Back to All Topics

What’s the Dirt on Grit?

By Joseph Wiinikka-Lydon and Sara A. Williams
Wake Forest University and Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary

January 11, 2022


A Critical Look at a Colloquial Virtue

By Joseph Wiinikka-Lydon and Sara A. Williams
Wake Forest University and Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary


South Dakota Governor and former cattle rancher Kristi Noem has a beef with her fellow GOP governors: they aren’t gritty enough. 

In her 2021 address to the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), Noem remarked:

We’ve got Republican governors across this country pretending they didn’t shut down their states, that they didn’t close their beaches, that they didn’t mandate masks, that they didn’t issue shelter-in-places. Now, I’m not picking fights with Republican governors. All I’m saying is that we need leaders with grit, that their first instinct is to make the right decision, that they don’t backtrack, and then try to fool you into the fact that they never made the wrong decision. 

Noem’s appeal clearly struck a chord. Her claim that grit was lacking in the conservative response to COVID-19 was met with thunderous applause. 

“Grit” indexes admirable qualities that loom large in U.S. popular discourses and imaginaries. As in Noem’s speech, grit’s attributes tend to coalesce around leading with your gut, shooting from the hip, and never asking for help. To give up is to fail; staying the course is the only way. Earlier in her speech, Noem offered a vision of grit’s attributes in her father, a man she described as an “incredibly tough” cattle rancher for whom “failure was not an option.” She recounted a childhood memory in which she and her brother could not corral an obstinate cow. Balking at their inability to get the job done, Noem’s father marched over to the cow and put it in a headlock. Her message was clear: we need leaders who, like her father, exhibit dogged determination in the face of impossibility. As an heir to her father’s tenacity, Noem taps into the rugged cattle rancher as grit’s exemplar and historical imaginaries with vast cultural currency: pioneers making long treks in covered wagons across the frontier, cowboys delivering vigilante justice, the expeditions and battles that produced American heroes like Lewis and Clark and Davy Crockett. Unlike the other governors, Noem has grit, if not humility. 

Noem frames grit not merely as a value or a trait, however. Her language implies that she understands grit to be a virtue. To a virtue ethicist, this classification might seem to be a categorical error. Christian ethicist Jennifer Herdt, for example, has argued that grit is more of a skill than a virtue. Drawing on a lineage running from Aristotle through Thomas Aquinas, ethicists generally understand virtues to be durable character traits that incline their bearers to act in ways oriented toward a shared, normative vision of the good. Grit, Herdt argues, is more instrumental than this. “Gritty” people need not act in ways oriented toward some collective idea of the good. Even sociopaths and Machiavellian villains can exhibit dogged determination toward nefarious ends. 

In spite of such technical debates, colloquially grit tends to be articulated in the key of virtue. Ethicists need to examine such usage on its own terms. If we examine grit as a colloquial virtue, we can begin to see something of the virtue ethics – and visions of the good – out of which Noem and others are working. This is important because the language of virtue provides a normative framework illuminative of the moral contours of such arguments, as well as the stakes involved in deploying them politically.

Grit for Noem is a key libertarian virtue in the most extreme sense. Absent here is Aristotle’s insistence that the best form of moral reasoning is done between virtuous friends. Noem does not mention the advisors, lobbyists, activists, and political operatives who undoubtedly bent her ear regarding the decision not to mandate statewide masking. This would have undercut her basic claim that a true moral leader acts alone. The mythic cowboy of American frontier fantasies make perfect exemplars for grit, even if they are an historical fiction. Such figures are self-sufficient—not in Aristotle’s sense, but in line with the rugged, aggressive individualism of the mythic frontier. Cowboys, Noem insists, never admit a need for help.  Such an admission would be a sign of weakness; interdependence is grit’s kryptonite. Like the lone cowboy, Noem paints herself as a fierce individualist. The complex moral evaluations about how we are indelibly interconnected—that my choice not to mask may affect the health and wellbeing of others—has no place in this moral universe. 

