Grit by Angela Duckworth: what, no spoonies?

A book about resilience and perseverance that doesn’t include chronically ill people? Max Plaise thinks the theory has some gaps in it.
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The cover of Grit by Angela Duckworth

I picked this book up from a ‘bestsellers’ table in a bookshop partly because the phrase ‘secrets to success’ from the subheading leapt out at me.

Like most long-term chronically ill people, ‘successful’ isn’t really a word that many would apply to me. And yet I’m pretty sure I’m gritty AF after 15 years of battling debilitating symptoms, ableism and broken health and benefits systems.

So given that, would this book help me solve the puzzle of why I was still living on very little and spending most of my time in bed? Perhaps I wasn’t really as gritty as I thought I was? I was certainly up for learning whatever I could.

What’s it about?

‘In this must-read for anyone seeking to succeed, pioneering psychologist Angela Duckworth takes us on an eye-opening journey to discover the true qualities that lead to outstanding achievement.

‘Winningly personal, insightful and powerful, Grit is a book about what goes through your head when you fall down, and how that – not talent or luck – makes all the difference.’ [blurb from back of book]

What did reviewers say?

Well, it’s a New York Times bestseller, The Economist called it ‘inspirational’, and it has 4.5 stars from over 1,000 Amazon reviews.

There are quite a few Amazon reviews claiming it doesn’t say anything new (which must be disappointing to the author who’s spent a large chunk of her career producing high quality research on this topic), but many more that state it was helpful information, well presented. ‘I found this book to be the perfect hybrid of informative and motivating’, said one such.

What did I think?

If I wasn’t chronically ill, I think I’d have found this book to be pretty awesome. Firstly, I took the test and it turns out I have a Grit Score of 4.59 (higher than 95% of the US population, no less!) – so that was a nice ego boost to get during a very bad patch in my life.

What I found fascinating was the detail of what Duckworth believes grit actually consists of – what the behaviours of a gritty person are. Looking back on my life with these in mind, I realised that I developed my grit *after* I became chronically ill, probably as a result of repeatedly trying and failing to function like ‘normal’ people, but refusing to give up on finding ways to live a good life. Prior to that, the successes I’d had in my life had been basically due to luck and privilege. That might be partly why it took me a very long time after first getting ill to start really fighting for my right to a decent life (although I guess it’s a far more complex picture than that).

I personally found the depth and detail of the research and tips went way beyond ‘what everybody already knows’. It gave me some very useful insights into areas where my approach to projects wasn’t working as well as it could, and some equally useful validation when I discovered areas where I was basically already doing what I needed to do.

But as I say, I’m disabled, and while chronic illness gives you a very different perspective on life to the average person, Duckworth unfortunately has not given an ounce of space to that in this book. Since one fifth of the US population is disabled, it seems an oversight.

All the ways Grit doesn’t work for disabled and sick people

How do you judge grit in a depressed person who may give their self a lower score than they deserve because they underestimate their good qualities?

What about someone who has ADHD (like myself) and often can’t concentrate on one thing for any length of time? Is that their fault? Are they less gritty. then?

How can you work and work and work at a project, if all your energy, every day, is done with by the time you’ve washed your face, brushed your teeth and made yourself a meal?

And then there’s biggest flaw in this book. What, exactly, is success anyway? What about those of us for whom success, in any conventional sense, is way out of reach, no matter how hard we may try, how gritty we may be?

Nope

Duckworth spends most of the book claiming that success has got nothing to do with luck or personal circumstances, but, well, I can point you in the direction of countless chronically ill people who prove otherwise. People who have been through physical and mental hell and are fighting daily battles to survive and live good lives, but who certainly aren’t running million-dollar businesses (even though I’m pretty sure they have the innate talent and drive to do that, all else being equal). And she claims the best way to raise children is to constantly push them. Which, I have to say, would be a pretty awful thing to do to a chronically ill child.

To me, the grittiest people of all are those who are invisibly battling every day to achieve success that looks like: ‘I got out of bed’. And they don’t get any praise or money or fame for this, but they never give up anyway. Duckworth should be studying them.

But Duckworth’s book is for non-disabled people, living in a non-disabled world, all convinced that success means making money, gaining social status, aceing exams, getting into top universities, and generally being mega-productive. She doesn’t investigate those underlying assumptions. And so it doesn’t really work for someone like me.

Frustratingly, it easily could, if she would just remember that disabled people exist, and I look forward to her maybe doing that in future books. I emailed her and told her all this and asked if she’d be willing to do an interview, but I was told she is too busy (which I can well believe).

Is it worth the spoons?

Unsure on this one. I think the practical tips about developing grit are useful up to a point for a chronically ill person (and I am incorporating some of them into my daily life), but beyond that they may be impossible to put into practice. Like so many self-help books written as though we sick people don’t exist, it could end up leaving you feeling very excluded, and it’s certainly not encouraging if your very health conditions prevent you ‘being gritty’ in the way Duckworth prescribes.

Overall, I’m not sure the focus on extreme ‘success’ is a very useful one to take on board as a chronically ill person anyway. I’ve had to work hard to let go of my previous ideas about what success consists of, in order to be grateful for my life as it is, so it was counter-productive for me to start reabsorbing the idea that ‘anyone can do great things if they just set their mind to it’. This could so easily have been written to include people like me, and I can imagine that if it had been, it could have been very useful, because many of the attitudes of mind that Duckworth describes, I can see from my own experiences are the ones that have enabled me to embrace life despite my symptoms.

Since I suspect the author is unlikely to work with me on Grit For Spoonies, I might attempt to write something about it myself – when spoons allow – so you might want to hang on for that rather than reading Duckworth’s book. I’ll take all of the stuff that might make you feel awful about yourself and reinforce ableist ideas about success and worth out of my version.

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