We Need “Grit,” not Intelligence, to Succeed Creatively

The rising psychologist and educator Dr. Angela Lee Duckworth (Department of Psychology, University of Pennsylvania) gave a TEDtalk recently that appealed to my interest in the emotions and psychology behind creative work, whatever work that may be (from business and marketing, to the arts and academia and so on). Whether you’re a client receiving copywriting or editing services, or a service-provider, we can all benefit from thinking about the psychology of creativity.

Duckworth spoke about “Grit,” which she defined as having the passion and perseverance one needs to attain long-term goals. To have “grit,” one has to have stamina enough to keep working (or studying) for years at something: she says that it means working hard to make the future a reality.

She makes a strong case that in the West we have done very little scientific (or pedagogical) study about grit. Having talent does not give you grit, she argues, since the concepts are “unrelated or inversely related.”

She defines the “grit mindset” as having an ability to learn that is not fixed to any topic; being able to change one’s response to address a challenge; and having the strength to persevere through failure, because one does not view failure as a permanent state.

Based on her experience teaching primary school mathematics in the US, Duckworth says that student with grit are memorable, because they are willing to fail and start over again.

She commends educators to be “grittier about building kids’ grit:” “We need to take our best ideas, our strongest intuitions, and we need to test them. We need to measure whether we’ve been successful, and we have to be willing to fail, to be wrong, to start over again with lessons learned.”

This approach to understanding and cultivating intelligence resists the ridiculously over-trodden path of measuring student IQs. IQs measure ease of learning, but Duckworth’s very point is that learning doesn’t always come about by ease.

While Duckworth drew on the US education system of youth, we can of course apply her insights on grit to our (adult) vocations. If we think back to those rare moments in our lives when our own dogged perseverance won the day, at work or at play, even as adults, we can stop talking about “intelligence.” We can liberate our work from the erroneous assumption that IQ alone measures intelligence. We can redeem ourselves from the nay-saying attitude that failure necessarily spells the end of the road and casts one as a permanent “loser.”

Grit can be a form of human and intellectual capital that one acquires by persevering through the kind of fear or anxiety that I blogged on last time; by persevering even if the outer world brands our work (or us) as failures. Think of all of the world’s Einsteins, Bantings and Bests, and Mme. Curries, who, long before they became household names, continued exploring their fields of study, after the rest of the world wrote them off.

How can a practice of grit enable you to reclaim and redeem some lagging thoughts or projects that you have abandoned? How can grit help you to hire or retain a writer who values an experiential process of learning and living?

To listen to Duckworth’s talk yourself? Visit TedTalks under her name for October 18, 2013.

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