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Smoothing Out Grit: Self-Compassion

Smoothing Out Grit: Self-Compassion


As a senior at the Ross School of Business and fellow at the Center for Positive Organizations, I am writing my thesis exploring self-compassion as a predictor of grit in college students. Here is a bit about both topics and my "why" for studying them.

What is it that the most successful Ivy League graduates, West Point cadets, and National Spelling Bee finalists all have in common? According to the groundbreaking research published by Angela Duckworth, (University of Pennsylvania), and Chris Peterson (University of Michigan) in 2007, it comes down to grit. More so than IQ and conscientiousness, Peterson and Duckworth found that the non-cognitive trait of “grit” predicted success in each of these domains. These findings suggest that the achievement of difficult goals requires more than just talent. Rather long-term success can be attributed to the individual’s ability to apply their talent in a sustained and focused manner over time.

And with that, a volcano erupted. With a TED Talk that has been viewed more than 12 million times, Duckworth’s concept of grit found its way into the educational system, federal government, corporate world, and everywhere else between. Google searches for “grit” have increased 10X fold since 2007. Awarded a MacArthur “genius” fellowship for her work on grit, Duckworth continues this research at the University of Pennsylvania’s Duckworth Lab. This study has been cited more than 2,389 times to date.

Why is it that people flocked to grit? It might be the universality of the idea. No longer restricted by IQ, social status, natural ability, grit makes it seem like everyone could be successful if only they tried hard enough. With enough effort, anyone could achieve their most grandiose dreams. Sadly, this oversimplification is one of the key problems with the application of grit, a caution that Duckworth herself expresses (Dahl).

So what is grit actually? Grit is a positive, non-cognitive trait, defined by Duckworth as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals” (Duckworth). Grit’s two main components identified by researchers are: “perseverance of effort” and “consistency of interest.”

But, in my opinion, grit has limitations. It seems that grit serves as a sufficient label for a quality that a successful individual has, but it does remarkably little to explain how one becomes gritty. Are we either born gritty or not? Is it a fixed ability? Can one increase their grittiness? To wake up tomorrow and say, “Ah, today I am going to be more gritty,” simply does not work. What are the thoughts, behaviors, and internal narratives of a gritty person? I am acutely interested in the question of what grit looks like in the day-to-day.

If you look at the studies in which grit is most famously identified for predicting success, with West Point cadets and the National Spelling Bee finalists, you see that these hyper-competitive environments bear little resemblance to the average layperson’s every day. With a clearly defined ultimate goal, success in these instances is binary. You either pass or you don’t. You either win the spelling bee or you don’t. Endurance is equivalent to success. But what about a person with multiple goals, such as a mother in college? Success to this person may be defined as being a good mother to her children AND earning a diploma. Thus, unable to simplify the goal to a hyper-narrow ambition, this person’s resources and time are split between their two goals.

Duckworth talks frequently how having clearly defined goal is necessary for a gritty individual to succeed, but what does that mean for the non-West Point Cadets and non-spelling bee finalists where success is not so cut-and-dry? Frankly, grit works well in a vacuum. When the goal can be precisely articulated and all resources and time allocated to this single ambition, an individual’s passion and perseverance become their vehicle to success. But for the majority of the world who tolerate competing priorities, grit is not a sufficient compass.

When an individual experiences hardship, emotions come in- shame, negative self-talk, fear of failure, anger, hurt, the not-so-pretty stuff that makes us human. Rumination, the act of repetitively thinking about the causes, situational factors, and consequences of one's negative emotional experience, may occur (Nolen-Hoeksema). Simply applying grit, ignoring negative emotion and repressing the internal narrative to endure over the long-term can be dangerous. Suppressing negative emotions and overworking can cause individuals to burnout, exhaust themselves, and motivate them to engage in self- destructive behaviors in order to numb themselves. When I began to look at grit, I realized that the very notion of sucking it up and “being gritty,” if utilized incorrectly, could be more harmful than helpful.

Achieving long-term success, more often than not, requires that an individual endures numerous failures and hardships. Very seldom is the road to achievement straight and without struggle. Individuals handle failure differently based on the habits and unconscious responses they have formed from their past experiences. Grit says that an individual’s passion and perseverance will allow them to jump these hurdles and rise to the top. But at what cost? Suppressing emotions, overworking, avoiding loved ones, numbing oneself through substance abuse are examples of negative coping mechanisms that could hamper one’s ability to persevere.

When I began to look at positive coping mechanisms for failure, positive reframing, acceptance, and humor were at the top of the list for most effective coping strategies for people dealing with failures (University of Kent). These strategies can all be grouped under the umbrella of practicing self-compassion. Self-compassion is extending compassion to oneself in instances of perceived inadequacy, failure, or general suffering (Neff). Compassion can be defined as the emotional response when perceiving suffering and involves an authentic desire to help. The most acclaimed self-compassion researcher, Kristin Neff, has identified three main components of self-compassion – self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness.

So to review, long-term success requires that one endure short-term failures. Recovering from short-term failures requires acknowledgment and acceptance of one’s emotions, understanding of the situation objectively, and self-forgiveness to be able to separate the event from one’s sense of worth.

I do believe that grit leads to long-term success. But I also believe that sustained passion and perseverance are fueled by more than sheer willpower. When we fail, we suffer. Practicing self-compassion allows us to engage in behaviors that reduce our suffering and help us pick ourselves up faster and with greater agility. Quieting our self-blame, self-compassion allows us to separate our ego from the event and see the situation with objectively. Thus, we are able to respond more effectively. Additionally, the self-kindness component of self-compassion practice gives an individual the motive to engage in exactly the behaviors it needs to heal and succeed over the long-term, even if it means resting in the short-term.

Grit is great in a vacuum. But for the rest of the world, where things get messy and are less than clear, practicing self-compassion may be exactly what we need to succeed.


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