71. Is learning “grit” is the best way to succeed?

How have you man­aged your fail­ures, and has fail­ure made you a bet­ter per­son? Every­one fails at some­thing sooner or later. The impor­tant thing is how they han­dle fail­ure. A recent edu­ca­tional fad in Amer­ica is to teach stu­dents “grit” (http://www.npr.org/2014/03/17/290089998/does-teaching-kids-to-get-gritty-help-them-get-ahead ).

For those who are unclear, here are a cou­ple of def­i­n­i­tions of “grit” from the Inter­net:

– “firm­ness of mind or spirit :  unyield­ing courage in the face of hard­ship or dan­ger”

– “per­se­ver­ance and pas­sion for long-term goals” 

Pref­ace: This is a dis­cus­sion paper, not a researched aca­d­e­mic doc­u­ment. The read­ing list at the end is a col­lec­tion of con­tem­po­rary links from the Inter­net and pretty acci­den­tal, not edited for qual­ity. The author is a prin­ci­pal orga­nizer for a Bris­bane, Aus­tralia, dis­cus­sion group whose mem­bers come from diverse back­grounds, and which deals with an eclec­tic col­lec­tion of top­ics. Where a topic is of broad gen­eral inter­est I have adopted the prac­tice of post­ing dis­cus­sion starters like the present one on Academia.edu in the hope that oth­ers might also find them worth think­ing about.

1. Intro­duc­tion

Is grit worth it? I think so, but that might be more a state­ment of hope than full con­vic­tion. As a teacher for 35 years, no qual­ity in stu­dents has been so dis­may­ing as the fail­ure of many to per­sist and over­come dif­fi­cul­ties in a par­tic­u­lar area of study. A teacher’s job is to raise indi­vid­u­als to their full poten­tial, so to the teacher a stu­dent falling short of poten­tial feels like absolute waste. Some­times the refusal to per­sist can seem like a mass psy­chosis, as when almost any native Eng­lish speaker off the street, for exam­ple, will declare that “I am no good at learn­ing lan­guages. Once I enrolled in a course for a semes­ter, but …”. 

Yet the issue is more nuanced than that. A pro­por­tion of those indi­vid­u­als in war, or extreme depri­va­tion, or in hos­tile work­places, or in set­ting up a small busi­ness against the odds, will show extra­or­di­nary per­sis­tence and even­tu­ally tri­umph where oth­ers fail. On the other hand, there are whole social groups who decide (and tell each other) that “I am no good at school”,  or (proudly) “I’m lazy. So what? Just get wasted. I’ll get screwed what­ever I try any­way”. Or they will look at the so-called paragons of suc­cess and say with hon­est dis­like, “why would I want to be like those dick-heads any­way?” Reflect­ing on my own life, I have to say there are things I have grimly per­sisted at, some­times for years, and emerged empty handed. At other times acco­lades have come for achieve­ments which seemed barely earned. It is not a fair world.

2. Mass edu­ca­tion and the search for a holy grail

Grit” is a buzz word in Amer­i­can edu­ca­tion at the moment. Mass edu­ca­tion sys­tems, espe­cially those in the United States, are prone to fads. This ten­dency is largely polit­i­cal since mass edu­ca­tion sys­tems from their incep­tion have so obvi­ously failed to raise chil­dren and young adults to the stan­dards of knowl­edge and com­pe­tence which the par­ents of the world hope for from their off­spring. The rea­sons for such edu­ca­tional short­com­ing  are volu­mi­nous, and beyond the scope of these notes. Nev­er­the­less there is no ques­tion that the ever increas­ing com­plex­ity of mod­ern life becomes a train wreck for many when func­tional illit­er­acy in so-called advanced indus­trial soci­eties hov­ers around 50%, and func­tional innu­mer­acy is prob­a­bly more like 70%. Con­trary to urban myth, stu­dent achieve­ment has mostly not declined, but the demands placed on life­time per­for­mance have altered greatly. 

A mostly unasked ques­tion about the “grit solu­tion” is whether the huge num­ber of present day left-behind-stu­dents are guilty of lack­ing the grit to achieve some­thing hard for them, func­tional lit­er­acy and numer­acy, or whether teach­ers, edu­ca­tional man­agers and fund­ing bod­ies have lacked the per­sis­tence to bring these slow arrivers over the line, instead of re-rout­ing them into a life­time of mar­ginal jobs, unem­ploy­ment, or into the prison sys­tem. Maybe there is a respon­si­bil­ity on both sides of this equa­tion.

Blame the teach­ers? Hmm. I’ve been one of those. What can be done? For a gen­er­a­tion it was almost sin to fail stu­dents for­mally since they might be psy­cho­log­i­cally dis­turbed by the suf­fer­ing (and I have lost jobs for fail­ing ter­tiary stu­dents who never tried). The out­come of that ten­dency was grade infla­tion. For my own school­ing in the 1950s & 1960s, 70% was a pretty decent mark, while 90% was extra­or­di­nary.  Today’s ten­der crea­tures expect a steady reward of high 90s for mediocre  achieve­ment. So now comes the reac­tion. The new cure for inep­ti­tude is that stu­dents need to be taught “grit”. Stu­dents need to learn how to rise above fail­ure, to learn from fail­ure and pro­gress towards that light on the hill. Amer­i­can edu­ca­tional jour­nals are brim­ming with this mes­sage, and richly sup­ported by oblig­ing  psy­cho­log­i­cal stud­ies (which are mostly based on ques­tion­naires).

Grit, per­sis­tence in the face of hard­ship, is an admirable trait up to a point. It is how­ever a com­plex trait, and may be extremely sen­si­tive to the nature of par­tic­u­lar chal­lenges. The dropout in one sce­nario might be the dogged hero in another movie. Also, above and beyond par­tic­u­lar sit­u­a­tions, grit is partly sourced in inher­ent qual­i­ties of per­son­al­ity, partly influ­enced by mat­u­ra­tional envi­ron­ment, and deeply affected by the core val­ues and prac­tices of dif­fer­ent cul­tures and sub­cul­tures. There are even intrigu­ing hints that grit can be dri­ven by brain phys­i­ol­ogy (Sam­ple 2013; Cell Press 2013). 

