developing grit through intellectual curiosity

For young entrepreneurs these days, finding success means searching for a common problem, quitting formal education, and then starting a new technology company. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg are often brought up as the archetype of successful college dropouts who went on to obtaining great personal and professional success. However, common among their glamorous narratives of success is a path filled with obstacles and trials. Ask any innovator in Silicon Valley and he or she will advise newcomers in the industry to expect at least three or four failures before achieving success. They often recount long days spent on experimenting and sleepless nights spent on coding. In other words, success requires grit, or perseverance, from the individual.

Before dropping out of college, Bill Gates spent most of his time as a student in a computer lab and Steve Jobs lived on the floor in a friend’s dorm room while auditing classes in Reed’s College. Mark Zuckerberg enrolled in a graduate computer programming course before even entering college. In each of these cases, the individuals displayed high levels of grit and intellectual curiosity as students. Grit is a personal characteristic that comes from intellectual curiosity. If educators and supporting adults foster intellectual curiosity among students, students can develop the grit necessary to become engaged and passionate in exploring and ultimately achieving success in their areas of interest.

Grit and Success

Grit isn’t simply about having the perseverance to work and hold long-term goals in the face of challenges. As Angela Duckworth (2007) defined it through her extensive research on the topic, grit means maintaining the effort towards a goal when others do not. A grittier person will continue in spite of failures and disappointments whereas another person will change or abandon his or her intention. Duckworth (2007) claims that grit is the second half of success that is often neglected in conversations and research. For years, scientists and academics have taken many looks at intelligence and intellectual capacity. There have been studies on origins of intelligence, measurement through IQ, and the prediction of a person’s success in school and career. But how does someone unleash his or her abilities and full potentials?

Duckworth’s (2007) findings are significant in that grit can potentially have a huge impact on people’s lives and their success. In many cases, it might not matter whether a person is highly intelligent or less intelligent to begin with. A person can likely achieve success through grit and perseverance, ultimately surpassing people with intelligence because of his or her unyielding efforts to strive for a goal (Hanford, 2012). In conducting various studies, Duckworth (2007) found that grittier people generally had a higher level of education. Furthermore, grittier people tend to receive higher GPAs even though their SAT scores were lower than other peers. Later in life, gritty people will go on to make less career changes with implications indicating that grit will continue to increase over people’s lifespans.

Grit from Curiosity

If grit is such a desirable trait for cultivating success in the long run, adults and educators have a strong interest in fostering this trait within students. Yet with only a handful of research on grit, the problem becomes how grit is supposed to be taught and developed. The modern mobile culture creates an even more difficult climate for grit to thrive. It used to be that information was scarce, but technology lets today’s students comb through all of human knowledge in a few clicks. The easy accessibility of information creates short attention span (Watson, 2015), a condition contrary to what grit calls for. Even more detrimental is the lack of necessity to mentally retain information, leading to students who cannot drive their own learning. Success will then go to those can.

In The Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell (2011) writes about the importance of spending ten thousand hours working at something in order to achieve mastery. Successful innovators such as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg all spent countless hours to achieve their high levels of mastery. It is passion and dedication—both essential qualities in developing grit—that drove them to where they are. They did not need to have “tiger moms” to push them in learning computer science. Conversely, their own curiosity in experimenting what computers can do spawned their intrinsic motivation and allowed them to try again and again even when they failed. Judy Gilbert, director of talent at Google, described that even though she looks for intelligence in an employee, “intellectual curiosity is more important” (Wai, 2012). Even employers recognize that curiosity is a valuable asset because it keeps the employee asking good questions, pursuing new answers, and, most crucially, displaying grit.

In an era where knowledge is abundant, it is more important than ever before for students to build the patience in finding information, to develop critical thinking, and to become gritty problem solvers. With data so ubiquitous, success in students come not from the ability to find facts but from the ability to apply and analyze facts. Instead of understanding the surface of knowledge, gritty students seek to turn facts into wisdom and insights. These skills stem from intellectual curiosity, and universities recognize this precisely. It is for this reason that undergraduate institutions often have a first-year seminar program for incoming students intended to excite their intellectual curiosity (Kolb, Longest, & Barnett, 2014). These courses give freshmen students a chance to study within small groups in an informal setting. Rather than traditional lectures, the format of instruction quite often found in these seminars is driven by student conversing as a group with the professor serving as a mediator. Universities hope that these seminars will expose students to new fields of subject, inspiring them to continue the exploration through major disciplinary programs. This fundamental motivation helps to build grit, and seminars have been shown to increase retention and graduation rates (Kolb et at., 2014).

