Grit to Great: A book review by Bob Morris

Grit to GreatGrit to Great: How Perseverance, Passion, and Pluck Take You from Ordinary to Extraordinary
Linda Kaplan Thaler and Robin Koval
Crown Business (2015)

“Champions get up when they can’t.” Jack Dempsey

Angela Lee Duckworth is among the sources that Linda Kaplan Thaler and Robin Koval cite in their latest book, Grit to Great. Briefly, in her late 20s, Duckworth left a demanding job as a management consultant at McKinsey to teach math in public schools in San Francisco, Philadelphia and New York. After five years of teaching seventh graders, she went back to graduate school to complete her Ph.D. in psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, where she is now an assistant professor in the psychology department. Her research subjects include students, West Point cadets, and corporate salespeople, all of whom she studies to determine how “grit” is a better indicator of success than factors such as IQ or family income.

I agree with Kaplan Thaler and Koval that “the science of success is only beginning to be explored. And there is much to learn But the great thing about grit is that working harder, smarter, more passionately, and longer is something we control, unlike the community we grew up in, the high school we attended, the money and resources our parents have, company politics, or the current state of the economy. It is attainable by each and every one of us. Even if you’re not the smartest or most talented person in the room.”

Decades of research by K. Anders Ericsson and his associates at Florida State University clearly indicate that, on average, achieving peak performance in almost any human endeavor (e.g. playing chess or the cello) requires 10,000 hours of “deep” (i.e. highly disciplined) practice under strict, expert supervision…and some luck. Even then, success is not guaranteed. I have conducted no formal research on this subject but I have taught Advanced Placement English in two of the most prestigious boarding schools and coached their varsity football and basketball teams. This experience has convinced me that talent without the preparation that Ericsson prescribes illustrates Texas Coach Darrell Royal’s observation, “potential” means “you ain’t done it yet.”

Bob Deutsch is a cognitive neuroscientist and another of the several dozen sources that Kaplan Thaler and Koval cite: “There are different levels of grit. It’s not a unified, generic field, all-or-nothing concept. There’s a million people who have grit, and there’s a million who don’t. But of those who don’t, at least eighty percent could have grit.” In other words, “it’s a trait that can be developed, a skill that can be learned [or at least a temperament that can be developed] when a person is exposed to the right kind of training, experience, and practice.” In this book, Kaplan Thaler and Koval explain how.

These are among the4 passages of greatest interest and value to me:

o Get a Bronx Attitude (Pages 19-22)
o The Four Ingredients of Grit (23-26)
o The Failure of Standardized Tests (31-35)
o The Recipe for Success (38-43)
o Move the Goalposts (53-55)
o Get Rejected (62-65)
o Take a Leap (69-72)
o Embrace Boredom (75-79)
o Celebrate Small Victories (82-85)
o Make Your Bed (85-87)
o Sunny Side Up (97-101)
o Failing Forward (101-103)
o Grit Is Age Agnostic (115-117)
o Pump Up Your Brain (120-122)
o Be a (Re) inventor (125-127)
o Develop Your Character (134-137)
o Get Back Up (137-140)

I commend Kaplan Thaler and Koval on their skillful use of a reader-friendly device at the end of each chapter, “Grit Builders.” Each is a mini-commentary that suggests two or three specific ways their reader can apply the key points in the given chapter to their own situation. Having immediately established a direct and personal rapport with their reader, they use this device to accomplish two major objectives of substantial benefit. First, it enables the reader to interact with the material. Also, it enables the reader to take personal ownership of initiatives to apply it.

Years ago, Linda Kaplan Thaler and Robin Koval decided to launch their own company, the Kaplan Thaler Group, that eventually became one of the most admired and most profitable advertising agencies in a ferociously competitive marketplace, “New York New York.” That took grit, to be sure, and it also took an unshakeable faith in the power of small but significant gestures of “nice.”

I agree with them that grit “is the great equalizer in life, because anyone, at any time, whatever their background or resources, can lay claim to it. It’s been proven time and again, that those individuals who relentlessly and passionately summon their inner fortitude when things get tough or scary; who tirelessly turn defeat into victory thanks to their resilience into initiatives; and hold on with the fierce tenacity of a mother tiger to her cubs, are the true winners in life. With grit, there’s no telling how far you can go, how much you can do, or how successful you can be.”

Posted in


  1. Hendre Weisinger on October 2, 2015 at 5:09 pm

    Angela Duckworth is coming out with her book, Grit early next year. She is the expert–and it is her book that people should read, not a book that summarizes her research. This book is ok but it is a writing writing about a subject that is way beyond their expertise.

    • bobmorris on October 3, 2015 at 12:59 am

      Thank you for your comments. My own opinion is that Kaplan Thaler and Koval apply ideas from many sources (including Angela Duckworth) to their own experience in advertising, a field in which they have substantial expertise. All of us (including Duckworth, Kaplan Thaler, and Koval) are standing atop the shoulders of the giants to which Bernard of Chartres, a 12th century French monk, once referred.

Leave a Comment