I pre­dict that all of these caveats will be lost in the polit­i­cal hot-house of Amer­i­can (and Aus­tralian) edu­ca­tional fash­ion. In short, if “teach­ing grit” becomes sig­nif­i­cant in cur­ricu­lums, it will be reduced to tick-box com­pli­ance like every claim for sal­va­tion before it, and shortly fall by the wayside as a new gen­er­a­tion of oppor­tunists arrive to claim their place in the sun. At a ter­tiary insti­tu­tional level, where uni­ver­si­ties and col­leges are now dom­i­nantly man­aged as mar­ket­ing agen­cies, what­ever hap­pens to “grit” in the sales nar­ra­tive will, in the end, turn on its short term dol­lar value to these insti­tu­tions. My com­ments here are not intended to be cyn­i­cal, merely a sad obser­va­tion on how large insti­tu­tions have always worked, and how aver­age teach­ers and admin­is­tra­tors sur­vive in those insti­tu­tions.


3. Fake it ‘till you make it

Does suc­cess require grit? The answer has to be ambiva­lent. It depends upon the time, the place and the pur­pose of an under­tak­ing (edu­ca­tional or any other kind), as well as, crit­i­cally, the social envi­ron­ment. Grit over­done can be dehu­man­iz­ing stuff, some­times the entré to sui­cide.

When it comes to for­mal edu­ca­tion, if the goal is long term learn­ing rather than diploma man­u­fac­ture, what we really need is per­sis­tence and deep engage­ment with­out bore­dom or bit­ter tears. That sounds ter­ri­bly seri­ous, but the best out­comes actu­ally emerge from a kind of addic­tive play­ful­ness, always open to trial and error, always look­ing for a bet­ter solu­tion. As the futur­ist, Eric Drexler, pointed out years ago, play is the engine of cre­ation (Drexler 1986). When learn­ing is aver­sive, curios­ity goes out the win­dow and any pas­sion for life­time self-edu­ca­tion becomes unlikely. 

When a school is no more than a place to work, then it is no longer a school. It is a low secu­rity prison, and so many of them are. Infus­ing a spirit of enquiry into an insti­tu­tion pri­or­i­tized around rules, buzzers and grad­ing is a tough chal­lenge. It takes a kind of genius for a teacher to work magic, to elicit deter­mined enthu­si­asm from stu­dents when fac­ing a class­room full of self-con­vinced losers, day after day, year in and year out. Yet for all the rude remarks I have made about mass edu­ca­tion sys­tems, there are some genius teach­ers out there, a few, who have such a pow­er­ful rela­tion­ship with each stu­dent in their classes that they do become true role mod­els, men­tors and guides. By wisely mod­er­at­ing those rela­tion­ships such a teacher can indeed con­di­tion stu­dents to iden­tify resilience, per­sis­tence and many other qual­i­ties as highly val­ued and worth self-cul­ti­vat­ing in the indi­vid­ual.

Teach­ers like that are found not only in class­rooms. Some are par­ents, some are man­agers or pres­i­dents, some have no ascribed role at all. Once, as a recent school leaver, I worked in a large com­mer­cial laun­dry in New Zealand. It was rather hot, bor­ing, dis­cour­ag­ing work. Yet the place func­tioned well. My inex­pe­ri­enced mind needed months to real­ize that the har­mony was no acci­dent. Every deci­sion there, appar­ently made by a line man­ager, also in fact passed through the unof­fi­cial fil­ter of a qui­etly spo­ken old Maori man on the num­ber 3 drier. By some magic of charisma he was the com­mand­ing role model for an oth­er­wise diverse and frac­tious work­force.

In the Amer­i­can ideal the man­i­fest con­cept of grit is embod­ied by an out­sider. He is the lonely but iron-willed, deep-down-decent cow­boy rid­ing into some god-for­saken mid-West­ern town at sun­set. The inhab­i­tants have been cowed by a bunch of hard drink­ing really bad varmints, but our hero strides through the swing doors of the saloon and orders a dou­ble whisky. Silence falls on the mup­pets. You know the out­come – the chal­lenge and shootout with 0.45 Smith & Wes­sons at noon, the bad­dies scat­ter or die, and although the saloon owner’s beau­ti­ful daugh­ter throws her­self at the hero, he sighs, mounts his faith­ful horse, and rides off into the sun­set. Well, there are vari­a­tions – John Wayne in True Grit (Hath­away, 1969), but the theme sur­vives. This is the Amer­ica which only Hol­ly­wood ever knew, but maybe every coun­try must have a mythol­ogy.

Since 1947 Aus­tralia has been a nation of very diverse immi­gra­tion, with  all of the cul­tural dif­fer­ences which that implies. In an ear­lier era there was indeed a strong “grit” ideal in the pub­lic dis­course. That was partly a fac­tor of very fru­gal liv­ing con­di­tions, and some­times asso­ci­ated with what came to be called a Protestant/Calvinist/Puritan work ethic. My mother, who is 91, says when she cried as a lit­tle girl the most fre­quent scold­ing from her own mother was “don’t be a cake!” [mean­ing don’t be soft]. She recited me a ditty learned in her Tas­ma­nian rural school 85 years ago:

Stick to it lad,
Never look sad,
What­ever you have to do.
Don’t be afraid
Sweet lit­tle maid,
You can do it too.

The grit story plays dif­fer­ently in some other lat­i­tudes. For a cross-cul­tural per­spec­tive, con­sider China and South Korea, where I taught young adults for 12 years. I was told early and often in both places that for a stu­dent to fail meant that the teacher had failed. Teach­ers (not hope­lessly igno­rant for­eign­ers like me) are reg­u­larly given gifts to ensure that stu­dents don’t fail. This doesn’t sound promis­ing for the West­ern con­cep­tion of grit.

