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Opinion Is ‘grit’ overrated in explaining student success? Harvard researchers have a new theory.

Members of the U.S. Naval Academy 2019 class (plebes) form a human pyramid and climb the 21-foot Herndon Monument covered in vegetable shortening at the U.S. Naval Academy on May 23, 2016 in Annapolis, Md. While educators have embraced the idea of “grit” as playing a role in individual success, new research points to something else: An individual pathway for each student. (Photo by Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

The concept of “grit” is perhaps the hottest trend in education circles these days, the idea that students who have a certain fire in their belly outperform those with high IQ or natural talent. Just this month, a book with the same name rose to the top of the bestsellers list, written by the University of Pennsylvania psychologist who turned the term into a buzzword in recent years.

Angela Duckworth’s research has found that the most successful people are those not only with self-discipline but also with a singular determination to accomplish a task, no matter the obstacles.

To measure grit, Duckworth developed a simple 12-question test that is increasingly used by companies and the military in assessing candidates. When Duckworth gave it to more than 1,200 freshmen cadets at West Point as they entered a rigorous summer training course, the military found her test to be more predictive of which cadets would ultimately succeed than its own assessments.

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Much like the 10,000 hours theory advanced by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers — that it takes roughly 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery in a field — the idea of grit is a simple concept to understand for parents and teachers worried about raising achievement levels among students.

But how well does grit, or 10,000 hours, really explain the ultimate success of people who achieve preeminence in their fields?

Not as much as we tend to think, according to two Harvard University researchers working on a new project aimed at understanding the development of individual excellence. Todd Rose and Ogi Ogas at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education maintain that concepts like grit and hard work are based on averages across populations or occupations, such as tennis or chess. But mastery in almost any field cannot be easily explained by averages since people achieve their success in different ways.

“Things like grit and 10,000 hours are mindsets that are very misleading because they are consequences not causes — they are lagging indicators of performance,” said Todd Rose, who is the author of The End of Average, a book that illustrates how averages are flawed in understanding human achievement.

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Since September, Ogas and Rose have interviewed three dozen people who have achieved success in their fields, from sommeliers to poker players. “When we spent the time to understand how they got better, each master had his or her own unique path,” Ogas said.

Take the wine connoisseur who spent hours studying for the test to become a master sommelier without success. “Then he realized he was able to recognize wines through his facial reactions when he tasted them. When using this method, he aced the test and spent a fraction of the time studying,” Ogas said.

Then there was the top poker player they interviewed who had completed a Ph.D. and had a nervous breakdown on the way to interview for an academic job. She moved to Montana, where she started to play poker in a local casino and quickly became a star on the poker circuit.

“In each case, what we found is that they started down one path because they thought that was what they were supposed to do, and then at some point they realized that they didn’t like that path at all,” Rose said. “During that period, they fell into something else and made a series of choices that led them to success.”

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Once the pilot phase of their study comes to a close in a few months, Rose and Ogas plan to expand their inquiry to hundreds of people to see if their individual theory of success still holds true.

The concepts of grit and 10,000 hours have been widely adopted by educators because they are relatively easy to understand and comforting for parents worried about their children. When you first hear the theory of the Harvard researchers — that the pathway to success is different for everyone — it’s not comforting at all. Teachers, parents, and processors favor education approaches that can be applied across broad swaths of students.

But Rose and Ogas told me that they hope the eventual outcome of their work will be a set of principles that will be very practical and easy to follow. One principle they have already concluded is that it’s better to make short-term goals instead of long-term goals because the most successful people rarely think more than one move ahead in their lives.

Whether their research will catch on in education circles like that of Duckworth’s remains unclear. But given that theories in education tend to come and go at alarming speed, it’s likely only a matter of time before we have moved on to something else to explain why students succeed.

New research reveals that asking college students who the best student is in class doesn’t lead to an objective answer. (Video: Claritza Jimenez/The Washington Post)