Curiosity works because it feeds to a hungry mind. Long before any formal research, philosophers such as Aristotle recognized the natural curiosity inherent in all human beings and its importance for learning. John Dewey, an American philosopher on education reform, later reaffirmed curiosity and saw the classroom as a place to “keep alive the sacred spark of wonder and to fan the flame that already glows” (Kolb et at., 2014). Dewey understood that curiosity creates the necessary mental drive and energy for students to discover, but even more curiosity is needed to develop grit so that students will keep seeking knowledge in adversity. By encouraging intellectual curiosity in schools, students are able to form a self-driving catalyst for motivation and interest (Von Stumm, Hell, & Chamorro-Premuzic, 2011). Curiosity lets students keep asking questions and not be afraid of what is wrong. With the assistance from peers and guidance from instructors, first-year seminars is one of the places where this driving force can develop into grit.

Building a Climate of Curiosity

In Fareed Zakaria’s (2015) recently published book titled In Defense of a Liberal Education, he argues that having a broad education can better prepare students for the real world than a narrow degree in the STEM fields. This does not mean that science and mathematics are unimportant, but students require a broad exposure to various disciplines in order to foster intellectual curiosity. America has always encouraged its students to explore early on in undergraduate studies, distinguishing American colleges from European systems of education where emphasis is placed on a technical skill (“Fareed,” 2015). This has allowed Americans to adapt to a rapid changing economy through the decades from an industrial age to a knowledge economy all the way to the modern technological times. Whereas tradecraft skills often become irrelevant in a short amount of time, America’s persistence for general education instills a sense of curiosity that allows students to develop essential skills such as critical thinking to confront changing times.

However, more and more people today are favoring a degree in engineering or science rather than English or history. Last year, President Obama said in a speech that “folks can make a lot more potentially in skilled manufacturing or the trades than a degree in art history” (“Fareed,” 2015). It is this kind of mindset that can be a dangerous slippery slope where students are misguided into thinking that success comes from learning only within a specific discipline. In order to foster intellectual curiosity and subsequently develop grit in students, educators and academic professionals need to be maintain a climate of curiosity within learning environments. It is important that engineering students have the freedom to take a class in music theory and also for English students to be able to take a class in biotechnology. Building an interdisciplinary educational foundation lets students develop intellectual curiosity—to go from one subject to another as the mind pleases.

While universities that require general education and offer first-year seminars should be commended for its efforts, educators need to do more to encourage the continuation of academic exploration through intellectual curiosity. The ability to learn and to become fascinated in a variety of disciplines is essential to critical thinking (“Fareed,” 2015). Incoming freshmen should be reassured that it’s perfectly acceptable to go to college undeclared, and that if college takes five years instead of four that it is only beneficial to the student’s educational pursuit. There needs to be greater emphasis on utilizing general education as a time for exploration and not as a checklist for degree completion. It is only by venturing into new fields of studies that a student can be exposed to new ideas and different perspectives. This cultivates an open mindset for students to expand critical thinking, thus acquiring the ability to navigate future personal or professional obstacles while maintaining curiosity and developing grit along the way.

Grit as a Lifelong Attitude

Despite the currently limited research on grit, a closer examination of intellectual curiosity suggests that grit can be developed by following one’s passions. People who are passionate seek wherever curiosity leads them to. In the process, they may come into contact with challenges and obstacles, but their fundamental drive from curiosity leads them to carry on and achieve higher success. In today’s economy, students are led to believe that training within STEM fields is the only guaranteed road to success. However, as technological advances mature in our society, it is imperative that students continue to allow themselves to grow a mind that is intellectually curious. It is by examining a broad range of subjects that students can foster high levels of critical thinking, a skill that is more relevant than ever before as the need to analyze data grows. Educators are in a unique position to ensure that students continue to grow in a climate of curiosity. Whether that’s through programs such as first-year seminars or fighting the stigma of staying in school longer, intellectual curiosity is crucial to the student’s development for grit in their academic life and beyond. As Duckworth (2007) found, grit is a trait that leads to long-term success. As educators and supporting adults, the responsibility for a student’s success extends beyond his or her years in school. By developing curiosity among students, they will cultivate an attitude for grit that will serve them well into the future.


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Gladwell, M. (2011). The 10,000-Hour Rule. In Outliers: The story of success (pp. 35-68). New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company.

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Kolb, K. H., Longest, K. C., & Barnett, J. C. (2014). Intellectual curiosity in action: A framework to assess first-year seminars in liberal arts settings. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 25(2), 131-156. Retrieved May 23, 2015, from Academic Search Complete.

Von Stumm, S., Hell, B., & Chamorro-Premuzic, T. (2011). The hungry mind: Intellectual curiosity is the third pillar of academic performance. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 6(6), 574-588. doi:10.1177/1745691611421204

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Zakaria, F. (2015). In defense of a liberal education (1st ed.). New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.


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