These are ‘face’ cul­tures, where appear­ances are morally more impor­tant than what West­ern­ers pompously (in the Asian view) con­sider to be the truth. As a con­se­quence, con­spir­a­cies for ‘suc­cess’ between stu­dents, teach­ers and admin­is­tra­tions are com­mon. For exam­ple, one of my mis­chie­vous 19 year old stu­dents con­fided that she had been called to a Chi­nese med­ical professor’s office, where he chat­ted then left the room, “acci­den­tally” leav­ing upcom­ing exam papers on his desk. The unspo­ken expec­ta­tion was that she would get busy with her phone cam­era, and deliver the bounty to her class­mates. All fol­lowed accord­ing to plan. Cheat­ing in this envi­ron­ment is endemic (not solely in East Asia of course), and only shame­ful if some­one is exposed by oth­ers not in the game (see Thor May, 2008). I am hugely amused when South Korea, for exam­ple, is reg­u­larly held up as a model for edu­ca­tional virtue by Aus­tralian poohbahs. 

The pre­ced­ing descrip­tion might sug­gest that East Asians lack grit, don’t work hard and are inca­pable of real achieve­ment. Those propo­si­tions are utterly wrong. There are of course indi­vid­u­als who are total slobs, but on the whole the hours put into relent­less, grind­ing mem­o­riza­tion would put an aver­age Aus­tralian stu­dent to shame. This kind of grit comes at a price. South Korea has the world’s high­est sui­cide rate. Fam­ily hon­our is at stake, but also in my expe­ri­ence the level of exter­nal social con­trol in both China and South Korea is intense, and the main engine behind indi­vid­ual per­sis­tence. When that exter­nal social con­trol fails in these cul­tures, a loss of self-con­trol often soon fol­lows. Nev­er­the­less, for a part of this East Asian cohort, high aca­d­e­mic achieve­ment is a gen­uine out­come. Con­fu­cius him­self under­stood risks and the dilemma: “Learn­ing with­out thought is labor lost; thought with­out learn­ing is per­ilous.” (Legge, 1893, The Con­fu­cian Analects trans­lated).

At an extreme dis­tance from the inti­mate involve­ment of many Asian par­ents in the edu­ca­tion of their chil­dren, my own for­mal edu­ca­tion from the ear­li­est years until grad­u­a­tion with a PhD (far too late to be voca­tion­ally use­ful) was inter­nally dri­ven, almost entirely with­out encour­age­ment from fam­ily, acquain­tances or, I’m sorry to say, from teach­ing staff who were rarely pre­pared to dis­cuss ideas. I’m not try­ing to be pre­cious about this – a part of the fail­ure to attract and engage other minds was clearly my own, espe­cially after matu­rity. Was a per­son­al­ity shaped in this way iso­lated way some­how supe­rior? In truth, in the human world grit wasn’t enough. My self-reliance and inde­pen­dence of mind has often been a hand­i­cap amidst the col­lec­tivist and hier­ar­chi­cal require­ments of employ­ment envi­ron­ments. In the end most peo­ple want to be accept­able employ­ees, col­leagues, friends and lovers, not a prophet on a moun­tain top.

Some­where there should be a happy medium amidst the self-indul­gent easy ways of cof­fee shop gos­sips, the frag­ile depen­den­cies of mummy-dri­ven high achiev­ers, and the bor­der­line bleak auton­omy of the auto­di­dact. Our admi­ra­tion of hard won achieve­ment must be a lit­tle nuanced if we wish to pre­dict future suc­cess. We need to eval­u­ate not only the self-dis­ci­pline of indi­vid­u­als, but also the col­lec­tive social pres­sure and assis­tance (if any) under which they were able to suc­ceed.


4. The pub­lic sci­ence and pol­i­tics of the grit cure

While psy­cho­log­i­cal lit­er­a­ture, not to men­tion reli­gions and ide­olo­gies, con­tain many stud­ies of per­sis­tence, resilience (phys­i­cal and men­tal), as well as behav­iours asso­ci­ated with suc­cess or fail­ure, none of them have really altered the way large num­bers of peo­ple actu­ally behave in the game of life (as dis­tinct from the fine words they utter). This is unlikely to change. Because of the cas­cad­ing vari­ables involved, stud­ies of human behav­iour always depend upon either col­lected opin­ions (ques­tion­naires), or highly arti­fi­cial sim­u­la­tions which can only unre­li­ably model the vari­ety of human expe­ri­ence (the same caveats apply to most med­ical exper­i­men­ta­tion). As a result real-life inter­ven­tions based on such stud­ies fre­quently have unpre­dictable out­comes, or out­comes which are mas­saged to sat­isfy this polit­i­cal agenda or that. “Teach­ing grit” in insti­tu­tional school envi­ron­ments will draw on such stud­ies to lend a patina of respectabil­ity.

It helps greatly if a new school of thought such as the grit cure has an attrac­tive and artic­u­late aca­d­e­mic spokesper­son, and in fact in this case they have found one in the per­son of Angela Duck­worth (e.g. see her TED video, ref­er­enced below) who seems to be a kind of aca­d­e­mic ana­logue of Amy Chua with her Bat­tle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (Chua 2011). Duck­worth deliv­ers a clear and unam­bigu­ous mes­sage that aca­d­e­mic fail­ure is over­whelm­ingly related to what she calls a lack of grit. The obvi­ous solu­tion is there­fore to instil grit in stu­dents. This theme has strong polit­i­cal attrac­tion, and has already drawn sig­nif­i­cant finan­cial sup­port. It fits well with the “tiger mother” mythol­ogy which has become pop­u­lar in the West to account for appar­ently supe­rior Asian aca­d­e­mic suc­cess. Hope­fully my account of actual East Asian edu­ca­tional envi­ron­ments will sug­gest some cau­tion in ide­al­iz­ing either tiger moth­ers or the grit solu­tion. In real­ity though, pub­lic enchant­ment with this new Chi­nois­erie will have its sea­son.


