Stop being so fragile: Grit in language learning

Stop being so fragile: Grit in language learning

During my university studies, I was an avid salsa dancer. Spending at least 14 hours a week at classes and socials, I watched people sign up for the classes, then quit. You’d think that students from the music faculty would be obvious candidates for dancing success, while those studying computer science and wearing Iron Maiden t-shirts would be less so.

However, after watching a few of the latter type become some of the most impressive dancers, and seeing the former ones drop out, I learned not to judge the newcomers*. I learned that their success in salsa depended not on any predefined qualities, but rather on perseverance.

Recently I spoke about the powerful effects of deliberate practice. One of the elements of this practice is motivation and a strong focus on the long-term goal. As much as it makes perfect sense in theory, when we try to apply this rule to our own life, somehow we get distracted by the omnipresent fairy dust.

Distracted by what?

Oops, sorry, my mind wandered, I was distracted.

I mean that in reality, our long-term goals often dissipate over time. Saving for a round-the-world yacht trip easily gets overshadowed by trying out an exciting new Thai restaurant, and the prospect of watching (insert your favourite show) on Netflix is much more appealing than studying for the B2 German exam. This would not be so depressing if it happened to everyone. But how is it that when we fail, we see our Facebook friend cruising around the Seychelles after 2 years of saving, and that awkward moustached guy from the German course acing the B2 exam?

You all started at the same time, had the same level of dedication (at least for a while) and had an equally serious goal. How is it that you didn’t succeed, when others did? You just lacked… perseverance?... motivation?

No. What you lacked was grit.

Read the summary of Grit to Great

That gravel called grit

Just like the “10k hour rule”, habit-building and efficiency, the term “grit” is making its mark in the community of productivity hackers and expert learners.

The shortest definition of “grit” is “the perseverance of effort”. A motivation so strong that it makes an individual resiliently overcome obstacles and persist despite even long periods of plateau.

”To be gritty is to keep putting one foot in front of the other. To be gritty is to hold fast to an interesting and purposeful goal. To be gritty is to invest, day after week after year, in challenging practice. To be gritty is to fall down seven times, and rise eight.” —Angela Duckworth, “Grit”.

Angela Duckworth is not a self-help guru. She spent years conducting academic research on the phenomenon of grit, only deciding later to use that term as an appropriate description of the trait. Her New York Times bestseller, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance sheds important light on what makes us persist in our decisions.

Humans are lazy animals

“Without directly experiencing the connection between effort and reward, animals, whether they’re rats or people, default to laziness.”—Angela Duckworth, Grit

Have you ever described yourself as a person who is “interested in everything”? You want to explore photography, read about neuroscience, master German, keep practising the cello, and be able to deadlift twice your own weight. You started to develop all those skills before, and you know you have the capacity — you’re clever so you can succeed in them all! The only thing that stops you is time — there just aren’t enough hours in the day.

Now, why is the above paragraph in a section about laziness? You’re not lazy, are you? Or, are you?

Get ready, I’m about to drop a bomb here: lack of commitment is laziness. Gritty individuals actually maintain consistency of interest.

Initially, like children, we develop an interest in an activity because it gives us pleasure. When this primary beginner pleasure wears off, though, we’re likely to abandon the pursuit. That’s the point where as children, many of us were confronted with adult intervention and statements like “you’ll thank me when you’re older”. After which we were forced to continue our practice.

Now you’re a conscious adult who is well aware of how much work is involved in learning a skill to a high level. Making a commitment to one pursuit would mean renouncing the temporary pleasure of a few other activities for the sake of making a prolonged effort.

Even if you do have talent, relying on that alone will make you fail.

As a result of this lack of engagement, we keep jumping between different activities, never really mastering any of them. As a justification we quote “lack of time” often fully aware that it’s merely an excuse. We live in denial of our own laziness, and passively accepting our wasted potential.

When activities are pleasurable and we see quick progress, it’s easy to maintain interest. But it’s virtually impossible to reach a level of proficiency in any discipline without having to devote effort, and without overcoming at least medium-sized difficulties. How many times have you started learning a language and never progressed beyond the basics? It feels so easy to learn a few greetings, yet when we start having problems in memorising vocabulary or wrapping our heads around a new grammar concept, it becomes a challenge to keep going.

