As a direct countermeasure, Duckworth told me, she started changing her interactions with the dozen young researchers who work in her lab. They needed to see the rejection letters she received from peer-reviewed publications, she decided, and so she started circulating each one as it came in: pages upon pages of sometimes savage attacks of the sort professors regularly deal one another, anonymously, by way of saying an article is unfit for publication. This is not something she would have done, Duckworth quickly noted, at a less secure moment in her career. But getting a MacArthur genius grant (as Duckworth did, in 2013) allows you to, among other things, hold your failure up to others and say, in effect, this is what success looks like.
Duckworth’s book is at its best when it, too, is showing the mess behind success. What she proves, scientifically, is limited. Of the various groupings where she finds the Grit Scale to predict staying power—Green Beret candidates, National Spelling Bee contestants, Chicago public-school students—only a couple (Teach for America participants and salespeople at a vacation-time-share company) involve a workforce. But what sticks with you are the testimonials, collected from sources as disparate as Will Smith, William James, and Jeff Bezos’s mom, that relentlessly deflate the myth of the natural.
If I was left with one nagging question after reading Duckworth’s book, it had to do with the second part of her grit recipe. Just half of the Grit Scale’s questions are designed to measure perseverance, or the determination to meet a particular challenge. The other half measure what she calls passion but might be better understood as directional consistency, or the ability to stick unswervingly to a single, superordinate goal over a period of years. Duckworth mentions a journalist who chose his path precisely because “the journalism industry was very hierarchical, and it was clear how to get from A to B to C to D.” But that describes journalism maybe 15 years ago. Which made me wonder: How well does this approach—basically, pick one long-range goal, keep your head down, and don’t take a step sideways—hold up in an economy where career paths can twist and even vanish with little warning? Shouldn’t you keep your head up, ready for the next pivot? Or have many irons in the fire, as the champions of “career agility” suggest?
Duckworth gamely admitted to me that she had not thought of this—a result, perhaps, of her roots in education (where the paths to success have clear signposts) and her position in academia, one of the last truly guild-like domains. “Grit may carry risk,” she thought out loud, “because it’s about putting all your eggs in one basket, to some extent.”
Even if Grit’s career advice is partly outmoded—or applicable only to fields where the rules of advancement remain stable—it may be useful, anyway, to the extent that we need some direction to get anywhere. And if we are forced to switch paths? Well, that requires grit too. I thought of Intel’s Andy Grove, a chemical engineer who, at age 32, suddenly found himself in charge of a chip-fabrication plant full of people he was supposed to manage. A more complacent person might have lunged for the comfort of his existing skill set. But Grove opened a school notebook and posed himself the question What is a manager?
He pasted in news clippings (Time’s description of a movie director’s role, for instance), annotated these with more questions (“My job description?”), and began to bear down on his fuzzy new understandings by sketching them as graphs. It’s the record of a man repeatedly hurling himself against an unfamiliar challenge. In the end, the notebook was full.