5. So is grit really teach­able?

We all know peo­ple who seem unable or unwill­ing to focus on long term goals, let alone per­sist in pur­su­ing them. We prob­a­bly all know capa­ble peo­ple who some­how dis­si­pate their poten­tial by pur­su­ing too many inter­ests (I am a strong can­di­date here). We might even know relent­lessly dri­ven peo­ple who hack their way to the top of a cho­sen field, only to ruin their men­tal and phys­i­cal health, or chuck the lot to live under a palm tree on a trop­i­cal island. And we all know peo­ple who mud­dle through year after year, never really good at any­thing, but good enough to keep their jobs, have a fam­ily and do the things that “nor­mal peo­ple” do. Too often we meet peo­ple who, regard­less of cer­ti­fied intel­li­gence, seem to lack any sense of pro­por­tion or good judge­ment at all (e.g. see Cao Yin 2013). Very likely you are one of the types above your­self. You might or might not want to change speed, or regret that you didn’t adopt a dif­fer­ent pat­tern ear­lier in life. 

If the self-improve­ment sec­tions of book­shops are any indi­ca­tion, the idea of chang­ing speed offers a rich seam of fan­tasy for many dream­ers, and per­haps guid­ance for a trickle of indi­vid­u­als who do move from one norm to another. Luck­ily it takes all kinds of peo­ple to make the world go around. 

In the spirit of empow­er­ing self-improve­ment, it might well be use­ful for some teach­ers (the inno­v­a­tive kind, not the 9 to 5 clock watch­ers) to help their stu­dents explore and dis­cuss the idea of “grit”, and how to enhance it in them­selves. It would prob­a­bly be even more use­ful for a class to inves­ti­gate the many dif­fer­ent mean­ings of suc­cess and fail­ure. How­ever it would be naïve to expect this kind of class­room activ­ity in an aver­age class to strike deep into the soul of each stu­dent and trans­form them forth­with. Young minds are more slip­pery than that. As for social­iz­ing stu­dents into the tougher grad­ing regime I grew up with, as a kind of boot camp for liv­ing with adver­sity … well that would be like cut­ting wages for fac­tory work­ers . I am not at all sure that admin­is­tra­tions would be ready to take the heat of out­rage.


6. Per­sonal suc­cess and fail­ure

Nei­ther suc­cess nor fail­ure are inher­ently related to some qual­ity of grit. If we reflect on our own lives, some fail­ures may have been deserved while oth­ers could best be described as sheer bad luck. Of course, our response to fail­ure itself could be seen as a kind of char­ac­ter test. Hillary Clin­ton, with her politician’s knack of mak­ing luck, has put fail­ure in its place as well as any­body: “I think that if you live long enough, you real­ize that so much of what hap­pens in life is out of your con­trol, but how you respond to it is in your con­trol. That’s what I try to remem­ber.” (Clin­ton, n.d)  

It may be that in cer­tain envi­ron­ments, for cer­tain pur­poses, and by cer­tain insti­tu­tional def­i­n­i­tions of suc­cess and fail­ure, grit shows a strong cor­re­la­tion with aca­d­e­mic out­comes (as Angela Duck­worth claims). The prob­lem with this par­a­digm is that I have yet to teach a class where every stu­dent, deep down, shared a con­sen­sus about what insti­tu­tional suc­cess or fail­ure meant to them. More­over, it was only ever for some of those stu­dents that insti­tu­tional suc­cess or fail­ure meant the same as per­sonal suc­cess or fail­ure.

It is an unfor­tu­nate but nearly uni­ver­sal fact of life that the rich or priv­i­leged enjoy far greater for­mal suc­cess in most under­tak­ings than the poor or under­priv­i­leged. If you want to live in a pre­ferred coun­try you can buy a pass­port (Australia’s pass­ports are for sale to the rich) or a visa. You don’t need trou­ble­some lan­guage or pro­fes­sional diplo­mas. If you do want the said diplo­mas you can buy those too (also in Aus­tralia, though more cheaply else­where). In China, and many other coun­tries, attrac­tive jobs are unabashedly for sale (while in Aus­tralia buy­ing the favour might be more cir­cuitous). If you want a tro­phy wife, well those are for sale too. For that mat­ter, the sock pup­pets in demo­c­ra­tic gov­ern­ments also essen­tially pimp their own pros­ti­tu­tion (over­whelm­ingly in Amer­ica, some­what less so in Aus­tralia. National democ­racy is appar­ently about buy­ing the media pro­pa­ganda – at mil­lions or bil­lions of dol­lars – which will induce the unin­formed sheeple to vote for their own exe­cu­tion).

In other words the sta­tus of suc­cess­ful cit­i­zen, as rec­og­nized by gov­ern­ments and respectable soci­ety, is for sale in most juris­dic­tions. The suc­cess­ful peo­ple, by this pub­lic cri­te­rion, gen­er­ally seem con­vinced of their wor­thi­ness for assisted suc­cess, and will fight to the death to defend the priv­i­lege. Some may be indi­vid­u­als of great energy, but grit need not nec­es­sar­ily be part of the equa­tion. Some may have very poor per­sonal qual­i­ties, but those weak­nesses them­selves will but­tress the attach­ment to assisted suc­cess.

From an early age the poor and under­priv­i­leged are faced with a dilemma about pur­su­ing some notion of suc­cess. If they opt for same val­ues and prize the same baubles as the rich and priv­i­leged then they face a major strug­gle. If they are gifted with high intel­li­gence and great energy they may seize the chal­lenge and even­tu­ally ride to much savoured pub­lic suc­cess. In that case, grit will prob­a­bly be a major weapon in their armoury. If they are very ordi­nary peo­ple they may assess the odds against them at “the big end of town” to be insur­mount­able. They will look for other ways to fash­ion a life which seems tol­er­a­ble and achiev­able. That may sim­ply mean liv­ing from day to day, even in a slum, and seek­ing sim­ple plea­sures or ‘vices’ within reach. It may mean putting energy into other inter­ests, from their chil­dren, to hob­bies to sport or music or to a life of crime. Suc­cess or fail­ure will for them be mea­sured by these alter­na­tive met­rics.

