The Factors That Predict Success


Grit. Is it really that “intangible” quality that you’re either born with or stuck without? Analysis of data from over 11,000 West Point cadets strengthens earlier theories regarding the nature of grit, but also point to other attributes that are key to long-term success and achievement.

When you’re Angela Duckworth, you get asked about what predicts success a lot. Like, all the time.

After all, the University of Pennsylvania psychologist has done pioneering work with regard to the nature of grit, a personality trait often described as “putting passion and perseverance toward important long-term personal goals.” She is even the author of a blockbuster book called “Grit,” in which she describes how having this characteristic can, for many, mean the difference between succeeding and failing.

But her latest research, done in conjunction with colleagues at Duke University and the US Military Academy, says that grit may not be the only piece of the success puzzle that really matters.

The findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and involve a prospective longitudinal study of more than 11,000 West Point cadets. The researchers discovered that both cognitive and non-cognitive factors can predict long-term success and achievement. Personality traits and characteristics like grit, intelligence and physical capacity each have different ways of shaping our ability to succeed.

Duckworth’s study of West Point cadets began when she was a doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania. “I was looking for a context in which people might be quitting too early,” she says. “There’s such a thing as quitting at the right time. But there’s also such a thing as quitting on a bad day when you’re discouraged and maybe shouldn’t be making such a big decision.”

West Point’s cadet initiation is a six-week ordeal known as Beast Barracks. Cadets who make it through the exhaustive two-year entry and acceptance process must complete it during the summer leading up to their first year of classes. In spite of its’ importance and the difficult process of getting to Beast Barracks, approximately 3% of cadets walk away from this training. Their willingness to give up so readily after the arduous admissions process led Duckworth to study the group.

Her paper published in 2007 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology revealed grit as a critical predictor of achievement and success. Her collaboration with West Point has continued for 12 years, with data collected on nine separate classes entering the military academy, more than 11,200 cadets.

Duckworth created a 12-item Grit Scale to score the grit of each cadet. This was used in conjunction with SAT or ACT scores and the results of a battery of fitness tests that each West Point candidate must take before being admitted. The fitness test includes pull-ups, sit-ups and a one-mile run. West point contributed a wealth of data as well. Whether cadets completed Beast Barracks training was added to graduation status, GPA’s and military and physical performance. A mega-analysis of this massive data pool was performed by the research team.

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“This is a sign of where science is going, toward big samples. They offer much more precision,” says Duckworth, the Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of Psychology in Penn’s School of Arts and Sciences. “We accumulated all this data in part so we could answer more definitively the question of whether grit predicted success outcomes. We now have more confidence in our original conclusions. At the same time, we wanted to explore where, perhaps, grit wasn’t the most important factor.”

Interestingly, the scientist who first showed us the importance of grit and her team found other personal characteristics can predict different outcomes.

Grit was crucial during Beast Barracks, for example. “The grittier you are, the less likely you are to drop out during that very discouraging time,” Duckworth explains. Cognitive ability is critical during the four years of classroom time and physical training that come after that, however, and was the strongest predictor of academic standing. Physical ability combines with grit to play the strongest role in determining whether a cadet will graduate from West Point in four years or drop out before finishing.

“This work shows us that grit is not the only determinant of success,” Duckworth says. “Yes, it’s very important, helping people stick with things when they’re hard, but it’s not the best predictor of every aspect of success.”

Previous to the widespread publication of Duckworth’s ideas on grit, cognitive abilities seemed to be the principle measure used by employers and schools to separate candidates. This is because there are objective tests like the SAT’s that allow easy measurement of one potential employee or student against another. When it comes to non-cognitive characteristics, though, there is a lack of available objective testing. This makes it difficult, from a practical standpoint, to incorporate those attributes into the recruitment, admissions and hiring processes.

Duckworth is working to design new methods of assessing grit and other non-cognitive personality traits. Working with Adam Grant of Penn’s Wharton School, she is the co-director of Wharton People Analytics, which is centered around data-driven decision-making. She believes assessing non-cognitive traits in a variety of areas of life is the next frontier in this line of research.

The findings of Duckworth’s most recent research build on previous work and expand the body of overall knowledge about the factors which predict success. While revealing other attributes besides grit as keys to long-term achievement, the findings also bolster Duckworth’s original theories on grit. “If you want to lead a happy, healthy, helpful life,” she says, “you want to cultivate many aspects of your character, like honesty, kindness, generosity, curiosity” — and, of course, grit.

Being intelligent is great. Having high levels of problem-solving ability matters. Being curious, honest and having high integrity is also important. But in the end, grit seems to connect them all for long-term success, achievement and even happiness.

Keep the faith and keep after it!

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Journal Reference – Angela L. Duckworth, Abigail Quirk, Robert Gallop, Rick H. Hoyle, Dennis R. Kelly, Michael D. Matthews. Cognitive and noncognitive predictors of success. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2019

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