Curiously Gritty: The Combo that Unlocks Creative Achievement
If you are too narrowly closed off from things that don’t at first blush seem like your main interest, you may be cutting off unexpected and novel connections.
When asked how he discovered the law of universal gravitation, Newton answered, “By thinking on it continually.” Reflecting on his own wins, Babe Ruth said “It’s hard to beat a person who never gives up.”
Both of these quotes show the importance of having tenacity, perseverance, and commitment to your craft. My friend and colleague Angela Duckworth has spent her career studying “grit”, which she popularized in her bestseller “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.”
On Angela Duckworth’s Grit Scale, she includes two aspects: perseverance and consistency of interests. For instance, she measures perseverance with items such as “I have overcome setbacks to conquer an important challenge” and “Setbacks don’t discourage me. I don’t give up easily”, and she measures consistency of interests with items such as “I finish whatever I begin” and “My interests (don’t) change from year to year.”
While Angela conceptualizes consistency of interests as passion, it really is more about the ability to complete tasks and to stay consistent in one’s interests. It’s possible to have a very strong passion for a particular domain but be messy and not be very dutiful in completing other tasks in life, and vice-versa, a person can be very dutiful about tackling tasks but not really have a specific burning passion. This is something I’ve had many very fun conversations with Angela about, and she agrees. We even briefly worked together on coming up with a Grit Scale 2.0, but we never got around to publishing that data.
While perseverance and consistent of interests tend to be positively correlated with each other, there are times when they can come apart. In a seminal study, researchers David Disabato, Fallon Goodman, and Todd Kashdan found that perseverance was positively correlated with happiness and personality strengths whereas consistency of interests had weak or negative correlations with these outcomes. This finding was replicated across seven regions of the world.
In a different study, Anedraham Abuhassan and Timothy Bates found that perseverance was the most important factor in predicting long-term achievement, even though it wasn’t as important for predicting high school GPA. In contrast, consistency of interests was more important in predicting GPA than long-term achievement.
In a separate literature, I have spent my own career studying a trait called openness to experience, which my colleagues and I define as the drive for cognitive exploration of inner and outer experience. We have found that openness is the core of the creative personality and the best predictor of lifelong creativity.
Openness is close conceptually to the idea of curiosity. The psychologist Todd Kashdan has been doing excellent work studying curiosity and show how important curiosity is for living a fulfilling life (see his book here). In his research, Kashdan and his colleagues found that curiosity is a multidimensional trait. They found five aspects of curiosity:
Joyous Exploration (“I enjoy learning about subjects that are unfamiliar to me”)
Deprivation Sensitivity (“I work relentlessly at problems that I feel must be solved”)
Stress tolerance (“I can handle the stress that comes from entering uncertain situations”)
Social curiosity (“I like finding out why people behave the way they do”)
Thrill seeking (“The anxiety of doing something new makes me feel excited and alive”)
Curiously (!), psychologists haven’t spent as much time looking at the relationship between curiosity and creativity. Curiosity regulates cognition and action through the allocation of attention and other personal resources toward intrinsically rewarding tasks. Curious individuals are able to accumulate and integrate novel perspectives and information in the service of creative actions and achievement.
To further understand what it really takes for creative achievement and to integrate these separate literatures, I wrote a paper with the superstars themselves— Todd Kashdan, Zorana Ivcevic, and Shengjie Lin. We analyzed data I had collected when I was at Penn that was part of a research program I was working on at the time with Reb Rebele on the importance of having a diversity of interests.
Our findings are very interesting and at times even surprising. So what did we find? Let’s get to it already!