Grit or Grits?

by Dr. Jeff Godin, Ph.D., CSCS, and director of Spartan Coaching


Compared with what we ought to be, we are only half awake.

- William James, American Philosopher and Psychologist


According to Webster’s dictionary ‘grit’ is defined as a hard, sharp granule, an abrasive particle. Webster’s also says that grits are a coarsely ground hulled grain, usually corn.

One is used to smooth out rough, uneven surfaces through persistence and repetition, the other is an overly processed porridge that is energy dense and nutrient poor. One is unyielding and resolute the other is smooth and gelatinous.  If you get a little grit in your sneaker you end up with bleeding blisters, get some cooked grits in your sneaker and you might enjoy it. In terms of hardness, they are on the opposite end of the spectrum.

Among other things, Spartans are gritty. Through persistence of effort they accomplish their goals. Physical fitness and good health isn’t accomplished with a single, monumental effort. They are attained by consistent, focused, strenuous effort .  Angela Duckworth, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, has conducted research on high achievers and has determined that the human attribute of grit predicts success better than any other personality trait such as openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. Duckworth says that grit is even a better predictor of success than intelligence (Duckworth, Peterson, Matthews, and Kelly, 2007) .

Duckworth studied West Point candidates using multiple personality tests and intelligence scores and found that that freshman candidates that scored the highest on grit had a higher probability of surviving the first summer of training. Grit predicted success even better than West Point’s  Whole Candidate Score that is used to select candidates for enrollment (Duckworth, Peterson, Matthews, and Kelly, 2007).  Duckworth also studied National Spelling Bee candidates and again grit was an important predictor for advancement into the final round. Duckworth noted that the grittier candidates put more time into studying vocabulary (harder workers) and performed better that some of their more intelligent peers (Duckworth, Peterson, Matthews, and Kelly, 2007).

I can think of more than a handful of individuals that had great talent in their sport yet never attained the pinnacle of success in their career. Conversely, there were those that had modest talent, yet worked on their skills and honed their talent through daily vigorous practice, over a long period of time, and became extremely successful. The former had grits for breakfast and the latter had a big bowl of grit.

Grit isn’t a short term phenomena. A conscientious, persistent athlete can achieve short-term goals such as improved fitness and weight loss. But grit is much more than that. According to Duckwork “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.” (Duckworth, Peterson, Matthews, and Kelly, 2007. p. 1087-1088)

Can a leopard change its spots? Can a human change their personality and become gritty? Generally personality is stable over time as indicated by research conducted at the University of California (Nave, Sherman, Funder, Hampson, and Goldberg, 2010).  But it is important to understand that our behaviors can be influenced by the environment. We may not be able to change our biology but we do have the capacity to change our behaviors.  We do have free will. In similar vein, someone may have a genetic predisposition to develop heart disease, but if that person makes the conscience choice to eat healthy, be physically active, and not smoke then the manifestation of heart disease is less likely.

For some becoming gritty may be an easy transition. For others it may require more conscious effort. Do you want more grit? Start here:

1)     Write out your plan for success – establish your baseline, set a goal, define a clear path towards that goal.

2)     Eliminate distracters – What are your barriers? Is it TV, internet, video games?

3)     Keep a journal – Journal your successes and failures. Contemplate them; monitor your feelings and emotions. Work on solutions.

4)     Share the plan – Share your plan with someone that is supportive yet can offer constructive criticism when needed. Hire a coach.

5)     Keep track of your successes – Remember the days when you would receive a gold star for exceptional performance in grade school? Give yourself a gold star for every success you have during the day.

6)     Last but not least, don’t give up. Success is a marathon…ultramarathon, not a sprint. There will be peaks and valleys. Expect failure, but don’t accept it. Learn from it and keep moving forward. You must remain passionate about your goals.

7)     All of this is work, hard work. Expect it, and embrace it. I looked for some research that supported the idea that success was the result of sleeping more, day dreaming, and quip facebook posts, but I couldn’t find any.

What is your next meal, grit or grits?



Duckworth, A., Peterson, C., Matthews, M., and Kelly, D.  (2007).  Grit: Perserverance and passion    for long term-goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology; (92), 1087-1101.

Nave, C., Sherman, R., Funder, D., Hampson, S., and Goldberg, L. (2010). On the contextual independence of personality: Teachers’ assessments predict directly observed behavior after four decades.  Social Psychology and Personality Science; (1), 327 – 334.

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