Andrew Fiala

What defines grit? There can be a fine line between tenacity and madness

Stephen Curry’s warm-up

NBA MVP Stephen Curry goes through his dribbling routine before Saturday's game, when the Golden State Warriors hosted the Denver Nuggets.
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NBA MVP Stephen Curry goes through his dribbling routine before Saturday's game, when the Golden State Warriors hosted the Denver Nuggets.

Practice makes perfect. To become an expert, they say, you need to spend 10,000 hours working at it. That’s 20 hours a week for 10 years. Stephen Curry shot baskets as a kid on a rickety hoop in a muddy yard. He continues to send thousands of practice shots at the hoop. Athletes, artists and scientists become great through long hours of dedicated practice.

That level of devotion depends upon something called “grit.” I heard psychologist Angela Duckworth speak about this recently at a conference. Grit combines passion and perseverance. Effective grit is connected with what Duckworth calls “deliberate practice” – focused, intense and intentional training.

Grit is a prototypical American virtue. We tell ourselves that if we just try hard enough, we can do anything. We are a bootstrap nation of immigrants who value hard work and creative energy. Grit is the will to work in the face of adversity. It depends upon a sustained sense of purpose and hope.

Of course, grit isn’t everything. Curry is 6-foot-3. Other people are not so vertically blessed. No amount of effort can make you taller. The psychology of grit does not deny the objective reality of talent. But, as Duckworth explains, effort matters twice as much as talent. Grit is about what you do with your natural gifts.

Nonetheless, social and genetic factors can create serious challenges. The genetic lottery can be cruel. Society adds other impediments. In a racist or sexist society, some people will be fundamentally disadvantaged. Grit and practice will only take you so far, if you suffer from a serious physical or mental disability.

This is why efforts to cultivate grit must be combined with efforts to promote equity and social justice. Individuals can improve themselves through effort. But society must enable and support those efforts by eliminating barriers to achievement.

A further problem arises when grit is divorced from a larger ethical worldview. Some gritty people end up doing terrible things. Hitler and Stalin had passion and persistence. But they put grit to work in diabolical ways.

The solution to this problem is what philosophers call “the unity of the virtues” or “the reciprocity of virtue.” A virtuous life is a whole life that is good. Courage and fidelity, for example, are only praiseworthy in light of a larger story. Is it good for a courageous soldier to serve in an unjust war? Should a faithful wife remain loyal to her criminal husband? Bravery and loyalty depend upon context.

The same is true of grit. A person who keeps hitting his head against the wall is not tenacious, he is stubborn – and stupid. Perseverance must be balanced with acceptance. Hard work is fine. But there is also wisdom in accepting what cannot be changed.

The unity of the virtues depends upon balance. Courage and fortitude must be balanced with compassion and humor. The Roman philosopher Seneca wrote that constant labor “breaks the vigor of the mind” and continuous toil breeds dullness. We need to work. But we also need to rest and play.

Grit can also be callous and single-minded. Those 10,000 hours can get in the way of other goods, including relationships with other people. Perfectionism can cause anxiety. And tenacity can give way to despair when the world refuses our plans.

In one place, Duckworth describes grit as “ferocious determination.” That’s a memorable phrase. But it makes grit seem grim and lonely. One wonders about the place for joy and love in all of this. Life is not only about overcoming adversity. It is also about play and laughter. Wise people know how to sweat. But they also know how to smile. The anxiety of perfectionism is moderated by finding joy in the here and now.

The challenge of life is learning how to coordinate all of this. A happy life balances the hot and the cold, the spicy and the sweet, the gritty and the smooth. The trick is to combine all of this in a unified whole, in a world that is often beyond our control. It takes much more than 10,000 hours to figure this out. This is the work of a lifetime. But, as they say, practice makes perfect.

Andrew Fiala is a professor of philosophy and director of The Ethics Center at Fresno State: @PhilosophyFiala