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Is It Possible to Have Too Much Grit?

Learning to regulate grit to achieve goals.

Key points

  • Grit, by itself, is not sufficient to reach difficult goals.
  • Like an auto without a steering wheel, accelerator, brakes, and regular maintenance, grit alone is of little use.
  • To optimize their grit engine, people must learn to use other character strengths and virtues to attain life’s goals.

When we’re young, so much time is spent teaching us the importance of keeping our vices in check. Our anger, our envy, our pride. But when I look around, it seems to me that so many of our lives end up being hampered by a virtue instead. If you take a trait that by all appearances is a merit—a trait that is praised by pastors and poets, a trait that we have come to admire in our friends and hope to foster in our children—and you give it to some poor soul in abundance, it will almost certainly prove an obstacle to their happiness. Just as someone can be too smart for their own good, there are those who are too patient for their own good, or too hardworking.

—From Amor Towles, The Lincoln Highway [1]

When I read this passage from Amor Towles’ latest novel, The Lincoln Highway, I could not help but think about the many times that I have been asked whether a person can be too "gritty." Grit, defined by Angela Duckworth as the passionate pursuit of long-term goals, has been linked to success in a wide variety of domains. The seminal 2007 paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology has been cited over 6,500 times according to Google Scholar. [2] Leaders in education, the military, and business extol the virtues of grit among their students, soldiers, or employees. In the world of pop psychology, grit seems to be cast as the universal elixir for improving performance and resilience.

Can You Be Too Gritty?

The question of whether one can possess too much grit is worth considering. The idea conjures up an image of a person stubbornly flailing away at an impossible goal, not knowing when to give up, and in the process damaging their personal well-being. The fallacy in this critique of grit is that it fails to take into consideration that high achieving people have a multitude of talents and character strengths, and that grit—however important in attaining goals—is tempered by these other attributes.

A good analogy is that of an automobile. Grit may be thought of as akin to an auto’s engine. The engine provides the power needed for the auto to move in the direction of its destination. Grit, like the auto’s engine, provides the power or energy needed to move the person toward a valued goal. But an automobile needs more than an engine to reach its destination. So do people. Grit may provide power and energy, but by itself is insufficient to reach difficult goals.

from Open Clipart; used under Creative Commons Zero 1.0 Public Domain License
Source: from Open Clipart; used under Creative Commons Zero 1.0 Public Domain License

The automobile, for instance, needs a steering wheel to successfully follow a route and avoid obstacles. Grit is much the same. In the absence of a clear and valued goal, and a plan for how to achieve it, grit is of little use.

Imagine a person high in grit but lacking direction. Even the grittiest among us have probably found ourselves in such a state from time to time. After years of hard effort, you achieve a difficult goal and then need to stop and think about what is next. I felt that way after defending my doctoral dissertation. It felt good to have achieved what was, for me, a long-held and highly valued goal. I needed plenty of grit to earn my doctorate. But then I needed a new direction, a new goal, a new outlet for my grit and determination. Only with a new goal to steer toward could I employ my grit engine in a useful manner.

Automobiles also need accelerators and breaks. When negotiating a difficult route, the driver must know when to speed up and when to slow down. Along with steering, this allows the driver to pass slower traffic, avoid obstacles, and not collide with other vehicles. The gritty person must do the same. Sometimes you need to “put the pedal to the metal” and work exceptionally hard toward attaining a goal. You also need to know when to apply the brakes, slow down, and rest and rejuvenate. It is impossible to operate at maximum RPM all of the time. Burnout or worse could ensue.

Automobiles also need regular maintenance. The Army uses the phrase “preventive maintenance checks and service” (PMCS) to ensure that its vehicles are ready and safe to drive. No matter how powerful the engine, an automobile with bald tires or with dirty oil will break down or wreck. Grit works the same way. People need to take care of themselves. Get enough sleep. Maintain a balanced and nutritious diet. Keep their mind and body in top working condition. Without human PMCS, grit will not get you where you want to go.

The answer to the question of whether a person may be too gritty is generally no. Grit is an important component of success and resilience. But grit is not enough. To achieve difficult and valued goals, people must learn to cultivate a variety of personal strengths and virtues. Peterson and Seligman describe 24 character strengths clustered into six overarching moral virtues. [3] These moral virtues—wisdom and knowledge, courage, justice, humanity, temperance, and transcendence—provide the steering wheel, accelerator, brakes, and other components we need to use our grit engine to its full capacity. And do not forget your personal PMCS. A broken-down person, like a broken-down automobile, cannot succeed or flourish.

Note: The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not reflect the position of the United States Military Academy, the Department of the Army, or the Department of Defense.

References

[1] Towles, A. (2021). The Lincoln Highway (Viking).

[2] Duckworth, A.L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M. D., & Kelly, D. R. (2007). Grit: Perseverance and passion for long term goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92, 1087–1101. https://psycnet.apa.org/doi/10.1037/0022-3514.92.6.1087

[3] Peterson, C., and Seligman, M. E. P. (2004), Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification (Oxford University Press).

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