True Grit: Are Passion and Perseverance Inherited, or Learned?

Clint Eastwood in 'The Good, the Bad and the Ugly'

Clint Eastwood in ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’ | MGM

When you see or hear the word “grit,” there are likely a few things that spring to mind. Though we grow up associating the term with movie stars like John Wayne or Clint Eastwood, as life goes on we come to see firsthand what the word really means. We see friends and family members put on displays of true grit, persevering through the toughest of times while others fold under the pressure. Or, we realize that we have our own sense of grit, and use it to our advantage.

Grit has become something of a valued trait these days, as employers are willing to pay top dollar for people that display it, and people try and figure out ways to develop it. But, can it be developed? Or are a certain number of people simply born gritty? Science has been looking into it, and according to a batch of new research, it might actually not be as important of a trait as we think.

A study recently published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology set out to figure out just how grit effects our eventual success and failure. Defining grit as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals,” researchers studied more than 2,300 pairs of teenage twins (to account for identical genetic factors) to try and isolate grit from a host of other personality and environmental factors. The goal was to see how grit impacted academic performance.

“For 4,642 16-year-olds (2,321 twin pairs), we used the Grit-S scale (perseverance of effort and consistency of interest), along with the Big Five personality traits, to predict grades on the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) exams, which are administered U.K.-wide at the end of compulsory education,” the study reads.

“The etiology of Grit is highly similar to other personality traits, not only in showing substantial genetic influence but also in showing no influence of shared environmental factors. Personality significantly predicts academic achievement, but Grit adds little phenotypically or genetically to the prediction of academic achievement beyond traditional personality factors, especially conscientiousness.”

In plain English? Researchers found that grit isn’t actually all that important, and that it isn’t really something we can learn over the course of our lives. Some of us are simply born with it.

This has been the focus for scientists and behavior experts for some time. We all want to be able to come across as gritty, no-nonsense characters in the eyes of our rivals and co-workers to some extent, and the general attitude science has taken is that grit is more of an inherited trait than anything. This study, after doing what it could to control for other variables, generally supports that view.

But just because you weren’t born with any Eastwood-like personality traits doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t adopt them. Given your individual life circumstances, developing a sense of grit may be an absolute necessity for survival. Think about your friends who may have come from a rough background, or the people you know who seem to always persevere. There is probably some sort of natural inclination to be a fighter, but life experiences also play a role.

The other thing to take away from this study is that the researchers are essentially saying that grit isn’t nearly as important as we think it is. Individuals have what are called “the Big Five” personality traits – extraversion, agreeableness, openness, neuroticism, and conscientiousness – which appear to play the bigger roles than grit when determining what type of person you are. Essentially, we’re all just amalgamations of different personality traits (with the Big Five being the most dominant, in most cases). Our unique blend or mix ultimately defines us as human beings.

A sense of grit is a part of that, but researchers say that it just doesn’t really play as big of a role as we thought. If you want to work on developing a sense of grit, you’re better off concentrating on the other traits if you truly want to work on yourself.

So, can grit be taught? To some extent. But teaching people, particularly children, to be gritty has been somewhat of a fad in recent years. That’s starting to fade, as scientists learn more. So, if you’re no John Wayne, don’t worry about it. You can still persevere through discipline and determination.

Follow Sam on Facebook and Twitter @SliceOfGinger

More from Money & Career Cheat Sheet: