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The Nitty Gritty: Self-Esteem vs. Self-Control

What is grit?

The gritty person approaches achievement as a marathon. The gritty person sticks with it, whereas others might be distracted by boredom, failure, adversity, or plateaus. The intuition behind grit — well, the definition of grit - is trait-level perseverance and passion for long-term goals. What I mean by "trait-level" is that it is generally characteristic of the person's approach to achievement. When somebody happens to love soccer so much that he pursues it passionately and with perseverance over adversity for years and years, that doesn't necessarily reflect something about his character. Gritty people don't have to be gritty about everything. But the point is that grit is how they pursue their most serious objectives. A gritty person is one who takes things to completion, who focuses interests, as opposed to letting them become very diffuse.

You've taught school and studied achievement as a psychologist. Which is more important for success in school, self-discipline — a close relative of grit — or IQ?

I find that parents today, at least those in a high socioeconomic bracket, never want to say anything critical of their children. Everybody has to be a winner. You take your children to a soccer game, and they don't keep score anymore. They don't want anybody to lose. Well, it's a good thing for kids to lose sometimes. They see what it's like to get up again. They realize it's not the end of the world. The scholar Roy Baumeister began believing in self-esteem as a predictor of success, but he did studies and it isn't. Self-control is.

When I was teaching, it became pretty obvious to me that IQ didn't explain why so many of my students had reading skills that were far below their grade level. Based on our studies and intuition, I'd say that self-discipline is at least as important as IQ for earning good report card grades. Now, like all boring academics, I am going to hedge my answer a little bit and just say that this is what our studies show. We'd want to see these findings replicated in other labs, but we found that self-discipline is more important in all the studies we have done. We'd have two caveats in making this claim: first, that we were looking at only one metric of measurement, grades. And second, we weren't looking at professional success or extracurricular success. You can define success in many ways, and we used only one. My conviction, having taught for some years, is that what the American school system asks children to do is not groundbreaking intellectual work. One of the reasons self-discipline is so incredibly important is that almost anybody really can do the work if they want to, though, of course, not all children want to.

The military has called you in to study grit. You've looked at grit at West Point, for example. What did you learn?

We've shown at West Point that grit predicts retention at Beast Barracks, that very difficult summer after you're first recruited and before you actually start classes at West Point. Grit predicts who lasts through the summer. We've replicated our study over four or five years, and every summer we get the same findings: grit not only predicts retention, but also predicts it better than any other predictor that West Point has, including SAT scores, class rank in high school, and physical fitness. The first cadets we've studied are now starting to go on to their careers, and we're going to follow them to see if it predicts long-term success.

Educators for some time now have put a premium on self-esteem. Schools strive to help kids develop self-esteem on the theory that other good things such as achievement will flow from increased self-esteem. Which is more important, self-discipline or self-esteem, for being successful as a student?

Ah, how great to be asked this question! We did a study in which we followed kids for four years. We took their self-control ratings from parents and teachers and the kids themselves. We tracked them every year, and we kept their grades from school records, not from their own reports on their grades. We pitted self-control and self-esteem - we also took measures for both - against each other. Here's what we found: When kids increase in self-control, their grades go up later. But when kids increase their self-esteem, there is no effect on their grades. The bottom line is that our research shows that self-control is more important than self-esteem in determining achievement. People have been studying self-esteem for a long time, and this allows you to compare the self-esteem of kids who grew up in the nineties with, say, those who grew up in the seventies or eighties with regard to self-esteem. Self-esteem has gone up in the United States; achievement has not. If anything, compared with other countries, we have done worse, but our kids feel really good about themselves on average.

What seems particularly interesting, and there is an article by J. P. Tangney on this, is that there is an uncoupling between your perception of your own competence and how much you like yourself. Many American kids, particularly in the last couple of decades, can feel really good about themselves without actually being good at anything. This is the problem with the "self-esteem at all costs" message. Self-esteem should be earned. I find that parents today, at least those in a high socioeconomic bracket, never want to say anything critical of their children. Everybody has to be a winner. You take your children to a soccer game, and they don't keep score anymore. They don't want anybody to lose. Well, it's a good thing for kids to lose sometimes. They see what it's like to get up again. They realize it's not the end of the world. The scholar Roy Baumeister began believing in self-esteem as a predictor of success, but he did studies and it isn't. Self-control is.

Read the entire article on the In Character: A Journal of Everyday Virtues website (new window will open). Reprinted with permission.

Published: June 5, 2010

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