Book Review: Grit
by Angela Duckworth
[Editor's note: This review of Grit follows on several articles printed in ULK 63 about the book and lessons we can glean for our organizing. This comrade offers a more in-depth review of some of the practical uses for our work, but also some criticisms of the politics of the book. We encourage readers to check out ULK 63 for more on organizing theory and practice.]
I really like this book, not just because I found lots of useful tactics and strategies for pursuing my own personal goals in life, but because I was able to see that I've already been putting many of the author's suggestions into practice, both in my capacity as a revolutionary and as someone pursuing a particular goal: my freedom. Therefore, in writing this review, I have not only tried to sum up the tactics and strategies I found most useful, but those which others might find use for as well. However, this review is not without criticism.
The author of this book, Angela Duckworth, is a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and she wrote this book to make one basic statement: success in any endeavor is dependent on the amount of time, hard work, determination, and effort that someone puts into something.
Now this concept might not seem so special or even new to someone, but to a dialectical materialist, it speaks power to truth in that it demolishes certain idealist and metaphysical notions about what it means to be gifted and blessed in bourgeois society. Of course, as a dialectical materialist, I also understand that this book must be viewed with a critical eye, as it contains both positive and negative aspects.
Professor Duckworth makes it a point to begin eir book by explaining that lofty-minded individuals aren't usually the type of people to accomplish much of anything. Rather, it's those with a "never give up" attitude that will reach a marked level of success. Professor Duckworth also successfully argues against the myth that the only thing that matters is "talent." Instead she says a bigger factor is developed skill, which is the result of consistent and continuous practice. From a Maoist perspective this means that it is people who take a materialist approach to life and who understand the dialectical interplay between people and people, and between people and their surroundings, that will go the furthest the fastest.
In addition, the author puts forward organizational guidelines that are useful to just about anyone, even the imprisoned lumpen. How prisoners decide to exercise the professor's tools is entirely up to them. We would hope however, that USW members and other allies participating in the United Front for Peace in Prisons would use the lessons in Grit to further the anti-imperialist prison movement, as what they essentially amount to is the piecemeal approach to struggle.
So what does it take to develop grit as the author defines it? The following are just some of the book's pointers that I could relate to and I'm sure you can too:
- Having direction as well as determination.
- Doing more of what you are determined to do and doing it longer equals grit.
- Learn from your mistakes.
- Grit is more about stamina than intensity ("Grit is not just working incredibly hard, it's loyalty").
- Do things better than they have ever been done before.
- Goals are essential to strategizing long term, and you must also have lots of short-term goals along the way.
- Having goal conflicts can be healthy: what may at one given moment seem contradictory may in fact be complementary.
- Don't be intimidated by challenges or being surrounded by people who are more advanced or developed. This can only help you grow.
- Overextending yourself is integral toward growth, it's what helps you develop. Also, repetitive diligence cultivates.
- Daily discipline as perseverance helps you to zero in on your weaknesses.
- Passion is a must!
- Go easy on newcomers.
- Look for quality over quantity when measuring growth.
- What we do has to matter to other people.
- Have a top level goal.
- Stay optimistic!
- Maintain a growth mindset.
- Don't be afraid to ask for help!
- Following through is the single best predictor of grit.
- Getting back up after you've been kicked down is generally reflective of grit. When you don't, your efforts plummet to a zero. As a consequence, your skill stops improving and you stop producing anything with whatever skill you have.
So now that we've looked at tools for overall improvement, growth and development let's look at some specific tips on how to add a little more intensity to our routines and organizational skill set. The author talks about something she calls "deliberate practice." Deliberate practice is a technique or range of techniques that people across different professions use to become masters in their fields. Whether someone is a spelling bee champ, professional basketball player, or computer programmer, all these people have one thing in common: deliberate practice. I include the message here because it can be useful to revolutionaries. Simply put, deliberate practice is all about becoming an expert at something. Deliberate practice is the essence of grit:
- Wanting to develop.
