The Purpose in Grit

It’s been said, “Nobody likes a quitter.”  Young people would typically be shielded from such statements today, but many of us hold very strong beliefs as to the importance of persistence and self-discipline – in other words, of stick-with-it-ness or grit.  So if grit is important, what are educators and parents doing to promote it?

While on a three day backpacking trip with my grade six and seven students in outside45, I noticed the literal grit building on my hands and reflected upon a presentation to West Vancouver Teachers in August by author Jennifer James and follow up discussions and readings with colleagues. Dr. James spoke on a number of topics but the two that most strongly resonated with me were the importance of grit and the energizing effect of having purpose and reminding ourselves of our purposes often.  The topic of grit in particular has spurred follow-up discussions led by Superintendent Chris Kennedy which included readings of Paul Tough’s ideas on grit, featured in the Globe and Mail (in Margaret Wente’s article), Tough’s article in The New York Times and an article by Grant Wiggins on motivating intellectual grit.

So what is grit?  What factors and experiences develop grit?  What erodes it?  And what is the connection, if any, between the development of physical and intellectual grit?

Many people regard an individual with a high level of grit as also possessing the following attributes or virtues:

  •  Persistence – not giving up, even when something is challenging and not fun;
  • Resilience – facing setbacks and moving on without being (too) discouraged;
  • Toughness – having an ability to deal with uncomfortable conditions for a long period of time, often thought of as endurance;
  • Self-Discipline and Excellence in pursuing long-term goals– holding the belief, as a former professor of mine said, that “anything worth doing is worth doing well.”

So what experiences or factors motivate persistence, resilience, toughness, self-discipline and a pursuit of excellence?  It would seem these qualities are not hard to possess when one is doing something they find enjoyable.  But grit is often identified with doing what needs to be done when enjoyment is absent.


I don’t think it was by accident that Dr. James featured the topics of gritand purpose in the same presentation.  For someone to have grit, they do not need to find the task enjoyable, just meaningful, purposeful.  And to find something meaningful, they must also be able to “connect the dots” in seeing how small, perhaps tedious tasks and practice, fit into the larger scheme of things.  For example, a hockey player practicing wrist shots understands they aren’t practicing that skill because they want to become great at taking wrist shots, they want to become great at playing hockey.  The same must be the case with learning.  As the saying goes, not only must justice be done, it must be seen to be done.  So learning must not simply be purposeful, it must be seen by the leaner as purposeful.

Failure and Reflection

To develop resilience, students must be allowed to fail.  Tough notes in The Globe and Mail:

There is a real difference between developing self-esteem and developing character, and in the past few decades we’ve become confused about that. Yes, if you want to develop kids’ self-esteem, the best way to do it is to praise everything they do and make excuses for their failures.

But if you want to develop their character, you do almost the opposite: You let them fail and don’t hide their failures from them or from anybody else – not to make them feel lousy about themselves, but to give them the tools to succeed next time.

Failure must be seen, as said by WV School District’s Director of Instruction Lynne Tomlinson, as a learning tool.  Excuses must be replaced with reasons, those reasons can be addressed and through that process students learn they can improve.

As I continued to hike with my students, I began to understand the expanded purposes of taking students backpacking.  The main intention was to take students to a stunning part of the world, to let them be wowed by its beauty and give them some questions to wonder about.  The other intention was to challenge students with carrying all of their personal items (food for three days, clothing and shelter) up a challenging trail where discomfort was inevitable.  I noted before the hike that the students who would find the hike the most challenging would also find it the most rewarding, and my hope was that after pushing themselves beyond what they thought they could do, they would develop a greater sense of self-efficacy in knowing that they can accomplish hard things if they stick with it.

As a teacher, my goal is to make that experience as meaningful and transferable as possible, so a worthy question to consider is does enduring physical hardship translate into developing intellectual persistence?*  Many people, when asked to reflect upon what past experiences developed their grit refer to practising for sports teams or preparing for dance or music recitals.  It would seem possible, and hopefully likely, that there would indeed be transfer as long as the athlete/dancer/learner, possesses the same growth mindset for physical and intellectual tasks, in other words, they believe they can both improve their physical and various intelligences through practice and training.  If one is of the mind that practising makes them a better athlete, they will practice, but if one is of the mind that the various intelligences are fixed and they cannot become more intelligent, perhaps there will be less crossover and grittiness will not transfer.

Students must have opportunities to accomplish more than they thought they could and not be allowed to settle for anything else while at other times students must be allowed to fail and learn from it.  Students must understand that they can develop their physical and intellectual capabilities, that neither are fixed, and both require a tremendous amount of effort to improve.  And students must be given some level of independence so that they can attribute their persistence, their grittiness, to their character, to their development, not an extrinsic motivation.  While none of these insights are new, they are worth remembering just as Dr. James implores us to remind ourselves of our own purpose often.

What else can educators and parents do to develop grit and facilitate the transfer of grittiness from physical activities, which seem to be common to many people, to intellectual rigour?

* Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers, is an interesting read about, among other things, intellectual persistence.

One thought on “The Purpose in Grit

  1. Pingback: Reminders, Reflections, Purpose | Thinking about Learning

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