Here is an actionable piece of advice: Don’t quit before reaching a level that allows you to experience the benefits of what you were learning.

Angela Duckworth asks her children to pick any activity they want to learn, be it ice-hockey or pot-making, but on condition that they stick to it for a year. We may not be ready for a year-long commitment, but why not start with a month? It will be a month of genuine focus on ONE activity accompanied by habit-building and deliberate practice.

The good thing about this approach is that after the initial choice, you will remove the pressure of decision-making for the whole month. If you chose to practise bass guitar, there can be no pondering about French or hairdressing courses for the next 30 days. Your effort is focused on one thing. After 30 days you can decide to continue, or drop it and try something else.

“If you stop believing that you can reach a goal, either because you’ve regressed or you’ve plateaued, don’t quit. Make an agreement with yourself that you will do what it takes to get back to where you were or to get beyond the plateau, and then you can quit. You probably won’t.”— Anders Ericsson, Peak

This way you’ll not only practise perseverance, but you’ll probably get an idea of how much you can learn over a longer period of consistent effort. This approach is likely to get you hooked to one activity for longer than a month.

Growth vs fixed mindset

“Our potential is one thing. What we do with it is quite another.” — Angela Duckworth, Grit

Let’s say I introduced you to two painters, both established and regularly exhibiting. One of them has been described as a genius from the age of 5, and the other spent 10 years learning to paint and only rose to prominence in their late 30s. Which one would amaze you more?

Research by Tsay Chia-Jung of UCL found that faced with a similar scenario, most people have more respect for the “natural” talent, in spite of the relatively little work the person did in order to achieve such results!

We’ve dealt with the somewhat misplaced notion of talent before. Now that you’ve read this far into this post, I can assure you that you have the potential to achieve whatever you want. There is no need to take any intelligence or aptitude tests to prove it. If you are reading about self-improvement, you clearly want to improve yourself. And if you really want to, you will.


Picasso painted Le Picador at the age of 7.


One of the first works by Cezanne, Judgement of Paris, completed in his early 20s.

Now the question is how to tap into your potential to get the results you want. How you go about it depends on your approach to self-development.

People with the so called “fixed mindset” tend to fall for the “cult of genius” and believe we are born with fixed capacities that can hardly be improved. They’re the people who say things like: “I’m simply no good at this, it’s not for me, I don’t have a talent for it”, or “it’s not worth trying, I know I’ll fail”. It’s clear how this approach cultivates a pretty pessimistic view on life.

Not convinced about the myth of talent? Read a book that denounces it.

On the other side of the spectrum we have the “growth mindset”, a conviction that any skill can be gained and improved with the right method and enough time. It’s the people with the growth mindset who you’ll see jumping into new tasks head-on, always on the look-out for solutions, actively seeking different practice methods, and learning from others who are more accomplished. This is a very energetic and optimistic approach, and Duckworth calls those who have it “Strivers”.

Stop being so fragile!

The growth mindset, with its eagerness to jump into the unknown and take up new challenges, will lead the Striver to many failures.

We’re conditioned to see failure as something negative, bringing contempt and shame. As a consequence, many of us seek to avoid it at all costs. After years of experience working with university students, Duckworth says: “I see a lot of invisibly vulnerable high achievers stumble in young adulthood and struggle to get up again. I call them the ‘fragile perfects.’”

In the world of Strivers however, failure is not a sign of defeat. On the contrary, it’s a proof of doing the right thing — eliminating methods that don’t work, and breaking one’s own limits. What most of us see as vulnerability, the Strivers have transformed into an asset. The growth mindset is associated with grit.

“The reality is that most people have an inner fixed-mindset pessimist in them right alongside their inner growth-mindset optimist.” — Angela Duckworth, Grit

Of course it’s hard to find individuals completely on only one side of the mindset spectrum. Simply being aware of our thinking patterns can help us change them, however. Do you really think a pursuit is not worth your effort, or are you simply afraid of failure?

