Who Gains From Grit?

I’ve often said that while foragers did what felt natural, farmer cultures used religion, conformity, self-control, and “grit,” to get farmers do less-natural-feeling things. But as we’ve become rich over the last few centuries, we’ve felt those pressures less, and revived forager-like attitudes. Today “conservatives” and “liberals” have farmer-like and forager-like attitudes, respectively. I think the following recent quotes support this view.

Tyler Cowen says workers today have less grit:

There is also a special problem for some young men, namely those with especially restless temperaments. They aren’t always well-suited to the new class of service jobs, like greeting customers or taking care of the aged, which require much discipline or sometimes even a subordination of will. (more)

There were two classes of workers fired in the great liquidity shortage of 2008-2010. The first were those revealed to be not very productive or bad for firm morale. They skew male rather than female, and young rather than old. … There really are a large number of workers who fall into the first category. (more)

Alfie Kohn says grit is overrated:

More than smarts, we’re told, what kids need to succeed is old-fashioned self-discipline and willpower, persistence and the ability to defer gratification. … The heart of what’s being disseminated is a notion drummed into us by Aesop’s fables, Benjamin Franklin’s aphorisms, Christian denunciations of sloth and the 19th-century chant, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” …

On closer inspection, the concept of grit turns out to be dubious, as does the evidence cited to support it. Persistence can actually backfire and distract from more important goals. Emphasizing grit is usually justified as a way to boost academic achievement, which sounds commendable. Indeed, research has found that more A’s are given to students who report that they put off doing what they enjoy until they finish their homework. Another pair of studies found that middle-schoolers who qualified for the National Spelling Bee performed better in that competition if they had more grit, “whereas spellers higher in openness to experience, defined as preferring using their imagination, playing with ideas, and otherwise enjoying a complex mental life,” did worse.

But what should we make of these findings? If enjoying a complex mental life interferes with performance in a contest to see who can spell the most obscure words correctly, is that really an argument for grit? And when kids persist and get good grades, are they just responding to the message that when they do what they’ve been told, they’ll be rewarded by those who told them to do it? Interestingly, separate research, including two studies Duckworth cites to argue that self-discipline predicts academic performance, showed that students with high grades tend to be more conformist than creative. That seems to undermine not only the case for grit but for using grades as markers of success…

Moreover, grit may adversely affect not only decisions but the people who make them. Following a year-long study of adolescents, Canadian researchers Gregory Miller and Carsten Wrosch concluded that those “who can disengage from unattainable goals enjoy better well-being . . . and experience fewer symptoms of everyday illness than do people who have difficulty disengaging from unattainable goals.” …

Finally, the concept isn’t just philosophically conservative in its premise but also politically conservative in its consequences. The more we focus on trying to instill grit, the less likely we’ll be to question larger policies and institutions. (more)

Yes, grit is conservative, and gritty people may not be as playful, open, relaxed, or creative. Grit just helps individuals to succeed, and societies to get ugly things done, like winning their competitions with other societies. But yes, you might be happier to play video games in your parent’s basement, leaving the support of society to someone else.

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  • Robert Koslover

    T.H. Huxley: “Perhaps the
    most valuable result of all education is the ability to make yourself do the
    thing you have to do, when it ought to be done, whether you like it or not; it
    is the first lesson that ought to be learned; and, however early a man’s
    training begins, it is probably the last lesson that he learns
    thoroughly.” Sounds like grit to me.

  • adbge

    Grit is a euphemism for obedience. Young men are not well suited for “new service jobs” not because of a weakness of will, but because of an excess of it.

    • IMASBA

      Indeed. We have to revive or be inspired by ancient forager ways if we want the coming union between forager attitudes and farmer technology and population density to succeed. Foragers used initiation rites and low inequality to accomodate restless young people, we can and must learn from them.

  • Daniel

    So it’s either working in a soul-sucking job or playing video games in your parent’s basement ? “Suck it up LIKE A MAN or be a loser” ?

    And then people wonder why 1 in 10 Americans is on anti-depressants.

