Review — ‘Passion and Perseverance’ for student journalists and their advisers:

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Create a culture of grit, says author and professor Angela Duckworth

 Reviewed by Carolyn Schurr Levin, Stony Brook University School of Journalism

Think of grit, and you may immediately think of John Wayne in the film, “True Grit,” or Jeff Bridges in the 2010 remake.

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But grit, says Angela Duckworth, applies to college students and professionals of diverse interests and vocations—including journalism.

Duckworth, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and a 2013 MacArthur Fellow, offers sage advice that can be applied to college media.

The advice: Create a culture of grit, Duckworth passionately argues in her recently released book, “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance,” and in her 2013 TED Talk, which has been viewed more than 8.5 million times. TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) is a global set of conferences run by the private nonprofit organization Sapling Foundation, under the slogan “Ideas Worth Spreading”.

Duckworth defines grit as a combination of passion and perseverance exhibited by high achievers, even when they are faced by challenges and hurdles. People act more gritty, she writes, when they’re around gritty people—hence the call to create cultures of grit.

“The Grit Scale,” created by Duckworth, is a test which, when taken honestly, measures the extent to which an individual approaches life with grit. It seeks responses to such simple statements as “I finish whatever I begin;” “My interests change from year to year;” and “Setbacks don’t discourage me. I don’t give up easily.” It then provides a chart to calculate “your total grit score” and rank yourself from extremely gritty to not at all gritty.

Perhaps the most important part of Duckworth’s grit analysis is her argument that “there is every reason to believe that grit can change.” She spends a large part of her book explaining how that can happen.

Learning how to develop grit will aid us in times of difficulty and doubt, according to Duckworth, who stresses, “If we stay down, grit loses. If we get up, grit prevails.”

Through an interesting combination of psychological studies, data collection, statistical analysis, interviews with “gritty” people in wide-ranging fields from professional sports to cooking, and personal parenting advice (she intersperses the book with the Hard Thing Rule that she uses with her own children and her experience in potty training her daughter), Duckworth argues that grit can grow.

As college media advisers, according to Duckworth’s theory, we have the capability to encourage and quite possibly even accelerate that process in our students.

“All of us are ‘parents’ to young people other than our own children,” Duckworth writes, “in the sense that, collectively, we are responsible for ‘bringing forth the next generation.” She observes that “[i]n this role of supportive but demanding mentors to other people’s children, we can have a huge impact.”

In a study of the United States Military Academy at West Point, Duckworth notes that despite the highly selective admissions process, 1 in 5 cadets will drop out before graduation. The ones who survived “had a kind of ferocious determination that played out in two ways.” First, they were “unusually resilient and hardworking.” Second, they not only had determination, but they “knew what it was they wanted. . . they had direction.”

Duckworth believes that it is grit, more than talent, potential, SAT scores, or IQ, that determines success. As much as talent counts, she writes, “effort counts twice.” Grit, she says, “is more about stamina than intensity.”

The paragons of grit in Duckworth’s studies have four psychological assets: (1) Interest, or intrinsically enjoying what you do; (2) Once you have discovered and developed interest in a particular area, you must practice. To be gritty, you must resist complacency; (3) Purpose and the belief that “my work is important, both to me and to others” and (4) Hope, “a rising-to-the-occasion kind of perseverance.”

College media could apply such psychological assets by:

  • Striving to recruit students from diverse backgrounds with strong interests in media. People perform better when they do what interests them, Duckworth says.

Retention could be aided as well. Duckworth notes, for example:“Interests thrive when there is a crew of encouraging supporters, including parents, teachers, coaches, and peers. Why are other people so important? For one thing, they provide the ongoing stimulation and information that is essential to actually liking something more and more.”

  • Hold staff members to high—but not unrealistic—expectations and offer constructive criticism, including positive feedback.
  • Remember and stress that practice—writing and editing several stories over a period of time—will aid students’ growth as writers and editors, and in turn, the growth of the college media for which they work.

Deliberate practice, critical to success, has been studied in chess players, musicians and athletes, but Duckworth explains how the general principles of deliberate practice can apply in other fields, such as journalism. She cites Benjamin Franklin as an example.

Franklin, she explains, zeroed in on his specific weaknesses and drilled for them relentlessly. “For instance, to improve his ability to make logical arguments, Franklin would jumble his notes on essays and then attempt to put them in a sensible order. . . to enhance his command of language, Franklin practiced, over and over again.”

Applying Franklin’s deliberate practice to a student journalist, he or she would state, according to Duckworth, ‘I want every article I write “to be better than the last.”

  • Work to foster a sense of purpose. Purpose is the intention to contribute to the well-being of others, the idea that what we do matters to people other than ourselves. “[F]or most people,” Duckworth writes, “purpose is a tremendously powerful source of motivation.”

For many student journalists, informing and connecting their campus communities are highly motivating. Editors and advisers can help reinforce that what staff members are doing on their school newspaper, yearbook, radio or television station truly makes a difference.

  • With hope, “fall seven, rise eight,” Duckworth aptly writes, quoting an old Japanese saying. Grit depends on the expectation that our efforts can improve our future. .

Grit depends on the expectation that our efforts can improve our future. Successful individuals don’t speak of their setbacks, but rather think that everything that happens is something they can learn from, according to Duckworth.

Learning from setbacks is often easier said than done. As advisers, we can cultivate hope and model a growth mindset by demonstrating that we believe in our staffers. We can motivate them to continuously look for ways to improve and reach higher goals together.

But does that always work with overburdened, overextended, stressed 20-somethings?

Maybe. Maybe not.

Duckworth would suggest effective instruction includes providing information and training to students, offering motivation, encouraging competence, and stressing that students should seek “a helping hand” when concerns and challenges arise.

She refers to Ron Ferguson, a Harvard economist who has collected data on effective and ineffective teachers. Ferguson found that psychologically wise teachers “seem to promote competence in addition to well-being, engagement, and high hopes for the future.”

The author intersperses her book with maxims from others as disparate as Nietzsche (“With everything perfect, we do not ask how it came to be.”), Woody Allen (“Eighty percent of success in life is showing up.”), and Henry Ford (“Whether you think you can, or think you can’t – you’re right).

In her conclusion, she quotes journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates, a recent MacArthur Genius award winner, who said: “Failure is probably the most important factor in all of my work. Writing is failure. Over and over and over again.”

These declarations enforce that whether it is called follow-through, hard work, learned industriousness, growth mindset, working towards excellence – or grit – many, many accomplished individuals and scholars have long valued its worth.

Encouraging grit in our students has many more benefits than the short-term goal of getting the college newspaper and yearbook published and a broadcast program produced and on the air each day, week or month. By encouraging grit, we are helping them develop passion and perseverance that can be applied to achieving long-term professional goals as well.

In other words, following through on our commitments while we grow up both requires grit and, at the same time, builds grit for our futures.

Who can argue with that?

Carolyn Levin
Carolyn Levin

Carolyn Schurr Levin is an attorney specializing in Media Law and the First Amendment. She has practiced law for over 20 years, including as the Vice President and General Counsel of Ziff Davis Media and the Vice President and General Counsel of Newsday. She is currently a lecturer and the media law adviser for the Stony Brook University School of Journalism and the director of the journalism program and the faculty adviser for the student newspaper at LIU Post, Long Island University. She earned a J.D. from the University of Chicago Law School, a B.A. from Johns Hopkins University, and a Certificate in Journalism from New York University.