in most areas of our lives if we invest some effort into increasing it. And there are various ways of doing that.

Firstly, it's important to look at our mindset. If we believe deep-down that we are 'unintelligent' or that we aren't capable enough, then we will be much more likely to give up during tough times.

So make sure you've caught up on all the newest and most interesting research and discussion about how 'innate intelligence' does not actually affect achievement as much as other factors (like grit) do.

First, watch this Ted talk by Angela Lee Duckworth, in which she discusses why grit matters most:

Next, this list of easy-to-read articles explores these ideas in more depth:

Remember to try not to overreact when you hit a steeper part of the learning curve in your chosen subject. It doesn't mean you are failing or that you should quit. Instead, it means that you are doing the right thing and need only persevere.

To help you carry on, seek support from teachers and fellow students whenever you need it.

Finally, whenever you find yourself making progress due to your perseverance, record your achievement. Make sure to write down why you've achieved it. We can sometimes overestimate the importance of luck, when it's actually our decision to persist despite random events that is the real cause of our achievements.

Successes mostly come from grit, so be sure to note that clearly to reinforce the idea in your mind.

Every time you create a new memory of an achievement reached through grit and perseverance, you'll increase your ability to persevere next time. Your motivation and faith in your own abilities will increase, too.

This confidence will, in turn, increase your future odds of success even more. It's a positive cycle.

In short: the only way to have more grit is to practice. Fortunately, that's something we can all do (if we decide to).

The downside to grit? You need to prioritise more carefully

There may be a downside to grit and perseverance, mentioned briefly in the first section of this article.

Because having lots of grit and emotional strength means that you will find yourself tackling ever more challenges and overcoming them, it's important to decide very carefully which challenges are most useful and important.

We only have a certain amount of time and energy, even if we are very efficient in our work. So if you are going to learn something new, and really dedicate yourself to it, then that means you won't also have time to learn three other things at the same time.

You might not even be able to learn one other thing at the same time. As Greg McKeown notes in his book, Essentialism, we now consider it normal to have multiple priorities—but originally the word was singular. There should be only one real 'priority' at a time.

If we are going to truly persevere at something, we will have to say 'no' to many other possibilities. And so we'll have to let these possibilities go without regret (as much as we can).

That's why grit's seemingly-opposite characteristic, the ability to let go of things, is equal in importance. And the challenge we face is much more about making good decisions about where to focus our energies, rather than anything to do with innate intelligence.

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