    • You really think your ancestors had it easier?

      • Daniel

        What does “having it easy” have to do with what we’re talking about here ?

        Also, while you’re at it – you might want to learn a bit about pre-industrial work habits


        So yeah, they may have had it harder – but they also had a lot of leisure – and they certainly didn’t have a boss breathing down their neck.

        What I see here is a bunch of rich white men complaining that today’s young “just don’t have enough grit to do what it takes”.

        Here’s a radical thought – maybe it’s the nature of industrial society that makes people unhappy.

      • I’m happy to grant that farmer era work hours were less than early industry era work hours. Even so, would you trade places?

      • Daniel

        Like I said before, what does that have to do with anything ?

        You (and Tyler Cowen) are the ones who proposed the dychotomy – work a miserable job or live in your parents basement.

        If that is indeed the choice young men face today – well, is it any wonder they choose the basement ?

      • smthnclvrr

        My contention with that is that today & the agricultural age are two spaces out of an almost-infinitely many. One of those is a world very much like our own with a lesser emphasis on work, leading to (assuming possibility) a leisure-dominated future such as in Banks’ Culture novels or Star Trek (the people who weren’t in Starfleet). Another world is one like our own the emphasizes intense competition & work more, leading to a future (again assuming possibility) the em economy. So your dichotomy is false, just because our ancestors had it “worse” (subjectively in most people’s opinions, including mine) does not mean we are at the apex of “better”, what could be.

  • Sid K

    You seem to be assuming that doing what comes naturally implies that you will be happier. While this might’ve been true in the ancestral environment, it is surely not true now. Happiness in the current environment seems to require a balance of doing what comes naturally and doing “gritty” things.

  • kurt9

    Of course liberals hate grit. Its an inherently conservative trait.

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  • Faze

    Being “somebody” in the real world is a terrific adventure for a sensitive, observant and imaginative person. Even if you become a branch bank manager or head of an egg factory, to use your complex mental life to influence people and their lives and happiness — rather than just seeing it in movies or reading about it in books — is not only exhilarating, it opens up realms of imagination and spirit you would otherwise never experience. The whole journey of “grit” is soul enhancing, not “soul sucking” for the young person with a complex mental life.

    • IMASBA

      Whether a person experiences it like that depends on their personality. For many people it is soul crushing to know that they will always be ignored and stay at the lowest rungs of the ladder, others will believe they are not helping other people’s happiness at all by working in an egg factory, let alone a bank (how could you pick that example?) That’s something you can’t just beat out of people once they’ve tasted of something different. It is a problem and sooner or later we will have to deal with it.

      • Sieben

        I think the main reason people hate their jobs is because of its perceived status. Society tells you that it’s high status to go to college and get an important job. But you don’t have to buy that. You can go get a boring job and doesn’t pay properly and still feel high status if you take pride in yourself another way. Achieve a high level of physical fitness, get really good at some kind of game or sport, have sex with lots of women, etc.

        It’s very easy for people to feel sorry for themselves, and even easier for them to ask other people to feel sorry for them. But hey. Shut up. You have free will. You live in America. The odds may be against you but the sky is the limit. You may not reliably be able to become the next Bill Gates, but I don’t believe it’s impossible for any able-bodied young person to make choices that lead to a six-figure income.

        Please, cry more about how it’s so unfair that the odds are against you. The odds were against many successful people. But no one made you go to a $50,000/yr college and graduate with a liberal arts degree to work in a coffee shop.

      • IMASBA

        I do not live in America and I certainly didn’t get a liberal arts degree…

        “but I don’t believe it’s impossible for any able-bodied young person to make choices that lead to a six-figure income.”

        You have to have a moderately high IQ for that (and you can forget about sleeping with lots of women because you really won’t have the time to go out much) and even then there won’t be enough six-figure jobs for all the candidates, even if, no especially if, everyone makes the right choices. Of course it’s a stupid plan anyway: the problem isn’t solved by giving everyone a six-figure job. It’s solved by making people feel more appreciated at normal jobs.