In a rel­a­tively well-off coun­try like Aus­tralia, most of us are locally nei­ther very rich nor very poor, nei­ther espe­cially priv­i­leged nor espe­cially hand­i­capped, although we may not always be secure about the future. Most of us live in some large fuzzy mid­dle ground, vaguely called the mid­dle class. Accord­ing to our per­son­al­i­ties, fam­ily expec­ta­tions, and pure luck we will ric­o­chet between pitch­ing for a respectable career, with all the risks of pub­lic suc­cess or fail­ure which that implies, or going fish­ing and to hell with the rat race … 

So as a teacher, my class­room may include the smugly priv­i­leged who are sure of assisted suc­cess, the rebel­liously under­priv­i­leged doubt­ing whether they should be there at all, and a bunch of unfo­cused mid­dle class kids who haven’t really decided if school edu­ca­tion is a huge oppor­tu­nity or a huge con­fi­dence trick. Which con­stituency should I pitch to, and will grit, what­ever it is, help them to get where they finally decide to go?


7. Cli­mate, Geog­ra­phy, Cul­ture and the Grit Fac­tor

Are pop­u­la­tions located in less hos­pitable cli­mates more likely to be show per­sis­tence and deter­mi­na­tion in pur­su­ing goals? The propo­si­tion is too extrav­a­gant to deal with in depth here. It could be a good topic for a mono­graph by a cul­tural anthro­pol­o­gist. My com­ments will be more super­fi­cial and local.

The idea exerts some casual attrac­tion, but prob­a­bly needs very cau­tious inter­pre­ta­tion. It is not hard to show that all kinds of per­son­al­i­ties exist in all kinds of locales. Nor does mov­ing from a lazy trop­i­cal hol­i­day resort to the urban career pres­sures of a big, frigid city nec­es­sar­ily turn a slob into a human dynamo, or vice versa. On the other hand, there may be a grain of truth in the idea that pop­u­la­tions exist­ing under try­ing con­di­tions, per­haps cli­matic con­di­tions, do develop a cer­tain resilience as a mat­ter of phys­i­cal sur­vival. Such tough­ness might not always include the kind of resilience needed to sur­vive the intense com­pe­ti­tion and com­plex­ity of mod­ern soci­eties. Turn­ing the idea on its head, we might also won­der what part the mod­ern mir­a­cle of air con­di­tion­ing has played in trans­form­ing a one-time sleepy entre­pôt like Sin­ga­pore into a glit­ter­ing city state.

Aus­tralia, which is of con­ti­nen­tal size, is an inter­est­ing case study in vari­able work and study ethics across a span of lat­i­tudes. In Aus­tralia, by con­trast with long set­tled coun­tries, fam­i­lies move often, and fre­quently inter­state. Per­haps as a result of mobil­ity, regional dialect vari­a­tions are neg­li­gi­ble. In this lin­guis­tic sense the native Eng­lish speak­ing pop­u­la­tion of the coun­try is almost homo­ge­neous. On the other hand, at first glance there seem to be rather clear dif­fer­ences in the gen­eral work ethic, in legal com­pli­ance, and in edu­ca­tional drop out rates as one moves from the tem­per­ate cli­mates of Mel­bourne and Syd­ney in the south to the trop­i­cal cli­mates of Townsville, Cairns or Dar­win in the far north. 

For exam­ple, in 2014 10.6% of Year 1 Vic­to­rian uni­ver­sity stu­dents dropped out, while the rate for NSW, a 1000 km fur­ther north was 11.6% and Queens­land, into the trop­ics, 15.1% over­all (the high­est in the nation), with 27% in north­ern Queens­land (Cal­ligeros 2014). When it comes to uni­ver­sity fresh­men, grit rather than intel­li­gence is prob­a­bly a bet­ter pre­dic­tor of sur­vival. How­ever, the cli­matic gra­da­tion in the Aus­tralian case prob­a­bly has no kind of direct causative cor­re­la­tion.

What is likely to have hap­pened is that parts of the Aus­tralian pop­u­la­tion have opted for the less pres­sured lifestyles of smaller regional cen­tres. Over sev­eral gen­er­a­tions the more laid-back atti­tude of the orig­i­nal set­tlers in small cen­tres will have hard­ened into a self-rein­forc­ing local cul­tural pat­tern.

This regional pat­tern­ing is some­times evi­dent in atti­tudes to legal com­pli­ance. The rel­e­vance here is that free com­pli­ance with the law implies a cer­tain kind of self-dis­ci­pline (all other things being equal, which often of course they are not). For exam­ple, food indus­try min­i­mum wage com­pli­ance by employ­ers was found in one crack­down to be 94% on the Gold Coast – one of the fastest grow­ing urban cen­tres in the nation – but only 56% in Townsville – a small, tor­pid coastal city in Cen­tral Queens­land (Cal­ligeros 2014). On the other hand, sim­i­lar raids found only 57% com­pli­ance in Ade­laide – a south­ern state cap­i­tal, but also a national back­wa­ter.  


8. Can we really aim for a quick grit fix to embed­ded cul­tural pat­terns?

No. It is almost a cliché that dif­fer­ent cul­tures and coun­tries have dif­fer­ent work ethics (e.g. see the com­ments in Roberts 2013), dif­fer­ing suc­cess rates in for­mal edu­ca­tion, dif­fer­ent atti­tudes to legal com­pli­ance, and so on. The extent to which out­comes like this are related to per­sonal and eth­nic adher­ence to some ideal of “grit” is an easy can­di­date for prej­u­dice. The real­i­ties how­ever are likely to be com­plex, inter­wo­ven with a myr­iad of com­pet­ing influ­ences, and prob­a­bly not sus­cep­ti­ble to any quick easy fix such as putting “teach grit” into a school cur­ricu­lum. On the other hand, hav­ing grit on the pub­lic social agenda for dis­cus­sion might be a use­ful idea. Soci­eties and indi­vid­u­als do change, often slowly, over time. 



