Story at a glance

  • A 10-year study of more than 11,000 West Point cadets suggests that academic or athletic talent isn’t the be-all-end-all of success.
  • The study assessed cadets’ smarts, physical fitness and “grit” — defined as “passion and perseverance for long-term goals of personal significance.”
  • Those who scored highest on grit were the most likely to graduate.

Cadets at West Point are tested physically and mentally from their first week at the military academy. Some cadets come in more athletically or academically gifted than their peers, but, according to a new study, those qualities aren’t the ones that best predict who will successfully graduate. Instead, grit, which the authors define as “passion and perseverance for long-term goals of personal significance,” emerged as the most important factor when it came to crossing the finish line. 

The study assessed the physical and mental abilities of more than 11,000 West Point cadets over the course of 10 years. But they also included a quiz designed to figure out which of the cadets had grit. 

Somewhat predictably, those who scored well on the cognitive tests got good grades. Surprisingly though, the smarts seemed to come at the cost of grit and physical ability. When it came to completing the famously arduous 6 weeks of “Beast Barracks,” physical fitness and grit played a larger role than intellect in seeing cadets through to the other side. And, crucially, gritty students were most likely to earn the diploma they had come to West Point to pursue.

“Challenges have a way of finding us. By virtue of being human we will have epochs of our life where we’re highly challenged,” Michael Matthews told The Inverse. “West Point becomes a kind of laboratory for learning how individuals come to succeed under these trying circumstances. The circumstances could be different for you or me, but the psychological impact of the trials and tribulations might be similar.”

The research doesn’t do much to illuminate what the rest of us can do to cultivate grit, but finding that talent isn’t the be-all-end-all of success may offer its own boost.

Published on Nov 07, 2019