      • brendan_r

        Competence seems an important condition for job satisfaction.

        Competence requires:
        a) clear-eyed career choice, given your capabilities, and
        b) grit

        Idealists like Alfie Kohn are nudging people the wrong way on both (a) and (b).

        My most miserable acquaintances are those with left half bell-curve intellects that listened to people like Alfie Kohn and earned some useless Masters degree, inevitably packaged w/ debt, inflated expectations, and subliminal recognition that it was all a waste.

        No better way to destroy someone’s grit than to assign them tasks beyond their capabilities.

      • Sieben

        I was actually agreeing with you on your points, and just wanted to add my own analysis in support of the notion that the resolution is for people to think about themselves differently. The 6-figures comment was more of a “hey, you don’t have it so bad” than a recommendation that everyone ought to do this.

        “You have to have a moderately high IQ for that (and you can forget about
        sleeping with lots of women because you really won’t have the time to
        go out much)”

        Heh speak for yourself 🙂 Modern society is filled with pointless time sinks and distractions. How many people actually aim DIRECTLY at what they want?

        “and even then there won’t be enough six-figure jobs for all the candidates,”

        This is true. If everyone tried hard, there’s still only a roughly fixed number of people who succeed. But as things actually are right now, there’s tons of people who don’t try very hard, so your chances of beating them are high.

        ” It’s solved by making people feel more appreciated at normal jobs.”

        I wasn’t suggesting that the only way to feel high-status is to have a high paying job, but it’s one commonly accepted way. In general I think anyone who is middle class can afford a reasonable lifestyle and should be able to derive status from who they are as a person (in addition to whatever they can accomplish in life).

      • Jason Young

        The number of people out there who can convince themselves they’re awesome in spite of their $15/hr job because they do Crossfit and are popular on Tinder is very low. I agree it’s good advice — “just reframe, man!” — but most people can’t do it, and that’s probably a good thing.

      • Sieben

        I mean there’s a difference between doing crossfit 3 days a week and being a 600lb deadlifter.

        I wouldn’t feel particularly proud of my status if I earned $15/hr and there were a hundred guys at the gym hovering at my fitness level.

      • IMASBA

        Right, I apologize for my tone.

        You are correct that people do have choices besides a liberal arts degree (so they bear some responsibility) and that actually trying really hard already gives you an advantage because not everyone tries really hard.

        Just taking pride in the fact that you get by OK is hard for many people because our brains are hardwired to care a great deal about inequality (inequality does correlate to the distribution of power so our obsession with it is not completely unjustified). It would definitely help a lot of people to derive pride from other personal attributes such as physical fitness, a dependable group of friends, etc… But I do believe inequality is definitely skewed and the people on the higher rungs are often not seen as worthy of being there, having worked their way up through luck and coalition politics. Many young people find it difficult to obey such people and/or to prove themselves.

      • Sieben

        So what I’m saying is that the mainstream is biased to think only in terms of class-inquality. But people who are serious lifters might be middle class, but consider themselves extremely high status because of where they fall on the spectrum of physical-inequality.

        I don’t see any reason why the average person can’t redefine their concept of status. It’s already commonly espoused that “money doesn’t make you happy”, and many rich people are openly despised for their love of wealth.

        I actually think the average person *does* do this to a large extent. I was just thinking about the people who derive large parts of their identities from fishing/hunting, video/card games, academic accomplishments, community work, etc. A lot of my colleagues on campus feel fine and don’t even want to earn lots of money. I think they’re insane but that’s how they feel 🙂

        I think it’s only the noisy bottom 10% of people who get stuck playing according to someone else’s worldview who really cause this conversation.

    • Daniel

      It’s so “exhilarating” and “soul enhancing” to spend (at least) 8 hours a day chained to a desk doing boring things whose point you don’t quite see, get yelled at by a mean boss, get passed over for raises/promotions because you didn’t suck up to the right person, etc.

      What kind of privileged lives do you (and the people in your circle) live ?

  • Graf von Jung

    So how exactly is grit different from conscientiousness? What is the purpose of inventing a new and essentially redundant term (‘grit’) when conscientiousness is already well defined?