Read­ing List


Ash­ley [?] (July 10, 2012) “Know­ing When It’s Time To Give Up: Five Signs”. Nour­ish­ing The Soul blog, online @ http://www.nourishing-the-soul.com/2012/07/knowing-when-its-time-to-give-up-five-signs/

Bowen, William G. and Matthew M. Chin­gos, Michael S. McPher­son (2011) “Cross­ing the Fin­ish Line: Com­plet­ing Col­lege at America’s Pub­lic Uni­ver­si­ties”. Pince­ton Uni­ver­sity Press. Ama­zon sum­mary & com­ments online @ http://www.amazon.com/Crossing-Finish-Line-Completing-Universities/dp/0691149909

Cao Yin (2013–02-02) “Trip to Mars lures appli­cants”. China Daily, online @ http://usa.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2013–02/02/content_16195430.htm

Cell Press (2013, Decem­ber 5) “Elec­tri­cal brain stim­u­la­tion may evoke a person’s ‘will to per­se­vere”. Orig­i­nal research: Parvizi et al. “The Will to Per­se­vere Induced by Elec­tri­cal Stim­u­la­tion of the Human Ante­rior Cin­gu­late Cor­tex”. Neu­ron Jour­nal, Decem­ber 2013. Sci­enceDaily online @ http://www.sciencedaily.com­ /releases/2013/12/131205141848.htm

Amy S. Choi, Amy S. (Jan­u­ary 8, 2014) “Is it Time to Give Up? How to Know for Sure.” Entre­pre­neur blog, online @ http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/229985

Bowl­ing, Danielle (28 Feb­ru­ary, 2014) “57 per­cent of South Aus­tralian food stores com­pli­ant with wage rates”. Hos­pi­tal­ity Mag­a­zine, online @ http://www.hospitalitymagazine.com.au/food/news/57-percent-of-sa-food-stores-compliant-with-wage-r

Cal­ligeros, Marissa (Decem­ber 11, 2012) “Hote­lier under­paid staff by $110,000”. Bris­bane Times online @ http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/queensland/hotelier-underpaid-staff-by-110000–20121210-2b5ng.html#ixzz2EgjW6Hll

Cal­ligeros, Marissa (March 30, 2014) “Queens­land far exceeds other east coast states in uni dropouts”. Bris­bane Times online @ http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/queensland/queensland-far-exceeds-other-east-coast-states-in-uni-dropouts-20140329-35pyn.html#ixzz2xOag727y

Chua, Amy (2011) Bat­tle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Pen­guin Books. Promo’ page online @ http://amychua.com/ 

Clin­ton, Hillary (n.d.) “What hap­pens in your life ….” Brainy Quotes web­site, online @ http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/h/hillary_clinton.html

Cronin, Ash­ley (March 28, 2014} “Resilience and Grit: Resource Roundup”. [extended read­ing list links] Edu­topia web­site, online @ http://www.edutopia.org/resilience-grit-resources 

Davis, Vicki (Jan­u­ary 9, 2014) “True Grit: The Best Mea­sure of Suc­cess and How to Teach It”. Edu­topia web­site, online @ http://www.edutopia.org/blog/true-grit-measure-teach-success-vicki-davis?utm_source=facebook&utm_medium=post&utm_campaign=blog-grit-perseverance-shared-image-soulpancake-marie-quote

Drexler, Eric (1986) “Engi­nes of Cre­ation”. Online e-book @ http://xaonon.dyndns.org/misc/engines_of_creation.pdf

Duck­worth, Angela Lee (April 2013) “The key to suc­cess? Grit”. TED Talks Edu­ca­tion (video), online @ http://www.ted.com/talks/angela_lee_duckworth_the_key_to_success_grit

Duck­worth, A.L., Peter­son, C., Matthews, M.D., & Kelly, D.R. (2007). Grit: Per­se­ver­ance and
pas­sion for long-term goals – A 12 point grit scale”. Jour­nal of Per­son­al­ity and Social Psy­chol­ogy, 9, 1087–1101.

Fire­stone, Lisa ( Feb­ru­ary 21, 2014) “5 Things to Try Before You Give Up on Your Rela­tion­ship”. Psy­chol­ogy Today, online @ http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/compassion-matters/201402/5-things-try-you-give-your-relationship

Flood, Alison (9 Jan­u­ary 2014) “‘Tiger mother’ returns with provoca­tive the­ory of ‘cul­tural group’ suc­cess”. The Guardian online @ http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/jan/08/tiger-mother-theory-cultural-group-jews-chinese

Gib­son, Ellen (Jan­u­ary 2012) “Give It Up: When Quit­ting Is the Best Option”. Oprah Mag­a­zine, online @ http://www.oprah.com/spirit/When-Is-It-Okay-to-Quit-How-to-Know-When-Something-Isnt-Right

Halvor­son, Heidi Grant (Feb­ru­ary 10, 2011) “How to Cut Your Losses When It’s Not Work­ing”. Psy­chol­ogy Today, online @ http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-science-success/201102/how-cut-your-losses-when-it-s-not-working

Hath­away, Henry [direc­tor] (1969) “True Grit”. A movie star­ring John Wayne in his iconic role. IMDb web­site, online @ http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0065126/

Hawkins, Ken (August 18, 2013) “The Art Of Cut­ting Your Losses”. Investo­pe­dia, online @ http://www.investopedia.com/articles/stocks/08/capital-losses.asp

Huff­in­g­ton, Ari­anna (March 30, 2014) “Ari­anna Huff­in­g­ton: It’s time to rede­fine ‘the good life’”. Dai­lyLife web­site, online @ http://www.dailylife.com.au/health-and-fitness/dl-wellbeing/arianna-huffington-its-time-to-redefine-the-good-life-20140327-35l31.html

Hunt, Jamer (June 27, 2011) “Among Six Types Of Fail­ure, Only A Few Help You Inno­vate.” Fast­Cod­eDesign web­site, online @ http://www.fastcodesign.com/1664360/among-six-types-of-failure-only-a-few-help-you-innovate

Jaschik, Scott(September 9, 2009) “(Not) Cross­ing the Fin­ish Line”. Inside Higher Edu­ca­tion web­site, online @ http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2009/09/09/finish

