Is ‘grit’ so great?

The psychological quality of ‘grit’ has been getting a warm write up recently, following the 2016 publication of academic psychologist Andrea Duckworth’s book ‘Grit: the Power of Passion and Perseverance’. She portrays ‘grit’ as the critical factor in individual success, whether professionally, on the sports field, or in education. Whilst I have no argument with recognising the important roles of passion and perseverance in pursuit of worthwhile goals, the concept of grit has gained a currency which risks glossing over some of the difficulties it can present.

In particular, the emphasis on sustained, intense effort as the critical factor in success, which in Duckworth’s book is defined principally in the context of success in competition, whether in exams, the selection process for the West Point Military Academy in the US, or reaching the upper echelons of a corporate hierarchy, is problematic.

In Singapore, high levels of corporate stress and burnout are prevalent, just as they are in other global commercial centres. Pressure for exam success in the local and international school systems weighs heavily on young people. By definition, in competition, we cannot all succeed and we do not all share equal academic ability. That may be despite having made great efforts and pushed ourselves very hard indeed. If we have worked as hard as we reasonably can and still not succeeded, how does it serve us to tell ourselves we must work harder still? Or that we have failed, or are defective in some way because our grittiest efforts have not yielded the desired results?

We might also ask ourselves what this hard work and focus on success in competition displaces from our lives. In cases of corporate burnout, great efforts at work have often displaced meaningful and enjoyable time with friends and family, as well as humour, happiness, play, fun and vitality.  Life can come to feel empty and meaningless if the desired goal or state of ‘success’ is not reached. Over time, the “allostatic load” on the body increases: the wear and tear on the body which accumulates as a result of repeated or chronic stress can reach a level where increasingly serious physical health problems may result.

While grit may be a practically useful quality in members of the military, such as the West Point cadets studied by Duckworth, those of us who are fortunate enough not to be living in a warzone or who are not serving in the military might usefully question whether it is healthy for us and our children to live as if going to school or to the office is just another version of going into battle.

For further reading on burnout: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/high-octane-women/201311/the-tell-tale-signs-burnout-do-you-have-them

Written by Laura Timms
MA Counselling and Psychotherapy; Reg. MBACP
Psychotherapist

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