Grit

How to graduate from West Point. Also, 7 other things worth your time.

What makes people successful? Is it some kind of inherent advantage? Is it privilege? Is it talent? Hard work? Having a good idea to begin with?

A study of 11,258 cadets at West Point, conducted over 10 years, says it's something else: "grit."

Led by professors Angela Lee 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 could predict whether a cadet would succeed or fail at the famously challenging academy:

  1. cognitive ability (smarts), 

  2. physical ability (brawn), and 

  3. grit (defined in the study as "passion and perseverance for long-term goals of personal significance.")

They found that grit was the most important attribute to predict whether cadets would make it through the initial six-week West Point basic training known as Beast Barracks.

They also found that high levels of grit and physical ability were associated with whether the cadets went on to graduate from the academy four years later. 

Perhaps most surprisingly, while cognitive ability predicted higher academic and military grades, it was not as associated with achieving the ultimate goal: graduating from the academy. The study was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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.

(More than a few of them are on this email list, by the way. I fully expect to hear from them later today.)

The numbers on the academy's website suggest an admissions rate of about 10 percent. Moreover, the prize for graduating—beyond getting your diploma, of course—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. 

Duckworth is probably better known for her TED Talk, "Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance." When I wrote about the video of her talk back in 2016 for Inc., it had 8 million views; now, it's up to 22.85 million.

And, in 2007, she was the lead author of another report on grit, which studied a smaller number of West Point cadets, along with Ivy League students and National Spelling Bee finalists. That smaller study also found that "grit" was most important.

Now, my two important caveats:

  • First, the definition of “grit” is a bit too circular for my taste: People who are most likely to succeed are the ones who are most likely to persevere? I think I would have gotten a C+ (at best) 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? It's a worthy goal for many people, but it's truly not for everyone. Sometimes, very smart, driven, talented, awesome people meander a lot in their careers.

I say this as someone whose career path goes from (a) newspaper reporter to (b) publishing entrepreneur to (c) civilian lawyer to (d) military lawyer to (e) author to (f) journalist (again) to (g) digital marketing entrepreneur to (h) writer/columnist to (i) whatever the heck you’d say I am now.

Even Duckworth meandered a bit: from consulting to teaching to psychology to popular author and pundit.

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 if we have to put a name on it, “grit” seems as good as any.


7 other things worth your time

  • The CDC released its first guidance on what people can do differently once they’re vaccinated: basically take some big steps toward normalcy, including gathering in small groups with other people, even if those people haven’t yet had shots. (NBC News)

  • Leaders of an effort to recall California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) say they believe they have collected enough signatures to spark a special election this year. While getting a recall on the ballot is just step 1, it’s worth remembering that this is very similar to the chain of events that led to Arnold Schwarzenegger becoming California governor in 2003. (The Hill)

  • Burger King put its corporate foot in its mouth by tweeting and running ads saying, “Women Belong in the Kitchen.” It was supposed to be part of a campaign for women to become professional chefs, but the mere fact I’m explaining this tells you it was a mistake. Separately, the billionaire founder of Papa John’s, who resigned in 2018 after admitting to using the N-word racial slur, said he’s mounting a comeback, and has been working “for the last 20 months” to “get rid of this N-word” from his vocabulary.” (USA Today, Mediate)

  • “Pepe Le Pew, the controversial Looney Tune skunk notorious for his sexually aggressive behavior, will not appear in any upcoming projects from Warner Bros. TV.” Seriously, who would have noticed or remembered this character if he’d just been quietly dropped? Now we get to have a big debate. (IndieWire)

  • Los Angeles county officials may return beachfront property that was seized from a Black family nearly a century ago. Manhattan Beach used eminent domain in 1924 to force Willa and Charles Bruce, the city’s first Black landowners, off the land where they lived. (The Guardian)

  • Here’s my writeup of Oprah’s interview of Meghan and Prince Harry. Takeaways: There’s got to be more to come out about how they just happen to have been staying at Tyler Perry’s house (he’s a close friend and business partner of Oprah’s). But Oprah showed why she’s a master at this kind of thing, and it was intriguing that she never mentioned that she also did the 1996 interview with Sarah Ferguson, which had some of the same themes. (Me on Inc.)

  • Yesterday it was underwear… The Marine Corps is trying to figure out how four boxes containing urine samples from drug tests were mistakenly (we assume) mailed to a private citizen with no connetion to the Marines, instead of a lab. (Marine Corps Times)


Thanks for reading. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army; it’s from basic training, not West Point, but if you knew that before reading this please just suspend your disbelief. I’ve written about the study at Inc.com before. If you’re not a subscriber, please sign up for the daily Understandably.com email newsletter—with thousands and thousands of 5-star ratings from happy readers.

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