Grit Is Key, But How Do You Learn It?

This blog post originally appeared on the Voyageur Outward Bound School’s blog.  Check it out in its original home.

Ice canoeing demands a striking amount of resolve and commitment to long-term goals.  In other words, grit.

Ice canoeing demands a striking amount of resolve and commitment to long-term goals. In other words, ice canoeing is a gritty sport.

In recent years, the discussion of how children succeed has focused a great deal on the importance of grit. In their 2012 “Back to School” broadcastThis American Life showcased research showing the relative importance of “non-cognitive skills” compared to traditional book smarts. Journalist Paul Tough has written extensively on the issue, both in the New York Times Magazine and in his book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of CharacterTough’s reporting suggests that character indicates more accurately whether a child will succeed in school and later in life than measures of pure intelligence. He highlights seven key character traits that fuel success, one of which is “grit and perseverance.”

If TED Talks are more your style, psychologist Angela Lee Duckworth has explained her research on grit to nearly 2.5 million viewers. She originally coined the term in the context of predicting success, and she has shown many times over how gritty students, West Point cadets, salespeople, and teachers succeed where their non-gritty counterparts fail.  Watch her TED Talk here:

Dr. Duckworth ends her remarks with an honest admission that she does not know how to build grit in kids. “We need to take our best ideas, our strongest intuitions, and we need to test them,” she says. Anyone who understands Outward Bound already knows one of those best ideas: participating in an Outward Bound course.

Kurt Hahn founded the original Outward Bound program in 1941 in response to a dire need to build grit in young British sailors. The British shipping magnate Sir Lawrence Holt observed that his young sailors succumbed to hardships in the wartime North Sea at a much higher rate his older sailors. Together, Hahn and Holt designed a program of increasing challenge and skill mastery to teach the young sailors that they could persevere through difficulty, that they were resilient in the face of danger, and could survive even the most terrifying of situations.  Dr. Duckworth defines grit as “passion and perseverance for long-term goals,” “stamina,” and “sticking with your future, day in, day out, not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years.” Hahn taught the young sailors to have this same perseverance, resilience, and stamina.  In other words, he taught them grit.

In the Outward Bound of the 21st century, we still teach our students grit. Today’s risks are different than surviving the cold North Sea in a tiny lifeboat, as discussed by veteran instructor Mary Milodragovich, but teens and adults alike are in dire need of the same perseverance and stamina that Hahn’s sailors learned through the sea in the 1940s. Traveling across the Boundary Waters, along the shore of Lake Superior, down the St. Croix River, or through the woods of the Superior Hiking Trail teaches our students not only how to live comfortably in the woods but how to meet and overcome any challenge. The grit they build helps them “day in, day out” on their course, and accompanies our students home to help them stick with their futures for many years to come.


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