Yet more genius (grit edition)

Another old friend, Angie Lee (now Angie L. Duckworth) has a paper in the current issue of Journal of Personal and Social Psychology about “grit”, which she and her co-authors define as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals.” They find that grit, as measured by a brief questionnaire, accounts for some of the variance in certain measures of success (GPA, performance in a spelling bee) that is not accounted for by IQ or traditional personality measures. This is yet another reason the cult of the genius is bad for mathematics; it encourages people to forget the crucial fact that original work in mathematics is almost without exception the result of sustained effort, often with no guarantee of a good outcome. Good math is gritty.

On the other hand, Angie writes: “individuals high in grit deliberately set for themselves extremely long-term objectives and do not swerve from them — even in the absence of positive feedback.” This is not a description of a good mathematician. First of all, quite often we set ourselves what we mistakenly believe to be short-term objectives — you start a project thinking it’ll be easy and only with some work do you come to realize it’s much harder, and more interesting, than you’d understood! Second, mathematics requires a good deal of mental suppleness. If you try to prove statement X for a year with no sense that you’ve made any progress or have any ideas that other people haven’t already explored, you certainly should consider swerving, at the very least towards trying to prove that statement X is false! A new Ph.D. who set themselves the long-term goal of proving a famous conjecture, and who held unswervingly to that goal despite a lack of progress, would almost certainly not be headed in the direction of “success outcomes.”

2 thoughts on “Yet more genius (grit edition)

  1. John Cowan says:

    Unless of course he happens to be another Andrew Wiles, who had about an order of magnitude more grit than anyone else.

  2. JSE says:

    Not so! Wiles may not have known all along he’d get the full theorem he finally proved, but he certainly knew that he was creating some fundamentally new mathematics that was going to move the field forward. So I wouldn’t say he was in the “swerve recommended” situation described above.

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