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When Grit Falls Short

Special Guest Blogger: Robert McGrath, Ph.D., Senior Scientist, VIA Institute on Character

“Grit” seems to be the latest buzzword in character education; and has recently garnered more attention with the publication of Angela Duckworth’s Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, which was declared an Amazon best seller even before it was published. The result has been a rush to target perseverance and passion as goals in school systems across the country.

The Greeks would have been horrified.

For the ancient Athenians, social contribution and personal flourishing were both wrapped up in the concept of virtue. A fundamental principle of their beliefs was that virtues represented a seamless whole. To be virtuous required excellence in all the virtues, not just one, an idea that have been called the reciprocity of the virtues. As Susan Wolf (2007, p. 145) put it, “To have one virtue is to have them all.” These days we’re more likely to talk about skills or competencies than virtues, but I believe the principle still holds: character education that focuses on only one element of character creates an illusion of good character. The idea that we can focus on one component of the good life and think we are doing well is at best wrongheaded, and at worst dangerous.

As Senior Scientist for the VIA Institute, I do research on the VIA model. I’m sure you remember that in the model six virtues drawn from moral traditions provide the hierarchical structure for the 24 character strengths: Wisdom & Knowledge, Courage, Humanity, Justice, Temperance, and Transcendence. Earlier this year, when I presented my thoughts on the six virtues at the UPenn Positive Psychology Center, Marty Seligman admitted he thought what he and Chris Peterson published on virtue was a half-baked idea; I responded “no, it was a brilliant idea.” I think we’re both right. The six virtues themselves ultimately may not prove the best choice as a framework for the strengths, but in developing the virtues Peterson and Seligman (2004) introduced some game-changing ideas. Where most of their predecessors in virtue theory focused on what the virtues are, with the common result a hodgepodge of candidates, they struggled first with the question of what a virtue is. They argued for an essentialist position on virtues, that virtues ideally would be necessary and sufficient contributors to personal, interpersonal, and social well-being. They also suggested virtues could emerge as latent variables underlying manifest elements of good character. These two ideas have inspired my recent work on virtues.

That work has identified three key virtues, which these days I’m calling Caring, Self-Control, and Inquisitiveness (McGrath, 2015). These three can be found in every virtue tradition I know, from Socrates on. My colleagues and I have now found it in factor analyses of 12 adult data sets and three samples involving youth (Greenberg et al., 2016; McGrath & Walker, 2016). They also recur with amazing regularity in discussions of character education (e.g., National Research Council, 2012). The site frequently mentions “head, heart, and hand.” Thomas Lickona and Michael Josephson, two leaders in the character education community, have both been quoted as suggesting good character is “the moral awareness and strength to know the good, love the good, and do the good.” And in case anyone thinks I’m implying Angela Duckworth herself is fixated on grit, she and her colleagues have research in the works on the importance of all three factors in education (Park et al., 2016).

One of the big problems in our educational system is the tendency to lurch from one fad to another; whole books have been written about the simplistic solutions we’ve attempted to fix education (Elder & Paul, 2007). Grit is a better target for non-academic education than some we’ve seen before—most of us are old enough to remember the self-esteem craze–but maybe it’s just one of the keys to strength. Caring both thoughtfully and emotionally about our relationships with others; opening ourselves up to new information and the possibility we are wrong; becoming better at delaying gratification and acting on our prospections about the future: I like to think these are all essential ingredients for us to create a good life and a good society. They should be targets not only for the students we teach. They should also be targets for the educational system that teaches them, and the society that raises them.

-Dr. Robert McGrath, VIA’s Senior Scientist

Bob McGrathDr. Robert McGrath, VIA Senior Scientist, received his Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from Auburn University and is currently a Professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University in the School of Psychology. He directs Integrated Care for the Underserved of Northeastern New Jersey, a program offering free brief behavioral interventions to low-income primary care patients. Dr. McGrath also maintains an active research program in methodology, measurement and professional issues. He has authored over 250 publications and presentations, including several books on research methodology, and is a contributor to APA Books’ multi-volume reference The Handbook of Research Methods in Psychology.



Duckworth, A. (2016). Grit: The power of passion and perseverance. New York: Scribner.

Elder, L., & Paul, R. (2007). A critical thinker’s guide to educational fads. Tomales, CA: Foundation for Critical Thinking.

Greenberg, M. J., McGrath, R. E., & Hall-Simmonds, A. (2016). The three virtues: Replication and correlates. Manuscript in preparation.

McGrath, R. E. (2015). Integrating psychological and cultural perspectives on virtue: The hierarchical structure of character strengths. Journal of Positive Psychology, 10, 407-424.

McGrath, R. E., & Walker, D. I. (2016). Factor structure of character strengths in youth: Consistency across ages and measures. Manuscript under review.

National Research Council. (2012). Education for life and work: Developing transferable knowledge and skills in the 21st century. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Park, D., Tsukayama, E., Goodwin, G. P., Patrick, S., & Duckworth, A. L. (2016). A tripartite taxonomy of character: Evidence for intrapersonal, interpersonal, and intellectual competencies in children. Manuscript under review.

Tough, P. (2011, September 18). What if the secret to success is failure? The New York Times Magazine, MM38.

Tough, P. (2012). How children succeed: Grit, curiosity, and the hidden power of character. New York: Houghton Mifflin.

Wolf, S. (2007). Moral psychology and the unity of the virtues. Ratio, 20, 145-167.

When Grit Falls Short

Ryan M. Niemiec, Psy.D

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APA Reference
Niemiec, R. (2016). When Grit Falls Short. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 24, 2020, from


Last updated: 17 May 2016
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