Gumption: it’s not just for readers of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, as this debut book, blending anecdote and science, statistic and yarn, capably illustrates.
If you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich? It could be, to trust MacArthur fellow Duckworth, that you’re just not working hard enough—which is to say, you just don’t have enough grit. That old-fashioned term, appropriated by a newfangled scholar, is meant to combine the notions of passion, persistence, and hard work in more or less equal measure. That passion, Duckworth argues, “begins with intrinsically enjoying what you do.” Self-confidence figures into the equation, the assuredness that you have the ability to do what you do with at least some measure of success; but then, the ability to cope with failure, dust yourself off, and try again comes into play as well. Duckworth makes great effort to downplay any idea of innate talent in favor of improvement and mastery that come from digging in and doing it. “If we overemphasize talent,” she urges, “we underemphasize everything else.” In the nature vs. nurture controversy, the author sides with nurture, and there’s more than a little of the tiger mom in the prescriptions she dispenses for education. But on that note, she writes, teachers who are demanding may “produce measurable year-to-year gains in the academic skills of their students.” But throw a little love, supportiveness, and respect into the mix, and you build better people. For Duckworth, there should be no trophies for just showing up. When she writes of hard work in building the “gritty person,” she means hard work, as evidenced by her close study of West Pointers during their first and worst year, when 20 percent of the students drop out in a cohort carefully selected for their ability to stay on task until the task is done.
Not your grandpa’s self-help book, but Duckworth’s text is oddly encouraging, exhorting us to do better by trying harder, and a pleasure to read.