  • Doug

    This post reminds me of a great essay by David Wong:

    “Let’s say that the person you love the most has just been shot. He or she is lying in the street, bleeding and screaming. A guy rushes up and says, “Step aside.” He looks over your loved one’s bullet wound and pulls out a pocket knife — he’s going to operate right there in the street.

    You ask, “Are you a doctor?”

    The guy says, “No.”

    You say, “But you know what you’re doing, right? You’re an old Army medic, or …”

    At this point the guy becomes annoyed. He tells you that he is a nice guy, he is honest, he is always on time. He tells you that he is a great son to his mother and has a rich life full of fulfilling hobbies, and he boasts that he never uses foul language.

    Confused, you say, “How does any of that fucking matter when my [wife/husband/best friend/parent] is lying here bleeding! I need somebody who knows how to operate on bullet wounds! Can you do that or not?!?”

    Now the man becomes agitated — why are you being shallow and selfish? Do you not care about any of his other good qualities? Didn’t you just hear him say that he always remembers his girlfriend’s birthday? In light of all of the good things he does, does it really matter if he knows how to perform surgery?

    In that panicked moment, you will take your bloody hands and shake him by the shoulders, screaming, “Yes, I’m saying that none of that other shit matters, because in this specific situation, I just need somebody who can stop the bleeding, you crazy fucking asshole.”

    So here is my terrible truth about the adult world: You are in that very situation every single day. Only you are the confused guy with the pocket knife. All of society is the bleeding gunshot victim.

    If you want to know why society seems to shun you, or why you seem to get no respect, it’s because society is full of people who need things. They need houses built, they need food to eat, they need entertainment, they need fulfilling sexual relationships. You arrived at the scene of that emergency, holding your pocket knife, by virtue of your birth — the moment you came into the world, you became part of a system designed purely to see to people’s needs.”


    • Daniel

      Way to miss the point, bro.

      Young people don’t want to work in service sector jobs because they are service sector jobs, but because service sector jobs are low status.

      It’s quite normal to resent being told that YOU’RE SUPPOSED to be low-status, that it’s “for the good of civilization”.

      If it’s “for the good of civilization” that young men be demeaned, then no wonder they’re dropping out.

      And telling them to “suck it up like a man” only serves to signal your high status – exactly the thing young men resent.

      Frankly, I don’t see how a civilization that depends on demeaning young men can sustain itself in the long run. But maybe that’s just me.

      • Jason Young

        Well, c’mon, anyone who reads Robin Hanson knows there’s a vocal segment of hyperliterate roissy-philes obsessed with the ongoing decay and imminent collapse of Western civilization. But do beta males really have it that bad these days? Have you played an Xbox One or PS4? Are you familiar with Netflix? Steam? Youporn? I just don’t buy it. There’s an absurd glut of super addictive distractions out there to mollify the bitterest beta, provided he’s willing to disengage from the unattainable goal of having sex with women who have access to athletes and musicians.

      • Daniel

        First of all, you’re using “beta” wrong. A “beta” is the alpha’s henchman. You’re thinking of “omega”.

        And no, I’m not a mean-spirited douchebag. So I don’t think very highly of the likes of Roissy. But that doesn’t mean he’s wrong about everything.

        You see, people refrain from having children when they feel poor. Poverty in the Western world is very relative, but your brain still thinks along the lines of “you’re worse off than your neighbours, so it’s a bad time to have kids”.

        So when such esteemed futurists like professor Hanson say it’s normal for young people to be at the bottom rung of society … I have a feeling they haven’t quite thought through the implications.

      • Jason Young

        Nope, I’m not. A beta male is a man who lacks the chutzpah to lead but possesses enough ambition and self-reliance to get a job and a girlfriend. That’s the majority of men, and the majority of men play video games and watch a lot of sports and porn. Omegas are the slim minority with no access to women at all.

        I see no evidence to suggest that the majority of men are dropping out in numbers that jeopardizes modern civilization, and I do not encounter much frustration in my extensive dealings with betas, or omegas, or whatever you wish to call the average man working neutral or low status jobs.

