He begins, “If you believe Malcolm Gladwell—he of the mindset that 10,000 hours of practice ("grit") will make even the biggest musical sow's ear into a silk purse—both the Beatles and Rory Storm and the Hurricanes should have been equally successful.”
Taking Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours in gritty pursuit of a goal to mean The Beatles and Rory Storm and the Hurricanes should have been equally famous, he argues that the two bands didn’t achieve equal measures of fame because the Beatles had more talent. But Gladwell’s 10,000 hours of practice would only apply to Rory Storm and the Hurricane’s skill at their musical craft. It is not meant to guarantee that they achieve critical acclaim, popular celebrity, or financial success.
Delisle guesses that The Beatles had an “innate…musical genius” “enhanced by practice, but not determined by it” that the Hurricanes didn’t. I don’t know the Hurricanes, so that could be true, but as the majority of people who try to launch a first business know, it is rarely enough to be good at what you’re selling. It is also important to be—or have someone who is—good at selling it. Furthermore, it remains that grit played a key role in catapulting the Beatles’ musical genius to world recognition.
“The concept of grit dismisses all too casually some of the most important factors that pave the road to success” such as, in the case of education, a student’s breakfast on a given day, interest in what they’re learning, and the stigma of “acting smart.”
There is no doubt that the changing circumstances on a given day have major effects on a student’s day-to-day and aggregate success. But it is also true that the granular elements that make up a gritty character—and educators’ recognition of the former and encouragement of the latter—have important impacts on a student’s ability to withstand and overcome those hardships. Strategic and meaningful encouragement of the characteristics that constitute grit means educators must be both aware of and attentive enough to students’ circumstances to help them first identify the sources of their struggle and then to develop the skills and habits to change or work within their constraints.
“By discounting the vital role of genetically endowed abilities in virtually every human dimension—academics, the arts, athletics—advocates of grit are ignoring a century or more of psychology that points to the importance of innate abilities and talents.”
Talent will never beget personal excellence or external success without the presence of grit. A three-year-old who isn’t afraid of being upside down and can turn a crooked but confident cartwheel does not win Olympic medals without years of dedicated practice to overcome regular mistakes, injuries, failures, and sacrifices in other areas of her life.
Author, entrepreneur, and “life enthusiast” Mark Manson proposes that it’s what we are willing to struggle for that determines how successful our dreams will be. He tells the story of his dream to be a rock star, fantasizing and daydreaming about it for hours on end. But he dropped out of music classes—made excuses about it not being a good time, not having enough money, needing to finish school. In the end, he says, “I was in love with the result…I wasn’t in love with the process.”
Grit is teaching students to be in love with the process for the things they love and have talent for, to endure the process for the things they’re required to do; and ideally, to be open to the latter evolving to the former.
It is important for students to learn that they will not always have the choice to commit themselves solely to things they enjoy or that come naturally to them. In school and in life, we must all complete tasks that we don’t find enjoyable. Whether that’s a doctor who loves working with patients, but dreads the paperwork after each visit; an elementary school teacher who loves teaching science, but dreads the English grammar lessons; or a journalist who loves interviewing and writing, but is worn down by constant travel and low pay.
Renown in any field requires talent, but reaching any level of understanding and skill within them also requires grit.
“Nowadays, the mere mention of educating gifted and advanced students separately from others elicits cries of elitism, racism, classism, and too many other "isms" to name. But if you just had a little grit, then everyone could be gifted, right?”
Delisle begins to make a valid point in the idea that “[g]rit attempts to equate unequals as equals.” It is absolutely true that children and young people should be encouraged to develop as unique individuals and to recognize that they are different from the people around them, but it’s reductive to say that grit attempts to make everyone the same. As in any battle for equal rights, equality does not signify or require uniformity. Grit attempts to give every student the preparation and persistence to seize those opportunities that open as they develop and pursue their respective talents, interests, and goals.
A child who isn’t genetically athletic may never be Derek Jeter, but with the right amount of determination and practice, he could very well still become a very good high school ball player—maybe even good enough to secure himself a college scholarship. For kids in underserved communities, that gritty pursuit of a skill, despite lack of “natural” talent, could be a factor that allows them to obtain a college degree.
Gifted and advanced students are categorized by their achievement in scholastic arenas. Academic prowess may indeed be their natural talent, but some gifted and talented students may simply be tenacious in their pursuit of academic excellence and work diligently (ie. with grit!) to get the good grades that qualify them as gifted. Alternatively, they may simply be good at the processes schools often prioritize: memorization, homework completion, test taking. Whether it’s natural talent in a subject, aptitude for the school process, or hard work, gifted and talented students’ achievements are highly commendable and their efforts and talent should be cultivated. But gifted and talented students are not without limitations and in the end, they too will need their own strain of grit to push past them and to truly excel.
Grit is not a quick-fix elixir that promises to turn steel to gold or a kid who’s two years below grade level to valedictorian. It is, however, a tool that students can use to persevere through tasks that they find challenging, to pursue subjects they find exciting, and, yes, to refine and develop their natural talents.
Jennifer Pietropaoli has a background in international education and currently works in global health services. She is a mentor and tutor for secondary school students in DC and writes about assorted topics and perspectives in education.