In her book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, Angela Duckworth argued that there is a relationship between grit and purpose, with other-oriented purpose being a driving force for the grittiest people – their motivation to persevere came from their drive to do something for others. Our research with young adolescents provides partial support for this claim. Among our 8th and 9th grade survey respondents we found a small but consistent correlation between grit and purpose. However, our interviews with some of these teens suggest that the relationship between grit and purpose may look different for young people.
First, let’s step back a bit to look at what grit and purpose are and why we might even expect them to be related. Duckworth defines grit as “perseverance and passion for long term goals.” Purpose, as we define it, is a higher-order goal that is both meaningful to the self and contributes to the world beyond the self. Grit, then, is a capacity or strength that can be applied in pursuit of important goals. Purpose is the content of the goal and the motivation that drives it. Theoretically, they fit together nicely, with purpose providing the what and the why of our most important goals and grit providing the how.
In our interview analysis, we first identified young people who had purpose according to our criteria: they were actively pursuing goals that were both very meaningful to them and that were motivated by a desire to contribute to the world beyond the self. We then looked further to see if they met any of the criteria for grit in pursuit of these goals (pushing beyond failure, challenging themselves, deliberate and time intensive practice, etc.). Most of our purposeful interviewees didn’t describe any notable grit in pursuing their purpose goals. In fact, some seemed to take the path of least resistance in pursuing purpose. One of our purposeful interviewees aspired to be a professional author and wrote stories to inspire and encourage others to be creative. Yet, she had one of the lowest scores on the grit survey and in her interview described herself several times as having a tendency to give up. Another was passionate about helping teens who deal with bullying and suicidal ideation. She provided this peer support through twitter because she could reach many people with minimal time and effort -- not a very gritty approach.
The grittiest interviewees did not appear to have any pattern to their purpose. Some were very purposeful in pursuing beyond-the-self goals, while others were gritty in their pursuit of self-interested long-term goals or academic achievement goals. Even among those who were both gritty and purposeful, grit was not necessarily driven by or toward purpose.
Here’s another interesting finding from the same study. Unlike grit, which is taught as a skill to support academic achievement because it correlates with GPA, purpose appears to have no association with GPA. We don’t know why this is, but I speculate that it has to do with the lack of connection between students’ potential for purpose and what they are learning at school. When young people find or create purpose it is outside the classroom, in their extracurricular activities and community groups, in the creative activities they pursue at home, and in their interactions with family. These purposeful young people are driven and motivated, they are more engaged at school and have higher school attendance, but they don’t get the highest grades.
The conclusion I draw from all of these findings is that we might better support students to attain a successful and fulfilling life by finding ways to connect with their purpose at school, rather than focusing on building up grit for academic outcomes. If there is purpose, the grit will follow. Or it won’t but at least there will be purpose.
Duckworth, A. L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M. D., & Kelly, D. R. (2007). Grit: Perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92, 1087-1101.
Malin, H., Liauw, I., & Damon, W. (2017). Purpose and character development in early adolescence. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 46, 1200-1215