        That said, while it is normal for young people to be at the bottom, in today’s service sector young men have to defer to personalities that have not traditionally commanded obedience from young men. Authority in many sectors of the economy is granted to people who do not viscerally seem to deserve it, and what frustration I do detect seems to stem in large part from having to serve unworthy masters.

      • Daniel
      • Jason Young

        what a word means depends on context and usage, not the technical definition as determined by specialists. pedantry and pretense are, what’s the word? gay.

      • Daniel

        Oh, cool. And while we’re redefining words, I hereby say that “Jason Young” is synonymous with “douchebag”. Hopefully, it will catch on.

      • Doug

        If you think prior civilizations didn’t follow the maxim of telling their lower class masses to suck it up and work hard at their crappy lot in life, you must have missed most of history.

        For almost all of human history status has been highly concentrated among a tiny subset of aristocrats/elites/patrticians/owners/brahmins. The vast majority of workers were expected to work hard and long with little to no promise of moving up from their low status positions.

        Modern Western civilization is far closer to your ideal than almost any other time or place. Among other things this is probably the only time where elites increasingly have less leisure than the masses. Contrast most times where the elite classes performed almost no labor. Second unlike prior civilizations the division between the elite and peasant is highly meritocratic, and there’s no legal hereditary barriers between the classes.

        The increasing modern social breakdown of the middle and lower classes is documented by Charles Murray in Coming Apart. This suggests that the pendulum has swung too far in mollycoddling the peasants. Most of the masses seem to do better in the world of Downton Abbey than the 21st century welfare state.

      • Daniel

        Wow Doug, reading comprehension really isn’t your strong suit.

        workers were expected to work hard and long

        If you’d bothered to read the rest of the comments, you’d have learned that the average medieval peasant worked less hours than the average American does today.

        little to no promise of moving up from their low status positions

        I tend to see that as a feature, not a bug. Holding a carrot in front of a wage slave may be good for the owner’s bottom line, but I don’t think it’s so good for the slave employee’s happiness.

        Like I said, people care about STATUS. Seeing others move ahead – that’s what makes one feel like a loser.

        Wait, I’m arguing with someone who takes advice from the likes of Charles Murray. WHAT’S WRONG WITH ME ?

  • Not the first time I’ve concluded Alfie Kohn should be ignored.

  • efalken

    Great book on this is Baumeister and Tierney’s Willpower. A key has to be applying this to one’s comparative advantage–know thyself–so you don’t apply this simply to what’s popular (eg singing) or what your parents say, but what you think is your true calling (interest and relative competence are highly correlated).

    • IMASBA

      “interest and relative competence are highly correlated”

      Is that really true? And if it is there’s still the problem that lots of people may be interested and competent in something that’s not in high demand.

      • efalken

        It is true that proficiency is correlated with interest, they form a positive feedback loop, though I don’t have a handy reference.

        It’s also true that if you are really good and like Scrabble or WoW, you need to recognize these are at best avocations, not vocations.

      • IMASBA

        “It is true that proficiency is correlated with interest, they form a positive feedback loop, though I don’t have a handy reference.”

        That sounds like a smart slef-protection mechanism of the mind, but I’m not sure everyone is endowed with it.

        “It’s also true that if you are really good and like Scrabble or WoW, you need to recognize these are at best avocations, not vocations.”

        That can be a terribly difficult lesson, especially if you have no other true competencies. I think we somehow need to raise the relative status of such “worker drones” to take away frustration.

      • Jason Young

        You can’t increase the status of an occupation without somehow convincing talented or sexy people to start pursuing it.

  • Charlie

    Telling people that the key to life is liberating oneself from the burdens of impulse-control can have some negative long term societal consequences, who knew?

    I think the late 1950’s-60s may have been a turning point for this. That is when social movements touting such an ethos swept through most advanced (and then booming) economies in the world. For classic example of anti-grit see “Under the cobblestones, the beach!” -France, May 1968.

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