Sonia Sotomayor’s memoir, “My Beloved World,” chronicles how a young, impoverished, girl with Type I juvenile diabetes rose to become the first Hispanic Supreme Court Justice in history.
The odds were stacked against her in almost every way. An alcoholic father who died when she was 8 years old. A disease that would likely kill her in her early adulthood. Growing up in the housing projects of the Bronx. A minority woman in a field dominated by white men.
And yet, Sotomayor rose to a position of extreme power and prestige, earning a revered place in the highest court of the land. In her book, she says she got there through hard work, a stubborn streak, and a sense of optimism no one could shake.
These non-cognitive skills propelled Sotomayor to study harder, get better grades, rise to the top of her class, and achieve success in life. In a word, you could say she has grit.
Angela Duckworth, noted education researcher, has made a career out of studying grit and it’s role in the success of students. Her grit scale has predicted success in such settings as the Scripps National Spelling Bee and the West Point Military Academy.
Duckworth would argue that grit is one character trait that led to Sotomayor’s success. Grit, as Duckworth defines it, is in large part about persisting with interests and goals over the long run, even in the face of adversity.
Sotomayor decided at an early age that she wanted to become a judge, after discovering she could not become a police detective because of her diabetes. She held that goal in her mind, focusing her efforts and passions and in the end, it paid off in a big way.
What Grit Says About Us
Duckworth’s research on grit through her work at the University of Pennsylvania has turned some conventional wisdom about intelligence on its head.
Intelligence, while easy to measure, is not an accurate predictor of success. In fact, Duckworth’s work has found there exists either no relation or often an inverse relationship between grit and talent.
In her study of West Point cadets, those cadets with the highest scores as calculated through the academy’s rigorous application process were not always the cadets who persisted past the grueling first summer of training. Instead, it was the scores candidates received on Duckworth’s grit questionnaire that proved to be the best predictor of the candidates who would move on into the academy and succeed.
Grit, like intelligence, isn’t fixed. People can change their behaviors and their mind-set to become grittier, to persist through challenges, and to engage in deliberate practice to become more tenacious, determined, hard-working individuals.
Schools will necessarily play a large role in helping young students become grittier. Experiences like internships, apprenticeships and fellowships can help young people develop grit and tenacity. These experiences teach young adults how to persevere, work through adversity, and overcome challenges in much the way Sotomayor did as a young girl in the Bronx.
Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor did not get to where she is today resting on her laurels. She worked hard, set a goal and engaged in deliberate practice to get to where she wanted to be. She never looked at the odds stacked against her and gave up. Instead, Sotomayor persevered, relying on her grit and optimism to get her through.