Wednesday, August 05, 2009


Jonah Lehrer, who wrote How We Decide, has an interesting article in the Boston Globe about Angela Duckworth's research on a quality called grit. My grandmothers would have called it gumption, or the combination of ambition and resolve needed to get things done. As a counterweight to the quality of insight, grit has a lot to recommend it, as it is neither about grinding (doing the most work possible), nor getting away without doing the work, but rather about doing what is necessary at the right time.
the story of [Newton's] apple is almost certainly false; Voltaire probably made it up. Even if Newton started thinking about gravity in 1666, it took him years of painstaking work before he understood it. He filled entire vellum notebooks with his scribbles and spent weeks recording the exact movements of a pendulum. (It made, on average, 1,512 ticks per hour.) The discovery of gravity, in other words, wasn’t a flash of insight - it required decades of effort, which is one of the reasons Newton didn’t publish his theory until 1687, in the “Principia.”

Although biographers have long celebrated Newton’s intellect - he also pioneered calculus - it’s clear that his achievements aren’t solely a byproduct of his piercing intelligence. Newton also had an astonishing ability to persist in the face of obstacles, to stick with the same stubborn mystery - why did the apple fall, but the moon remain in the sky? - until he found the answer.

In recent years, psychologists have come up with a term to describe this mental trait: grit. Although the idea itself isn’t new - “Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration,” Thomas Edison famously remarked - the researchers are quick to point out that grit isn’t simply about the willingness to work hard. Instead, it’s about setting a specific long-term goal and doing whatever it takes until the goal has been reached. It’s always much easier to give up, but people with grit can keep going.
Now, Isaac Newton probably didn't publish his results until 1687 because he was a secretive bastard. He held back the calculus until Leibniz published, and had a long-running feud with Hooke about who came up with other results. Nevertheless, the underlying lesson is correct: you've got to pick the right goals, and then go after them with a strong, sustained effort. It's what grandma would have done.

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