On 11 October 1726, Benjamin Franklin stepped off the Berkshire and breathed in ‘the fine weather’ of Philadelphia. After spending two years in London learning the printing trade, he had crossed back over the Atlantic on a 12-week voyage that left him nauseated but craving the comforts of America. Within three years he would be publishing The Pennsylvania Gazette, a popular daily newspaper, followed by the indispensable Poor Richard’s Almanack. But on that fine October day, the 20-year-old had another idea – an idea that had him scurrying to his room to find his quill pen and a bottle of red ink.
With these, he sketched a chart – the days of the week on top and 13 ‘virtues’ on the side – which he would use to test his personal growth. ‘I conceiv’d the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection’, Franklin wrote in his Autobiography. ‘I wish’d to live without committing any fault at any time; and to conquer all that either natural inclination, custom, or company might lead me into.’ The virtues he listed were temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity and humility.
Franklin quickly found that he was less than perfect. Black dots began poxing his chart. On the first Sunday of his exercise he twice betrayed his virtue of silence (with ‘a habit I was getting into: prattling, punning, and joking, which only made me acceptable to trifling company’); and once his virtue of order. The following day he violated silence and order yet again, but this time he also failed to be frugal (‘to waste nothing’). Tuesday saw the same breaches of virtue as well as a failing of resolution.
Throughout that week and the next, Franklin would betray all of his virtues, perhaps most dubiously that of chastity. This was not a new problem: while working as a printer in London, he thought his marriage prospects dim, thanks to his getting frequently caught up in ‘intrigues with low women that fell in my way’. Fell in his way, indeed.
What Franklin began to learn was that attempting total perfection was futile. He gave up his chart, thinking it better to allow himself a few faults so as to be near perfect, rather than trying so hard for unattainable heights that any slight failure derailed his entire week. ‘A speckled axe is best’, he concluded. ‘A benevolent man should allow a few faults in himself.’
It is a common belief that to achieve a goal one must work at it constantly – not taking a circuitous path towards it when a straight one is available. Thus the Overeaters Anonymous organisation, the Atkins diet, the South Beach diet, and so on, ban a variety of ‘bad foods’; financial planners would probably advise clients against going to fancy restaurants while saving up to buy a house or car; a pastor would seek to dissuade his congregation from sin, no matter how minor. In order to achieve a goal, the thinking goes, one must not deviate from the straightest course; to allow for mistakes or failures is to torpedo your chances of attaining your goal.
And yet a new school of thinking is challenging these received ways and arguing that straying from the path, even engaging in hedonistic behaviour, might be the surest way to success.
Rita Coelho do Vale is an assistant professor at the Católica Lisbon School of Business and Economics, where she researches the human decision-making process with respect to self-regulation. She says that we not only can but should engage in behaviour antithetical to our ultimate goals.
In experiments conducted with Rik Pieters and Marcel Zeelenberg, and published in January 2016 in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, do Vale surveyed the way people go about achieving their goals. She concluded that it is better to make plans to fail intermittently – to splurge on occasional luxuries when saving for a house; to have a slice of chocolate cake when trying to shed a few pounds – than to end up failing anyway and getting so demoralised you give up your goal altogether.
‘It’s something that’s so obvious, but no one has ever studied these phenomena,’ do Vale told me. ‘We all plan for breaks during the day – coffee, a nap – and we know that we will feel better after these rests. But with goals we simply don’t think like this.’
Do Vale conducted a pair of diet-related experiments. A ‘straight striving group’ was asked to adhere to a strict regimen of 1,500 calories per day with limited food choices, while an ‘intermittent striving’ group was given an even stricter diet of 1,300 calories with limited choices; however, after six days of strict dieting the second group was allowed one day of 2,700 calories with unlimited food choices. Do Vale found that the ‘intermittent’ strivers had higher self-regulatory abilities, while generating a greater variety of strategies to overcome food temptations: they were more motivated to see the diet through. Participants in the ‘straight striving’ group, meanwhile, were more likely to quit the diet and report emotional setbacks when they accidentally overate. It follows that, so long as it is planned, it is often good to be bad. ‘The only way to get rid of temptation,’ Oscar Wilde wrote in The Picture of Dorian Gray, ‘is to yield to it.’
In June 2007, Angela Duckworth published a revolutionary study, where she found that the personal quality of ‘grit’ was the single most important factor in success – more important even than socioeconomic background. The world of pop psychology was set ablaze.
Duckworth, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, with a MacArthur Fellowship under her belt (largely due to her grit-related findings), has become an in-demand public speaker and a preacher of meritocratic ascension: she espouses the idea that success is about effort and anyone, no matter where they’re from, can get to the top. It’s a theory tailor-made for the middle and upper classes: ‘We’re here because we tried; you’re there because you didn’t.’ In Grit: the Power and Passion of Perseverance, to be published this May, Duckworth supports her findings with rousing anecdotes. At the West Point military academy, a cadet’s ‘grit’ score was a better predictor of his success in the Beast Barracks (a gruelling summer training course) than his fitness, leadership ability, or intelligence; at the Scripps National Spelling Bee, contestants with the highest grit score were the most likely to get to the final round, regardless of intelligence or initial spelling ability.
Most people aren’t extremely gritty; they won’t be able to study 15 hours a day for a spelling bee, or complete punishing military training in the summer heat
This ‘grit score’, determined via a test created by Duckworth, is based on answers to questions concerning diligence, seeing tasks through, hard work, and not being discouraged by setbacks. ‘Cheat days’ are unacceptable for the high-grit person; but if she does somehow stumble, she’s able to get back up and continue forward.
Duckworth’s findings are relentless. To a certain extent she’s right: people who are able to persevere despite repeated failure do tend eventually to find success. Yet this approach to goal-completion and this negative view of setbacks (they are to be overcome, not planned or revelled in) puts this version of success out of most people’s reach.
The truth is, most people aren’t extremely gritty; they won’t be able to study for 15 hours a day for a spelling bee, or complete punishing military training courses in the summer heat. And not even the grittiest are guaranteed success. In fact, the mindset needed to maintain persistent forward motion can be its own setback. People who are obsessive and who want the very best for themselves tend to be the grittiest; they also tend, as University of Texas psychiatrist Monica Ramirez Basco writes in her book Never Good Enough (2000), to be ‘more vulnerable to depression when stressful events occur’.
Photograph: “David and Bathsheba,” by Jan Massys, 1562