Book Review: “Grit, The power of passion and perseverance”

What a nice surprise! A friend of mine told me “You have to read this book!!!” Indeed, he was right. I loved it, and recommend reading it. The premise is simple “Not everything is decided by one’s IQ. Successful people usually work hard, practice constantly and are relentless about the quality of their work.”

The book is well written, you can read it in a few days. The author (Angela Duckworth) definitively knows this topic inside out as she’s been studying it for years. She’s looked at “Westpointers” (cadets from the Westpoint military school), KIPP students, the Seattle Seahawks, etc. From all of these examples of grit, she distilled her work in this rare book.

Some of my notes follow…

Grit Scale

The book defines a grit test that you can self-administer. Doing the test gives you a score (from 1 to 5) which tells you how gritty you are (1 being the lowest and 5 being the highest). This is interesting but is actually the weakest part of the book in my opinion.

I did the test and found the questions to be extremely subjective. The result obtained is based on how you characterize yourself at that particular time and place. In my case, it was quite easy to go from a 2 to a 4 for any given question, depending on which project or which period of my life I think about. (e.g. “I worked really hard on project X for 3 years, doing on average 70 hours per week, that’s pretty gritty, I think” but then you may also have “I worked on project Y, 3 months, hated everything about it and couldn’t leave it soon enough”… so depending on your mindset when you do the test, your results may vary.

Furthermore, I think that your environment (i.e. who you associate with will also affect your perception quite a bit). If you are surrounded by gritty people who work very hard, you might not feel very gritty… but if you are put with underachievers, suddenly you might feel quite gritty. Basically, the test is so subjective that I wouldn’t put too much thought in it. That being said, the author admits that the test is fakeable but that it was also found to be accurate in some contexts where she ran it. So it might be valid when there is no consequence associated with the test but not as valid when there is something of importance tied to the result (e.g. job interview).

Note that I still believe in the concept of grit and all the information found in the book is extremely valuable.

From talent to achievement

Talent is not the greatest indicator of success. It helps, but it’s far from everything that matters. Angela Duckworth suggests that hard work and perseverance are actually a better indicator of the success of a person.

The author comes up with the following two equations to illustrate how you go from talent to achievement:

talent x effort = skill
skill x effort = achievement

Her point is that for somebody to accomplish something meaningful, effort counts twice (or at least, is very substantial when it comes to somebody’s accomplishments).

Growth Mindset

Somebody who has a growth mindset believes that it is possible to become more intelligent given the right opportunities, support and effort (i.e. use deliberate practice).

Examples of growth mindset talk:

  • Say: “You’re a learner, I love that”
    Don’t say: “You’re a natural! I love that.”
  • Say: “Great job! What’s the one thing that could have been even better?”
    Don’t say: “Great job! You’re so talented.”

Basically, you need to emphasize hard work over natural intelligence. I found this quite interesting and will (hopefully) remember this whenever I’m dealing with my kids.

About deliberate practice

One of the best things in the book is that I finally found the best description of the characteristics of deliberate practice. In short, deliberate practice must have the following four characteristics:

  • A clearly defined stretch goal
  • Full concentration and effort
  • Immediate and informative feedback
  • Repetition with reflection and refinement

So basically, you do deliberate practice, day after day, month after month, year after year and you’ll be good… Though not stated directly, the use of a coach or mentor is highly recommended (how would you get the necessary feedback without it?).

I would love to find a way to apply this to software engineering (e.g. new framework, languages or concepts).

The Hard Thing Rule

Grit can be encouraged, grown in a family. The author suggests the “hard thing rule”, which she applies to her family’s life. It goes like this:

Everybody in the family does at least one “hard thing”

You cannot quit the hard thing before the season is over

You choose your own hard thing (usually something you like).

I would love to apply this to my own family. We’ll see how they feel about it when they grow up 🙂

“Grit” applied to software teams

This is not in the book… just some of my musing about it…

I found the example of the Seahawks (NFL team) to be quite interesting The Seahawks staff has cultivated consciously a culture of grit. I was wondering if the same concepts could be applied to a software team. Can you, in a software group, or a software-based company create a “culture” of grit? If so, how would you do it? Just by recruiting well? Or is there some other elements that can bring out the grit in a team? A book on this (by a great team lead or software manager would be awesome)… there’s probably something around, just need to find it.

Reading the book confirmed some stuff I have seen over the years when interviewing people for software jobs… that is, GPA tells very little about a person’s whole story…

When hiring for a junior position, I would look for grit through the following:

  • I would look at courses where the potential hire excelled and then query them about that particular course. Why did they like it? Was it passion? Can this be brought forward to my company? (See one of Angela’s YouTube video, she recommends something similar)
  • School projects and personal projects are amazingly important. It’s not only that they have projects but also how long have they been working on those projects.
  • Open source work. Wow, GitHub, what an amazing trove of information on a person. You can see passion and interest right there, through their commits, and through the discussions on issues.
  • I would have them tag along one of my senior designers and work on a problem for a short period of time and see how this problem. Are they curious? Do they care more about learning than being let go?

When hiring for a senior position, things are a little bit different. Senior software people may be married, may have kids and will generally have a lot less time to have side projects or contribute to open source… So I think that I would look for passion for the craft. Are they keeping up with technology? Do still get excited about it? What are the best projects they worked on in their careers? I don’t think I would ask them about the crappy projects, everybody goes through bad projects… the more you have worked, the more likely you’ll have been on some of those.

An issue with looking for grit in a senior’s resume is that it’s difficult to judge grit by looking at an amount of time spent on a given project or company. A long period might mean grit but it could also mean just being comfortable in a given position.

More information

If you are unsure about buying the book, I would recommend checking out the following presentations by Angela:

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