Can the Right Kinds of Play Teach Self-Control?

Paul Tough in

25th September 2009

“Come on, Abigail.”

“No, wait!” Abigail said. “I’m not finished!” She was bent low over her clipboard, a stubby pencil in her hand, slowly scratching out the letters in the book’s title, one by one: T H E. . . .

“Abigail, we’re waiting!” Jocelyn said, staring forcefully at her classmate. Henry, sitting next to her, sighed dramatically.

“I’m going as fast as I can!” Abigail said, looking harried. She brushed a strand of hair out of her eyes and plowed ahead: V E R Y. . . .

The three children were seated at their classroom’s listening center, where their assignment was to leaf through a book together while listening on headphones to a CD with the voice of a teacher reading it aloud. The book in question was lying on the table in front of Jocelyn, and every few seconds, Abigail would jump up and lean over Jocelyn to peer at the cover, checking what came next in the title. Then she would dive back to the paper on her clipboard, and her pencil would carefully shape yet another letter: H U N. . .

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Resource: Grit: Perseverance and Passion for Long-Term Goals

By: Angela L. Duckworth
Department of Psychology, University of Pennsylvania;
Christopher Peterson
Department of Psychology, University of Michigan
Michael D. Matthews
Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership, United States Military Academy, West Point
Dennis R. Kelly
Institutional Research and Analysis Branch, United States Military Academy, West Point

Acknowledgement: This research was supported by a National Science Foundation Graduate Fellowship and a grant from the John Templeton Foundation. For helpful comments on a draft of this article, we thank Sigal Barsade, Dianne Chambless, Martha Farah, Gary Latham, Paul Rozin, Richard Shell, Dean Simonton, and especially Martin Seligman. We are grateful to Robert Gallop and Paul McDermott for guidance on statistical analyses. Finally, we thankfully acknowledge the efforts of Paige Kimble, Edgar Knizhnik, Patty Newbold, Patrick Quinn, and Cybelle Weeks in data acquisition and management.

Compared with what we ought to be, we are only half awake. Our fires are damped, our drafts are checked. We are making use of only a small part of our possible mental resources…men the world over possess amounts of resource, which only exceptional individuals push to their extremes of use. ( William James, 1907, pp. 322–323)

In 1907, William James proposed “a program of study that might with proper care be made to cover the whole field of psychology” (p. 332). James encouraged psychologists to address two broad problems: First, what are the types of human abilities and, second, by what diverse means do individuals unleash these abilities?

In the century that has passed since James’s suggestion, psychological science has made impressive progress in answering the first of these two questions. In particular, we know a great deal about intelligence, or general mental ability, a construct for which formal study was initiated by a British contemporary of James, Sir Francis Galton. Notwithstanding vigorous debates over the dimensionality and origins of intelligence, we know more about IQ—how to measure it reliably and precisely and what outcomes it predicts—than any other stable individual difference. In contrast, we know comparatively little about why, as James put it, most individuals make use of only a small part of their resources, whereas a few exceptional individuals push themselves to their limits.

In this article, we reiterate James’s second question in the following terms: Why do some individuals accomplish more than others of equal intelligence? In addition to cognitive ability, a list of attributes of high-achieving individuals would likely include creativity, vigor, emotional intelligence, charisma, self-confidence, emotional stability, physical attractiveness, and other positive qualities. A priori, some traits seem more crucial than others for particular vocations. Extraversion may be fundamental to a career in sales, for instance, but irrelevant to a career in creative writing. However, some traits might be essential to success no matter the domain. We suggest that one personal quality is shared by the most prominent leaders in every field: grit.

We define grit as perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Grit entails working strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity, and plateaus in progress. The gritty individual approaches achievement as a marathon; his or her advantage is stamina. Whereas disappointment or boredom signals to others that it is time to change trajectory and cut losses, the gritty individual stays the course.

Our hypothesis that grit is essential to high achievement evolved during interviews with professionals in investment banking, painting, journalism, academia, medicine, and law. Asked what quality distinguishes star performers in their respective fields, these individuals cited grit or a close synonym as often as talent. In fact, many were awed by the achievements of peers who did not at first seem as gifted as others but whose sustained commitment to their ambitions was exceptional. Likewise, many noted with surprise that prodigiously gifted peers did not end up in the upper echelons of their field.

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