- Not just more time on task, but better time on task.
- Focusing on improving your weaknesses; intentionally seeking out challenges you can't yet meet.
- Practicing alone, logging more hours than with others.
- Seeking negative feedback for the purposes of improving your craft.
- Then focus in on the specific weaknesses and drill them relentlessly.
- Don't be afraid to experiment if you find yourself getting stuck or even if you're not. Sometimes you have to get out of your comfort zone even if you're already doing good. Who knows, you might do better.
Now, at the beginning of this review, I said this book was not beyond criticism. So here are some problems I found with Grit.
To begin with, the author caters to the idealist Amerikan ideology of "pulling yourself up by your bootstraps" and failing to take into account the structural oppression faced by the internal semi-colonies in the United $tates. Furthermore, most of the author's case studies, those who she refers to as "paragons of grit," come from privileged backgrounds and their success in life can be easily linked to the surroundings in which they were allowed to develop their skills to their fullest potentials. Compare this to the experience of the oppressed nations: the lumpen in particular who exist along the margins of society, or the Chican@ semi-proletariat who must struggle in order to meet its basic needs. Therefore, all is not simply a matter of will and determination for the oppressed as we might be led to believe. There are a variety of social factors in place which the oppressed must contend with in the grind of daily life.
Another problem I have with this book is where the author makes the statement that it generally takes up to 10,000 hours or 10 years of practice for someone to become an expert in their field. The author bases this hypothesis on data she's gathered in preparation for eir book. This inherent flaw in the professor's work is exactly the type of problem that comes from applying bourgeois psychology and sociological methods according to bourgeois standards within a narrow strip of bourgeois society. This was something of a turn off to me as I grappled with the concepts from a revolutionary perspective. I can imagine how discouraging it can be for our young comrades or those otherwise new to the struggle to read that it takes 10 years to become an expert in something, especially when they come to us eager to put in work. I wonder if I, myself, would have continued engaging Maoism if I would have heard or read this book when I was a newcomer? I would like to think that I had enough grit to not listen to the naysayers and instead keep on pushing, but I just don't know.
Maoist China also grappled with similar questions during the Great Leap Forward (1959-61) and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-76). Beginning with the Great Leap Forward, there were those in the Communist Party, as well as in the economic sector, who advocated an "expert in command" approach to work and politics. The people pushing this line believed that only those with years of study or practice in China's greatest institutions or in the West's most prestigious universities were qualified to lead the country towards socialism. Most of these people would turn out to be enemies of the revolution and ultimately responsible for putting China back on the capitalist road.
On the other side of the discussion where the Maoists who advocated the slogan "red and expert" to emphasize the importance of revolutionary will and determination over that of expertise. In other words, it was more important to pay attention to the masses motivation of serving the people according to revolutionary principles than to the bourgeois commandist approach of top down leadership and authoritarianism that was the essence of "experts in command." Furthermore, the Maoists understood that to overly emphasize a reliance on the bourgeois methods of organization for the purposes of efficiency and profit was not only to widen the gap between leaders and led, but to return to the status quo prior to the revolution. What's more, those calling for expert in command were also criticized for their stress on theory over practice and adoption of foreign methods of organization over that of self-reliance and independence. As such, the Maoists opted to popularize the slogan "red and expert" as they believed this represented a more balanced approach to political, cultural, economic, and social development. To the Maoists, there was nothing wrong with wanting to become expert so long as the concept wasn't separated from the needs of the people or the causes of the revolution.
