"By the 1980s and the 1990s, lumpers in psychology had embraced a grand unified theory of personality, which collapsed all the nuances that came before into a set of supertraits—the Big Five. Under this new system, grit and all its near and distant cousins—willpower, superego strength, industriousness, and so on—would fall under an umbrella factor known as “conscientiousness.” (The remaining four of the Big Five supertraits: extraversion, agreeableness, neuroticism, and openness to experience.) Like grit, conscientiousness could be measured with a survey: a set of statements, maybe several hundred, for a person to read and then assign himself a score. (There are other ways to measure personality: A psychologist might ask people, for example, whether they engage in specific behaviors such as making lists or showing up early for meetings.)
“[The Big Five] brought clarity to a true buzz of confusion,” Roberts says, and it allowed researchers to make bigger claims about the broad significance of character. A measure of someone’s conscientiousness, for example, could help predict her longevity and physical health, as well as her marital stability. It could also tell you how likely she would be to find success in high school, college, and the workplace. But if the adoption of the Big Five proved useful in the lab, it made the science of personality harder to explain to outsiders. “When I say, conscientiousness,” says Roberts, “people go, ‘Huh?’ ”
That’s why Duckworth worked so hard to give her measure a catchy name. “I came up with it over other terms like pluck, tenacity, persistence, perseverance,” she said during one interview. “It has the connotations that I wanted. It sounds good.” It’s true: Conscientiousness comes off as something weak—a nerdy way of playing by the rules; grit suggests a vigorous, old-fashioned form of virtue. Grit’s the antidote for an overpolished age, a return to rough-hewn authenticity. “It’s brilliant in terms of marketing,” says Roberts. “People understand it immediately.”
Grit the measure and Grit the book are clearly triumphs of rebranding. It’s not as easy to discern whether Duckworth has produced something more than that—a set of new and substantive ideas to match her innovative presentation. To put this another way: Is she the Alice Waters of psychology, the leader of a revolution, or is she the field’s Rick Mast, more a pioneer of pretty packaging?
A brand-new meta-analysis of the literature on grit—conducted by researchers Marcus Credé, Michael Tynan, and Peter Harms using 88 samples and 67,000 subjects—provides some clues. There isn’t much space between Duckworth’s measure and conscientiousness, the study argues. If you test a group of people for both traits, administering standard surveys to measure grit and conscientiousness, the results will end up very tightly linked; in some studies their relationship approaches 1-to-1. In Roberts’ view, grit corresponds very closely to a facet, or subtrait, of conscientiousness that has for many years been called industriousness."
See also: Grit - Angela Duckworth's TED talk