Sunday, August 9, 2009

The Truth about Grit

It’s the single most famous story of scientific discovery: in 1666, Isaac Newton was walking in his garden outside Cambridge, England - he was avoiding the city because of the plague - when he saw an apple fall from a tree. The fruit fell straight to the earth, as if tugged by an invisible force. (Subsequent versions of the story had the apple hitting Newton on the head.) This mundane observation led Newton to devise the concept of universal gravitation, which explained everything from the falling apple to the orbit of the moon.

There is something appealing about such narratives. They reduce the scientific process to a sudden epiphany: There is no sweat or toil, just a new idea, produced by a genius. Everybody knows that things fall - it took Newton to explain why.

Unfortunately, the story of the apple is almost certainly false; Voltaire probably made it up. Even if Newton started thinking about gravity in 1666, it took him years of painstaking work before he understood it. He filled entire vellum notebooks with his scribbles and spent weeks recording the exact movements of a pendulum. (It made, on average, 1,512 ticks per hour.) The discovery of gravity, in other words, wasn’t a flash of insight - it required decades of effort, which is one of the reasons Newton didn’t publish his theory until 1687, in the “Principia.”

Although biographers have long celebrated Newton’s intellect - he also pioneered calculus - it’s clear that his achievements aren’t solely a byproduct of his piercing intelligence. Newton also had an astonishing ability to persist in the face of obstacles, to stick with the same stubborn mystery - why did the apple fall, but the moon remain in the sky? - until he found the answer.

In recent years, psychologists have come up with a term to describe this mental trait: grit. Although the idea itself isn’t new - “Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration,” Thomas Edison famously remarked - the researchers are quick to point out that grit isn’t simply about the willingness to work hard. Instead, it’s about setting a specific long-term goal and doing whatever it takes until the goal has been reached. It’s always much easier to give up, but people with grit can keep going.