Judge, Tim­o­thy A. and Joyce E. Bono (2001) “Rela­tion­ship of Core Self-Eval­u­a­tions Traits—Self-Esteem, Gen­er­al­ized Self-Effi­cacy, Locus of Con­trol, and Emo­tional Stability—With Job Sat­is­fac­tion and Job Per­for­mance: A Meta-Analy­sis”. Jour­nal of Applied Psy­chol­ogy 2001, Vol. 86, No. 1, 80–92. online @ http://dtserv2.compsy.uni-jena.de/__C12579D400409087.nsf/0/9FD1ECAD14418FB4C12579E4006AC7BE/$FILE/Judge_Bono_2001.pdf

Kovalenko, Irina and Anna G. Galyam­ina, Dmitry A. Smagin, Tatyana V. Michurina, Natalia N. Kudryavt­seva, Grig­ori Enikolopov. ( 27 March 2014) “Extended Effect of Chronic Social Defeat Stress in Child­hood on Behav­iors in Adult­hood”. PLoS ONE, 2014; 9 (3): e91762 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0091762 . Sci­ence Daily pré­cis online @ http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/03/140327123654.htm

Legge, James (1893) The Con­fu­cian Analects trans­lated. Sacred-texts web­site, online @ http://www.sacred-texts.com/cfu/conf1.htm

Lehrer, Jonah (14 March 20122) “Which Traits Pre­dict Suc­cess? (The Impor­tance of Grit)”. Wired web mag­a­zine, online @ http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2011/03/what-is-success-true-grit/

Lick­er­man, Alex (July 29, 2012) “The Power Of Delay­ing Grat­i­fi­ca­tion – How to develop impulse con­trol”. Psy­chol­ogy Today, online @ http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/happiness-in-world/201207/the-power-delaying-gratification

Long, Heather (13 Octo­ber 2013) “Let’s talk about fail­ure”. The Guardian online @ http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/oct/13/anti-resume-talk-about-failure

May, Andrew (March 27, 2014) “Can you be both smart and dumb?” Bris­bane Times online @ http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/executive-style/management/blogs/performance-matters/can-you-be-both-smart-and-dumb-20140326-35hql.html#ixzz2xDDhm26m

May, Thor (1996) “With­drawal from PhD Can­di­da­cies: Uni­ver­sity of Mel­bourne 1996 & Uni­ver­sity of New­castle 1988”. The Pas­sion­ate Skep­tic web­site, online @ http://thormay.net/lxesl/tech6.html

May, Thor (2008) “Cor­rup­tion and Other Dis­tor­tions as Vari­ables in Lan­guage Edu­ca­tion”.  TESOL Law Jour­nal, Vol.2 March 2008; Academia.edu repos­i­tory, online @ http://www.academia.edu/1552332/Corruption_and_Other_Distortions_as_Variables_in_Language_Education

Pereira, Cyril (21 Feb­ru­ary 2012) “Only 10% of man­agers effec­tive? What a shock!”. [Note: I com­mented on this piece. My com­ment is pasted below ** ] Asia Sen­tinel, online @ http://www.asiasentinel.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=4255&Itemid=629

Peter­son, Christo­pher and George E. Vail­lant (1988) “Pes­simistic Explana­tory Style Is a Risk Fac­tor for Phys­i­cal Ill­ness: A Thirty-Five-Year Lon­gi­tu­di­nal Study”. Jour­nal of Per­son­al­ity and Social Psy­chol­ogy 1988, Vol. 55, No. 1,23–27. online @ https://campus.fsu.edu/bbcswebdav/institution/academic/social_sciences/sociology/Reading%20Lists/Mental%20Health%20Readings/Peterson-PersonalityandSocial-1988.pdf

Roberts, Russ (March 1, 2013) “Australia’s min­i­mum wage”. [worth read­ing for the com­ments]; Cafe Hayek, online @ http://cafehayek.com/2013/03/australias-minimum-wage.html

Sam­ple, Ian (Decem­ber 5, 2013) “‘Deter­mi­na­tion’ can be induced by elec­tri­cal brain stim­u­la­tion – Apply­ing an elec­tric cur­rent to a par­tic­u­lar part of the brain makes peo­ple feel a sense of deter­mi­na­tion, say researchers”. The Guardian online @ http://www.theguardian.com/science/2013/dec/05/determination-electrical-brain-stimulation?CMP=ema_632

Saun­ders, Eliz­a­beth Grace (n.d.) “Cut Your Losses: How To Know When To Quit”. 99U blog, online @ http://99u.com/articles/7244/cut-your-losses-how-to-know-when-to-quit

Shapiro, Jor­dan (14 Octo­ber 2013) “Grit, Opti­mism And Other Buzz­words In The Way Of Edu­ca­tion”. Forbes mag­a­zine, online @

Smith, Tovia (March 17, 2014) “Does Teach­ing Kids To Get ‘Gritty’ Help Them Get Ahead?” NPR [National Pub­lic Radio, US], online @ http://www.npr.org/2014/03/17/290089998/does-teaching-kids-to-get-gritty-help-them-get-ahead

Tough, Paul (14 Sep­tem­ber, 2011) “What if the Secret to Suc­cess Is Fail­ure?” New York Times, online @ http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/18/magazine/what-if-the-secret-to-success-is-failure.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

Ware, Bron­nie (Novem­ber 27, 2013) “Nurse reveals the top 5 regrets peo­ple make on their deathbed”. True­Ac­tivist web­site, online @ http://www.trueactivist.com/nurse-reveals-the-top-5-regrets-people-make-on-their-deathbed/

Wikipedia (2014) “Grit (per­son­al­ity trait). Wikipedia online @ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grit_%28personality_trait%29

Wikipedia (2014) “The Ant and the Grasshop­per”. [ref. Aesop’s Fables]. Wikipedia online @ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Ant_and_the_Grasshopper

Wikipedia (2014) “Delayed Grat­i­fi­ca­tion”. Wikipedia online @ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Delayed_gratification

Wikipedia (2014) “Protes­tant Work Ethic”. Wikipedia online @ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Protestant_work_ethic

Wood, Jan­ice (Octo­ber 26, 2013) “Why Can Some Delay Grat­i­fi­ca­tion, While Oth­ers Give In?” Psy­ch­Cen­tral web­site, online @ http://psychcentral.com/news/2013/10/26/why-can-some-delay-gratification-while-others-give-in/61216.html



**  The fol­low­ing is prob­a­bly only mar­gin­ally rel­e­vant to the topic, but I couldn’t resist includ­ing it :). My response to Pereira on man­agers, above, was posted as a com­ment on his site: 

Well, Mr Pereira, your post on the 10% of per­fect man­agers was writ­ten a year ago. What have you changed in your­self and your orga­ni­za­tion in the last twelve months? Are you one of the 10%? Yes, per­haps it is a silly ques­tion.

Like you, from life expe­ri­ence I have no rea­son to doubt that only 10% of man­agers are effec­tive. From life expe­ri­ence I also sus­pect that only 10% of med­ical doc­tors, motor mechan­ics, jour­nal­ists, teach­ers and moth­ers are really much good at what they do. So, as Vlad­mir Lenin is sup­posed to have said, “what is to be done”? A com­pany has the easy option of fir­ing the other 90%, but when it’s down to tin tacks, how often is the guy who is doing the fir­ing one of the mag­i­cal 10%? A what are the odds against being able to replace those imper­fect minds from the national pool of sludges?

When it comes to the over­pop­u­lated planet, a dictator’s choice may be 90% depop­u­la­tion. Gas cham­bers? We know about dic­ta­tors and their ideas of per­fec­tion. Which brings us back to per­fect man­agers with their dri­ven inspi­ra­tion. I’ve seen them at work in edu­ca­tional insti­tu­tions, since I hap­pen to be an edu­ca­tor. I’ve seen their lucid deter­mi­na­tion to impose a false par­a­digm and destroy the sub­tle skill of bril­liant teach­ers (the 10%) who can bring the less gifted to their best per­sonal poten­tials.

What we have in life, and yes in busi­ness too, in any place where there are col­lec­tions of peo­ple, are com­pet­ing ideas of pro­duc­tiv­ity. So is the teacher’s pro­duc­tiv­ity (to max­i­mize the life­time learn­ing of her stu­dent) more crit­i­cal than the administrator’s pro­duc­tiv­ity expressed in a spread­sheet? You might think so, but it rarely works that way. The choices might seem to be less dire in a pickle fac­tory out to make a profit, yet even pickle fac­to­ries are made of human beings with com­plex lives and com­pet­ing met­rics of per­sonal pro­duc­tiv­ity.

I con­cluded long ago that regard­less of IQ (what­ever that may be) there are prob­a­bly lim­its to human edu­ca­bil­ity, or at least rapidly dimin­ish­ing returns beyond a cer­tain point on attempts to impart skills and declar­a­tive knowl­edge to each indi­vid­ual. In one way or another, the 90% will always be with us wherever we hap­pen to be.

I’m merely a hum­ble teacher, yet is seems to me that the best in man­age­ment has some­thing in com­mon with my trade: the mix of psy­cho­log­i­cal insight, empa­thy and prac­ti­cal energy which will bring each mem­ber of that way­ward col­lec­tion of humans in our orbit to their best per­sonal poten­tials. An enter­prise, a class or a pickle fac­tory may be a band of broth­ers or a team of rivals, but they will do their best for you, the teacher, the man­ager, the leader, if each one feels that with you, he or she has a shared mutual respect. At bot­tom true respect is accept­ing an unforced exchange, a two-way, ever evolv­ing process of learn­ing and expe­ri­ence which brings us together on a com­mon jour­ney, even if it is mak­ing the best pick­les at the low­est price. A manager’s chal­lenge to sus­tain that exchange with the 90%, because they are not going away.



The source of this doc­u­ment:

mee­tup group: Gen­tle Thinkers http://www.meetup.com/Gentle-Thinkers/

dis­cus­sion top­ics blog (for the list of pro­posed top­ics): http://discussiontopics.thormay.net/

top­ics already dis­cussed: http://thormay.net/unwiseideas/DiscussionTopics/DiscussionIndex.htm

 com­ments: Thor May – thormay@yahoo.com;

Thor’s own web­sites: 1. arti­cles at http://independent.academia.edu/ThorMay ;
2. main site:



Pro­fes­sional bio: Thor May has a core pro­fes­sional inter­est in cog­ni­tive lin­guis­tics, at which he has rarely suc­ceeded in mak­ing a liv­ing. He has also, per­haps fatally in a career sense, cul­ti­vated an inter­est in how things work – peo­ple, brains, sys­tems, coun­tries, machi­nes, what­ever… In the world of daily employ­ment he has mostly taught Eng­lish as a for­eign lan­guage, a stim­u­lat­ing activ­ity though rarely regarded as a pro­fes­sion by the world at large. His PhD dis­ser­ta­tion, Lan­guage Tan­gle, dealt with lan­guage teach­ing pro­duc­tiv­ity. Thor has been teach­ing Eng­lish to non-native speak­ers, train­ing teach­ers and lec­tur­ing lin­guis­tics, since 1976. This work has taken him to seven coun­tries in Ocea­nia and East Asia, mostly with ter­tiary stu­dents, but with a cou­ple of detours to teach sec­ondary stu­dents and young chil­dren. He has trained teach­ers in Aus­tralia, Fiji and South Korea. In an ear­lier life, prior to becom­ing a teacher, he had a decade of find­ing his way out of work­ing class ori­gins, through unskilled jobs in Aus­tralia, New Zealand and finally Eng­land (after back­pack­ing across Asia in 1972). 

con­tact: http://thormay.net    thormay@yahoo.com

aca­d­e­mic repos­i­tory: Academia.edu at http://independent.academia.edu/ThorMay
dis­cus­sion: Thor’s Unwise Ideas at http://thormay.net/unwiseideas/unwisendx.html


Is learn­ing “grit” is the best way to suc­ceed?  © Thor May 2014

This entry was posted in competence, culture, ethics, ideology, individualism, Language learning, lifestyle, merit, motivation, philosophy, proportion, teaching, value, work. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply