What makes people successful? It’s not a rhetorical question.
Is it some kind of inherent advantage? Is it privilege? Is it talent? Hard work? Having a good idea to begin with?
A new study of 11,258 cadets at West Point, conducted over 10 years, says it’s something else: “grit.”
Led by professors Amy Duckworth of the University of Pennsylvania and Michael Matthews of West Point itself, the study tried to determine the degree to which measures of three attributes —
- cognitive ability (smarts),
- physical ability (braun), and
- grit (defined in the study as “passion and perseverance for long-term goals of personal significance”) —
could predict whether a cadet would succeed or fail at the famously challenging academy.
The researchers found that grit was the most important attribute to predict whether cadets would make it through the initial 6-week West Point basic training known as Beast Barracks.
They also found that high levels of both grit and physical ability were both associated with whether the cadets went on to graduate from the academy four years later.
Perhaps most surprisingly, they found that while cognitive ability predicted higher academic and military grades, it was not also as associated with achieving the ultimate goal: graduating from the academy.
I know a little bit about West Point. I didn’t attend the academy, but I wrote a book about it. It’s a challenging, competitive place, and it’s full of high-achieving people.
The numbers on the academy’s website suggest an admissions rate of about 10 percent.
That number might actually be overinflated because unlike other colleges, nobody is simply adding West Point at the last minute to their Common App application.
Moreover, you have to really want it to attend and graduate. The prize for getting your diploma — besides the fact that the education is paid for by the U.S. Government — is a five-year active duty commitment in the U.S. Army.
For some graduates that’s a dream. For others it’s a price to pay.
It’s worth noting of course that this isn’t the first research on this subject. In fact, Duckworth is probably best known for her TED talk, “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.”
When I wrote about the video of her talk back in 2016, it had 8 million views; now it’s up to 18.5 million.
And, she’s studied and written about “grit” before. In fact, in 2007, she was the lead author of another study of grit, which studied a smaller number of West Point cadets, along with Ivy League students and National Spelling Bee finalists.
It might not surprise you to learn that study also found that “grit” was most important. It’s all interesting, although I think there are two important caveats:
First, the definition of grit is a bit too cyclical for my taste: people who are most likely to succeed are the ones who are most likely to persevere?
I feel like I would have gotten a C+ if I’d turned that kind of reasoning in an essay when I was in college.
Second, I worry that the study of grit skips a key step in achieving success: being sure that the goal is actually worthwhile.
Graduating from West Point and serving in the U.S. Army? Objectively, it’s a worthy thing to aim for.
But, it’s truly not for everyone. Even Duckworth meandered a bit in terms of her professional goals, going from consulting to teaching to psychology.
Still, if you want to tell me that the key to success is to truly want something, and be willing to work as hard as possible to achieve it, I can believe that.
And I’m grateful there are men and women for whom leading soldiers in the U.S. Army is their ultimate goal.
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