Gritty people, with their unstoppable drive forward, can make grittiness seem a bit of a psychotic trait. And it’s true, it will mean you sometimes have to ignore the opinions of people around you, and perhaps you’ll even need to forget about your own well-being for a while. Athletes know that if they don’t “break” themselves, they won’t improve. When others stop, they keep going — persevering through a painful stitch, burning muscles, the feeling of nausea and the early symptoms of fainting. That explains the emergence of the training routines named "Grit"!

Get ready to break yourself to grow!

Build up your grit

“Without effort, your skill is nothing more than what you could have done but didn’t.” — Angela Duckworth, Grit

Where does grit come from? Some individuals are grittier than others, and many are even unaware that such a quality exists. Like many of our character features, grit too originates from our upbringing and surroundings. But just as we can still learn to swim even if we weren’t brought up near a lake, grit is also a trait we can develop.

You should aim to make grit a part of your identity. It’s hard to get up everyday at 7am to go jogging, but once you’ve told your co-workers you’ve been running, your neighbours have already seen you, and you’ve bought some cool running gear, jogging is likely to become part of your identity. Rather than someone who is “trying to run”, you’ll start to see yourself as a “person who runs”. Consequently, you’ll adopt the behaviours of a “person who runs”, such as drinking a lot of water and going to bed before 11pm.

Being gritty is essentially a habit you have to develop and nurture. Where to start?

Download a free habit-building PDF here.


”If you want to be grittier, find a gritty culture and join it.” — Angela Duckworth, Grit

There isn’t really much more to add to this quote. We tend to adopt the characteristics of the people we spend most time with; in other words, it’s easier to eat a vegan dinner if you flatshare with vegans.

If you want to develop grit, identify the gritty individuals around you, spend time with them and emulate their behaviours. More specifically, you can hang out with people who are learning the skill you want to learn. Whether by example or by bringing out your competitive spirit, their perseverance will push you to work harder.

Change your world to change your habits

Little decisions

Grit is not something that, once acquired, you’ll have for life — it’s a sum of little daily decisions. Making a commitment to have a salad for lunch for a month seems huge. But all it really involves, is saying “no” to other meals 30 times. Each time you’re faced with a decision, stop and try to align it with your new identity: a person who eats healthily doesn’t eat a fatty burger for lunch.

At a moment of crisis you can resort to telling yourself “I’ll keep it up for just one more week, or even for just one more day before I stop.” Chances are you’ll be past your crisis the next day, and the following week you’ll already be hooked to your own progress.

Enthusiasm and endurance

“Enthusiasm is common. Endurance is rare.” says Duckworth in her book. With the focus on perseverance, we can’t forget that we have chosen our goals because of our enthusiasm for the field of study. This perseverance and enthusiasm lead to a powerful endurance. which can keep us going, and prevent the practice from turning into a chore.

Reminding ourselves of the reasons for our passion should be an integral element of practice. Take time to regularly visualise yourself in a world where you have fully learned the skill you’re working on. How does that world differ from the present? What emotions does it give you?

Spend time with people who have already achieved the thing you’re aiming for. It will remind you of the kind of person you are planning to become. When practice gets too hard, take a break and use the skills you already know to get in the state of flow.

Flow is like a positive drug, addictive enough to motivate you to go through the pain of practice just to get a stronger hit.

Goal structure

“A lack of grit can come from having less coherent goal structures.” — Angela Duckworth, Grit

It has been found that the most gritty people split their long-term goal into smaller, mid- and short-term goals. In a structure like this, their every action contributes to the final accomplishment.

Of course, we all have a few other things to do, and I’m not asking you to quit your job and devote yourself 100% to learning Russian. However, dividing your goal into clearly definable components will help you measure your progress. With a goal like “language fluency”, your mid-term goal could be to have a 10-minute conversation with a native speaker, for instance. This can be further divided into short-term goals of, for example: learning greetings, practising pronunciation, or breaking the speech fear by sending voice messages to native speakers on HelloTalk.

Take time to sub-divide the skill you’re working on into smaller goals.

Are you ready to get grittier?

*Yup, not even by their Metallica t-shirts.

For further reading on grit and motivation, check out these Blinkist books: