The Best Predictor of Success, According to Science

by ParentCo. May 10, 2021

I’m sitting on the sidelines at my five-year-old son’s soccer game listening to parents and caretakers yell out encouraging words to the players. It’s clear that, from the time our children are little, we want them to excel and reach their full potential. We want to set children up on a path towards success later in life.

What contributes to a person’s success in the long-term?

According to Dr. Angela Duckworth in her groundbreaking book “Grit,” one of the best predictors of long-term success isn’t talent or intellect (though these are also helpful for obvious reasons). It’s grit.

Duckworth explains that the highly successful have a kind of fierce determination that makes them incredibly resilient, hard-working, and focused on their long-term goals. This combination of passion and perseverance in high achievers can be described in a word as grit.

In “Grit,” Duckworth draws on studies she performed on teachers working in schools in tough neighborhoods, cadets facing the challenging environment at West Point, and finalists in the National Spelling Bee. She illustrates that level of grit is the one factor that predicted which study participants would excel in these demanding settings.

Duckworth also found that grittier kids are less likely to drop out of high school. Grit determines graduation rates more than the level students care about school, how thorough they are about their studies, and even how safe they feel at school.

Watching my son’s soccer team play, it’s clear that certain players are more naturally inclined with athletic ability than others, but Duckworth would likely caution me not to jump to conclusions about how the player’s talents will play out over time. She argues in her book that, as much as talent counts, effort counts twice as much.

Duckworth explains that effort applied to talent builds skill, and effort applied to skill makes skill productive in the form of achievement. Without applying effort to talent, talent only remains untapped potential (this would be the case for the talented kids on the team that later decide to quit soccer). Without applying effort to skills, a person produces and achieves less (for example, a child that might play fewer games may fail to move up the ranks in soccer).

Duckworth draws on the scientific findings of Stanford psychologist Catharine Cox to explain how IQ comes into play. Cox studied accomplished historical figures. She concluded that, as a group, the historical figures were smarter than the rest of us, but she also noticed that IQ mattered very little in distinguishing between the most and the least accomplished in the group. What did matter in separating the most from the least accomplished in the group was – you guessed it – grit.

The good news is that grit is not a fixed trait. It can grow over time, and Duckworth details in “Grit” the ways we can grow our grit from the inside out by connecting interest, practice, purpose, and hope to shape our long-term goals.

While observing the parents at my son’s soccer game, it’s clear that there are different approaches to the level of encouragement we give to our children. Some parents are very vocal about correcting children during the game and others are laid-back.

How do we best encourage grittiness in our children? Is it fostered by demanding high standards, or is it nurtured with loving support?

Though Duckworth admits that much more research is necessary for the area of parenting for grit, she suggests that parents and caretakers should be both demanding and supportive. She also recommends that we look at our own levels of grit. If we are raising our children in a way that makes them want to emulate us, our grittiness will likely show up in our children.

Another key point made in “Grit” is that before hard work comes play. Duckworth encourages allowing children to explore their interests. She points out that children of parents who let kids make their own choices about activities that they enjoy are more likely to develop an interest that is later identified as a passion.

In the end, the effort we apply to our potential might just determine our potential itself. Doesn’t that information make you feel grittier?



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