A couple of years ago, I received an out-of-the-blue email from a team of researchers from the Psychology Department at the University of Pennsylvania. They had apparently picked up my name from Ultrarunning Magazine and were interested in having me participate in a study on something they were calling Grit.
Led by Professor Angela Duckworth, the team was conducting a study to test the theory of innate versus developed talent and the impact of deliberate practice and hard work on success. The team created a set of questions which were used to assess an individual’s grit and distributed them to various individuals who were perceived to have a high level of grit. That, it turned out, was why they came to me.
Simply defined, grit is a psychological trait that allows some people to work harder more frequently and to give up on tasks less frequently. In addition, gritty people tend to be single minded about their goals, are often obsessed with certain activities, and are more likely to persist in the face of struggle or failure.
After their initial research, Duckworth and her team developed a very simple 12-item “Grit Scale” used to determine grit.
This simple scale allows individuals to assess their own grittiness by rating themselves in a series of situations. Duckworth and her team took this scale on the road and her work has been featured prominently in the mass media over the past year.
One of her most interesting conclusions is that perhaps our most important talent is having a talent for working hard and for practicing, deliberately and for many hours, even when the practice isn’t fun.
Which brings me to ultramarathon running. Having been around the sport for fifteen years, I have come to the conclusion that ultrarunners are, by default, more gritty than the mainstream. But, is the reverse also true? Are naturally gritty people more inclined to be ultrarunners? And, is grittiness a better predictor of success in ultras than physiological talent?
When looking specifically at the elite runners in the sport I am curious as to whether those individuals are likely to be more gritty than their middle-of-the-pack counterparts? It would seem to be a logical extension of the concept. However, having observed finishers at major 100-mile races it appears to me, at least on the surface, that those runners who spend all day and night at war with the cutoffs may be about as gritty as they come. Finally, I can’t help but wonder if grittiness becomes a more significant factor in ultra success as the events become longer and/or more extreme?
Clearly, this groundbreaking work has potential impact across the spectrum. In fact, I have wondered how well we teach grit in my school and if we provide an environment in which it can be nurtured and developed. Clearly, ultramarathon running is a natural-grit laboratory. Perhaps if a bunch of ultrarunners took the grit scale test and we tabulated the results in some semi-scientific way, we might determine the degree to which grit matters. I have a strong hunch it matters quite a bit.
[Editor’s Note: AJW followed up this article with Further Ruminations on Grit a few months later.]
AJW Taproom’s Beer of the Week
This week’s Beer of the Week comes from Lagunitas Brewing Company in Northern California. Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’ Ale is a smooth drinking Pale Ale that defies the 7.5% ABV it allegedly has. It also has a nice hint of Belgian wheat making it a perfect post-run sipper.
Call for Comments (from Bryon)
- Are grit and toughness different? Is one more innate than the other? Can one be learned/trained better than the other?
- Who are some of the grittiest ultrarunners that you know?
- Where’s your grit most been tested on the trail? In life?
- Do you think that grit is situation/setting-dependent? In other words, are some folks significantly grittier while running than in life or vice versa?