John D Cook linked to an article on "grit" by Venkatesh Rao. This article really got me thinking. Ever since I discovered the utility of psychometrics for personality, I have spent a great deal of time pondering the relationship between the gifts we are given, and what we do for ourselves.

Venkat's primary point in his post is our modern economy doesn't align well with the academic disciplines the elite are educated in. He says people call him a generalist because he has a PhD in Aerospace Engineering and he ended up in marketing. However, from his perspective, there was a straight line between those two points. Thus his physics metaphor of external and internal coordinate systems.

The trouble is, we still tend to think in that external coordinate system, and may spend years trying to make that aerospace education turn into an aerospace job when our true skills and interests may lie elsewhere. Katz's now infamous article, Don't Become a Scientist, addressed precisely this mismatch between the disciplinary expectations produced in grad school, and the actual behavior of the job market.

Venkat then turns to what he calls grit, and I would call conscientiousness. He correctly notes this is probably the best predictor of success, over IQ, over family connections, over just about anything. People who bust ass almost always do well.

One point where I would disagree with Venkat is this:

Grit is the enduring intrinsic quality that, for a brief period in recent history, was coincident with the pattern of behavior known as progressive disciplinary specialization.

I don't think this should be in the past tense. Progressive disciplinary specialization is becoming more and more associated with C and less and less with g. What we may be getting is less and less value for our money and effort, because disciplinary specialization [in science at least] often means working under your 50- or 60-something PI in relative anonymity as cheap, but skilled labor.

This is a really good working definition of conscientiousness:

Grit has external connotations of extreme toughness, a high apparent threshold for pain, and an ability to keep picking yourself up after getting knocked down. From the outside, grit looks like the bloody-minded exercise of extreme will power. It looks like a super-power.

Venkat goes on to discuss how what can look like brutal hard work can actually be easy, depending on your skills and interests. Quite true. I think the big takeaway here is that building on your strengths can be more effective than trying to remedy your weaknesses. This is a subject of intense personal interest to me, because once I discovered that I have low conscientiousness, many of my frustrations became comprehensible.

Conscientiousness is a finite resource. As a Thomist, this doesn't surprise me. The part of our mind that touches infinity is our intellect, the rational, reasoning, undying part of us. The rest of us is mediated through a thoroughly material, fallible, limited body. Willpower, like strength, can be depleted because it is material.

Once I knew this, I could understand why my reach continually exceeded my grasp. I like Renkat's point about flow and the results that can come from just keeping doggedly at something. But for me, doggedly keeping at something is very, very difficult. I just don't have a lot of capacity [potentia] for self-discipline. The revelation for me was realizing this is a stable personality trait. There are things I can do, for sure, but it is a limitation I will probably struggle against for my entire life. Since my conscientiousness is so low, I actually do need to exert continual will just to keep showing up.

Engineers sometimes talk about "finding the cliff". This means looking for the failure point so you know where your assumptions are still valid, and where they are not. I found the cliff in my own conscientiousness in college. I was a junior in a physics program, and I knew that I had the mental horsepower to do as well as anyone in the program. I seriously expected to be at or near the top in all my courses. My assumption of mental horsepower is probably accurate. What I was missing was an accurate assessment of my capacity for hard work. This was the point in college where I had to stop goofing off and seriously apply myself if I wanted top honors. I tried to do that. I pushed myself beyond my limits. [who can't give 110%?]

The price I paid was I became sicker than I have ever been in my life. It was years before I really recovered. I fear that I treated my friends poorly during this time. I'm surprised they still talk to me. I was miserable. The worst part of it all was that in order to save myself, I had to give up. I'm being hard on myself. I did just fine in college, but I had to seriously adjust my expectations [the soft bigotry of low expectations] about what I was capable of. This runs against the grain of everything my education had instilled in me, so I thought I was a failure.

Thus it was an incredible relief when I discovered that I had indeed fought the good fight, and finished the race. First place just wasn't for me. I did well with what I had been given.

Thus, while I like the insight with which Renkat advises us to take the path of least resistance, I cannot take him literally, for me the path of least resistance involves a couch, videogames, and that computer guy shape. I have a family to provide for, so I have to keep grinding it out. There are some weaknesses that can simply be avoided, using the mountain metaphor. These are simply relative weaknesses, what are called contraries. To be decisive is the opposite [contrary] of carefully considering the options. Both are strengths in their place. Being too lazy to show up to work is a privation of the good of being a hard worker. This simply needs to be resisted with the tools we have at our disposal.

Further reading: