Angela Duckworth, Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, has played a leading role introducing a new generation of Americans to the concept of grit.

As in “True Grit.”

You are likely familiar with the movies by that title, the older one starring John Wayne and the more recent remake — a memorable effort with predictable weirdness by the Coen Brothers — starring Jeff Bridges. The novel on which both were based was written by Charles Portis in 1968.

The story is ostensibly about the dogged determination of Reuben J. “Rooster” Cogburn, a US marshal hired by 14-year old Mattie Ross to find Tom Chaney, the man who murdered her father. She learned of Cogburn’s reputation from the local sheriff as the “meanest” of the marshals, “a pitiless man, double-tough, and fear don’t enter into his thinking.” Later, young Mattie approaches Cogburn saying, “They tell me you are a man with true grit.”

Before the story ends we discover that Cogburn has less grit than his young employer, who shows twice the determination and perseverance in ultimately seeing that her father is avenged and justice is served.

I use this story in the lesson, “Hope and Perseverance,” which is part of the integrity material I use with inmates. I also use Angela Duckworth’s “Grit Scale,” an assessment tool she developed to help people quantify their “grittiness.”

Duckworth defines grit as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals.” She considers it the single most important trait, (perhaps it is more accurate to say it’s first among equals), in the ability to succeed in life. She rates it as more important than intellect, physical strength or innate talent.

Below, features a TEDTalks video where Angela explains “Grit.”

After taking my students through Duckworth’s “Grit Scale” and asking them if they are surprised at their score, I move on to a specific question: “When were you at your grittiest?” In other words, can you remember a time when you saw a task through to completion, overcoming whatever serious obstacles stood in the way?

In a recent class, we started around the table with each participant having a chance to offer his answer. When we came to an inmate I’ll call Mickey, without a moment’s hesitation he said, “I was at my grittiest when I was dope sick and needed to find my next bag of heroin.”

I looked at him without speaking, but signaling with my facial expression that he was welcome to add any clarifying explanation he wished to. He said very simply that when a man needs his next fix he’ll do just about anything to get it.

Such is the power of an addiction.

I nodded and moved on to the next participant. He looked at Mickey and said, “He spoke for me too.” I asked if he really meant it and he said yes. Before I could ask the next man about his grittiest time, he offered that he, too, had to agree with Mickey’s answer.

Though I would have loved to hear a more noble tribute to the virtue of perseverance, I knew this was reality for someone with a long history of opioid addiction. Addictions of any kind, substance or behavioral, can be all consuming at least some of the time. And indeed, grit is probably not the wrong word to describe the effort and determination one will employ to satisfy the craving, even if it falls short of being “dope sick.”

Other participants, to be sure, did offer examples of grittiness that enabled a more positive outcome and resulted in what any of us would celebrate as success. Mickey later noted that he had experienced positive results from gritty determination, but not after the age of 16 when his substance abuse first started.

Before the session ended I specifically addressed Mickey, who was trying to arrange for in-patient treatment for his addiction and was ultimately successful in having the court factor that into his sentence. I said something like this: If it took grit to find your next bag when you were dope sick, remember that it will take grit to make the most of your time in treatment and living in recovery. 

Down the road, when you have gained strength and learned better how to stay clean, and you begin to set better goals for your life, remember how important grit is in doing what you have to do to get where you want to go.

He said he would call me at his first opportunity after getting out. I have heard that before and no phone call ever came. I hope, of course, this one is different and that I can report good news in a future post.

How gritty are you? If you’d like to try out Angela Duckworth’s “Grit Scale,” you can find it here.

Hampton Morgan