03/14/2014 02:15 pm ET Updated May 14, 2014

Passion, Perseverance and Our Expanding Definition of Success

Imagine for a moment two children -- we can call them Fred and Steve -- who are learning to play the piano. Fred and Steve are equally talented young musicians, and when they sit down to practice, they give the same intense focus to the honing of their craft. In fact, the only notable difference between the two boys is that Fred is devoted exclusively to the piano, while Steve likes to bounce back and forth between piano, drums, and singing. Who do you think will be more successful?

If you have read any of the recent press about grit, you probably put your money on Fred. By diving deep into his pursuit of piano mastery, focused Fred is bound to surpass scattered Steve, whose divided attention relegates him to being forever second-best. If that was your line of thinking, you would be in good company, for that was the same conclusion drawn by Angela Duckworth, Christopher Peterson, Michael Matthews, and Dennis Kelly when they offered up this thought experiment in their seminal article on grit:

"Thus, a prodigy who practices intensively yet moves from piano to the saxophone to voice will likely be surpassed by an equally gifted but grittier child."

Duckworth and her colleagues had good cause for betting on focused Fred. Through a series of studies, they had just shown in convincing fashion that grit, or passion and perseverance in pursuit of long-term goals, is a better predictor of success than talent alone. It was a pattern that held true for Ivy League students striving for better grades; spelling bee competitors fighting for a win; and West Point cadets trying to survive the first summer of training. It was such a compelling insight that it has only taken a few years from that first publication for grit to enter into the public lexicon and our national discourse about the future of education. Combined with Malcolm Gladwell's popularization of the purported "10,000-hour rule" (in ways intended and not), grit has become the trendy secret to success.

Naturally, then, our appetite for grit has already turned to the question of how to get more of it, both for ourselves and for our kids. But what if there is more to the story of Fred and Steve? What if both boys turned out to be successful, but in different ways? In other words, what if focused Fred went on to become Frédéric Chopin, one of history's greatest pianists, and scattered Steve grew into Stevie Wonder, one of the most popular musicians of the past half-century?

Surely there are many similarities between Chopin and Wonder. Both were prodigies with immense talent who devoted their lives to music. Both might well get high scores on the grit scale. Yet this subtle distinction in the framing of their careers highlights how hard it can be to know what success means for any individual person, let alone how they can best pursue it.

It is not hard to imagine a parent or teacher who has read about grit confusing Wonder's musical curiosity for distraction and a lack of self-control. If you were Stevie Wonder's parents, how would you decide whether to let him follow his curiosity within the broad confines of music or to nudge him to pick a particular instrument to focus on? What if your child's interests are broader even than music or any one domain? And what of your own professional interests -- are they specific and fine-grained, or somewhat focused with at least a bit of fuzziness?

Complicating matters further still is the recently renewed emphasis on a definition of success that includes not just objective achievement, but also subjective well-being. Will a gritty focus on a relatively narrow range of interests make us happy? Each of us might answer that question differently, and little research has been done so far to help us understand how well grit and happiness can co-exist. In one study of teachers, for example, Duckworth and her colleagues found a positive relationship between grit and life satisfaction, albeit a small one. Robert Vallerand's research, meanwhile, suggests it might depend on what kind of passion you have for the activity in question.

Vallerand's "dualistic model of passion" distinguishes between harmonious and obsessive passions. In the former, our love for an activity remains within our control and integrates easily with the rest of our lives. In the latter, the activity becomes an all-consuming interest that interferes with our pursuit of other goals or interests. Vallerand has shown through an impressive number of studies that these two types of passion are not created equal.

People with harmonious passions, for example, report higher levels of well-being than those without, but people with obsessive passions do not. In a more extreme contrast, dancers with an obsessive passion for their sport report greater suffering from chronic injuries and are more likely to say that pride keeps them from taking sufficient care when they are hurt. Harmoniously passionate dancers, on the other hand, suffer less from acute injuries and do more to keep themselves from getting hurt in the first place.

If passion is one of grit's active ingredients, then, it is important to note that not just any passion will do. Combining an obsessive focus with an unwillingness to give up might well be the perfect recipe for what some scholars call an escalation of commitment to a failing course of action.

What are we to make of all this, then, if we are on the quest for success for ourselves or for our kids? The early research on grit is unquestionably compelling: In some pretty competitive environments, grit does a great job of finding the objectively excellent among the "merely" above-average. If you have a clearly identified passion that already fits well with the rest of your life, grit seems likely to work in your favor.

For the rest of us, though, the answer is less clear. We may first need to spend some time understanding our own definition of success. Does it hinge on being the best of the best, or are we content to be good if not great at what we do if it means we have time and energy left over to invest in other pursuits? If we do find a passion, how do we keep it in check? Can we be perseverant but not passionate, or vice versa? Perhaps a bit ironically, these are questions that may take a lot of time and focused effort for us to answer. Maybe we do need grit, after all.

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