Partly as a response to the struggles gripping China during the time, but more so as an attempt to meet Chinese needs, the Communist Party initiated the "sent down educated youth" and "going down to the countryside and settling with the peasants" campaigns in which thousands of high school and university age students were sent on a volunteer basis to China's rural area to help educate peasants. The students lived and toiled with the peasants for months and years so that they would not only learn to empathize with the country's most downtrodden, but so that the revolutionary will and resolve of the privileged urban youth could be strengthened. Part of the students' mission was to build the schools in the countryside and teach the peasants how to read and write as well to help advance the peasants' farming techniques according to what the youth had learned in the cities. While these students may not have been "experts" in the professional sense, they did more to improve the living conditions of the peasants than most professionals did criticizing this program from the sidelines.(1)
The barefoot doctors program is another Maoist success story which even Fidel Castro's Cuba came to emulate. The majority of China's population were peasants and had virtually zero access to modern medical care. To address this problem, peasants were given a few years training in basic medical care, and sent to work in China's rural area. Again, the focus here was not on expertise, but on practice and revolutionary will for the sake of progress not perfection. While those trained certainly were not expert medical doctors, they were of more use to the peasants than the witch doctors and shamans they were accustomed to.
While Grit offers a lot of useful information for comrades with little organizational experience, we should keep in mind that much of what we communists consider correct methods of practice has already been summed up as rational knowledge by the revolutionary movements before us. Bourgeois psychology can be useful, but history and practice are our best teachers. Look to the past and analyze the present to correctly infer the future.
As Mao Zedong Stated: "Marxists hold that man's social practice alone is the criterion of the truth of his knowledge of the external world."(2)
MIM(Prisons) responds: Throughout the book, Duckworth focuses on high-performance bourgeois heroes and institutions, in order to address the question of "what makes them the best at what they do?" In answering this question, the author does briefly acknowledge that access to resources can play a decisive role in one's success in a particular field. That might mean having money to pay for pool access to become a great swimmer. In another way, access to resources might boil down to the semi-random luck of having a decent (or crap) coach in public school sports. Of course there are socio-economic reasons why good coaches are at certain schools and not others, and why some schools have sports at all and others don't — and those are reasons linked to the three strands of oppression.
Duckworth's analysis of how we (as outsiders) can influence someone's internal grit underlined how big of an influence one persyn or experience can have on someone else's passion and perseverence. For example, we don't need material resources to change our attitude and behavior to a "growth mindset." And, while a broader culture of grit is certainly preferable, we can still make a big impact as single organizers — in many of eir examples, the paragons of grit cited one or two key people in their lives who played a major part in their success. And ULK's contributors' persynal histories in "Ongoing Discussion of Recruiting Best Practices" confirms this.
Duckworth's analysis on this topic is outlined in "Part 3: Growing Grit from the Outside In," and MIM(Prisons) has been discussing this section at length to improve our own practices. We have an extremely limited ability to organize and influence people — we are only struggling with our subscribers through the mail, which comes with many unique challenges. Our subscribers have access to very little resources, and we can't buy them the world. But if we can make even our limited contact more effective — through our study, execution, experimentation, and the feedback we receive — we believe we can still make a big impact. Duckworth helped build my confidence that even though i'm only one organizer, and i'm not really that talented at it to begin with, my efforts still matter a lot.
While Duckworth does good to knock down the idols of talent, ey replaces them with the hardworking individual, rather than the knowledge of the collective, and group problem solving. The group is acknowledged as one thing that can help you as an individual become great, in eir discussion of the "culture of grit." The examples from China that Ehecatl brings up emphasizes that our goal is not to be great as individuals, but to serve the people by bringing together different sources of knowledge, to see a problem from all sides, and to engage the masses in conquering it.
In a related point, Ehecatl says that we need to "do things better than they have ever been done before." I'm not sure of the deeper meaning behind this point, and it's one that i think could be read in a discouraging way. We certainly should aim to do things better than we have ever done them. But if we know we can't do them better than everyone ever, then should we give up? No, we should still try, because "effort counts twice" and the more we try, the better we'll get at it.(3) And, even if we're not the best ever, we can still have a huge impact. Like Ehecatl writes above, we don't need to clock 10,000 hours before we can make big contributions.
To deepen your own understanding of the principles in Grit, get a copy to study it yourself. Get Grit from MIM(Prisons) for $10 or equivalent work-trade.