To be fair, Noem may seem like a bit of a strawman. It is no mystery she was politically posturing, pandering to an electorate hungry for such libertarian rhetoric. We dwell on Noem’s speech, however, because it offers a thick, current example of the rise of grit as a colloquial virtue in public discourse. Noem’s celebration of grit – intentionally or not – resonates with a movement in positive psychology that has influenced such diverse spheres as business, education, medicine, parenting, and now, it seems, Republican party politics. Behind much of the grit fanfare is Angela Duckworth, a research psychologist, 2013 MacArthur “genius grant” recipient, and founder and CEO of a nonprofit called “Character Lab,” a think tank that endeavors to make psychological research on “character strengths” such as grit accessible to parents and educators. The language of “character” is unambiguously linked to virtue; virtues are, after all, particular dispositions that comprise one’s moral character. In fact, Duckworth’s public-facing work on grit, most notably encapsulated in her 2016 New York Times bestseller, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, explicitly labels grit a virtue. 

What Duckworth means by “grit” diverges a bit from Noem’s usage. Duckworth’s account of grit is not so much libertarian as it is neoliberal. While Noem looks to the cowboy as the paragon of grit, Duckworth’s gritty exemplar is the entrepreneur: the individual who through persistent hard work, effort, and determination achieves personal success against all odds. Duckworth offers myriad examples of such individuals in her book. Perhaps the most revealing is Jeff Bezos. In Duckworth’s telling, Bezos was the gifted, precocious son of teen mom Jackie. Luckily for Jeff, Jackie had an open mind and a supportive disposition. She nurtured his endeavors, from deciding to play along when she walked in on three-year-old Jeff dismantling his crib, to dedicating the garage to Jeff’s teenage experiments. Duckworth rounds out Bezos’ story by reminding us (as if we needed the reminding) that he went on to found Amazon, widely regarded as the most successful internet retail business ever. The teen mom, the clever, tenacious adolescent, the small time experiments leading to wealth and success beyond one’s wildest imagination: these are American Dream characters and plot points straight out of central casting. Grit’s telos for Bezos and many other exemplars Duckworth extols is a kind of success defined by market shares and world-class renown. It’s a virtue tailor-made for helicopter parents desperate to set their toddler on the path to Harvard, even if Duckworth never steps back and asks whether or not such success is really a boon to the rest of us.

Duckworth’s entrepreneur with the bootstraps narrative at first blush seems quite different from Noem’s libertarian cowboy. There are indeed significant differences between them, differences that make Duckworth’s account palatable to a broader audience. Unlike Noem, Duckworth has no apparent political agenda, nor does she use the kind of incendiary political rhetoric in which Noem is fluent. Duckworth is a scientist whose work is grounded in ongoing psychological research legitimized by all the right credentials: three degrees from prestigious universities, full professor at the University of Pennsylvania, a recipient of one of the most coveted awards in the world. Major news outlets trusted by all but those on political extremes – The New York Times, The Guardian, The Washington Post – have featured Duckworth’s work on grit. While Noem fashions herself a cattle rancher outside the mainstream, Duckworth essentially embodies the mainstream. She is the consummate elite academic expert. Noem bucks such expertise gained through study with a moral know-how won on the ranch. For Noem, grit is about bucking the establishment and going it alone. It is the virtue that sustains one’s ability to fly in the face of visions of the good offered by the state, media, and academic “elite” in favor of what one knows is right in their gut. For Duckworth, grit is about succeeding within the establishment. It is the virtue that sustains one’s ability to successfully pursue visions of the good offered by the state, media, and academic “elite.”  

It might seem, then, that Duckworth and Noem’s use of “grit” have nothing in common. Perhaps they are simply using the same term to describe two distinct accounts of a virtue. This conclusion, tempting as it is, misses a significant intersection in the Venn diagram between Noem and Duckworth. Whether in the mainstream or beyond, both accounts center toughness as a primary trait grounding the virtue of grit. They rely on the idea that a “successful” person is successful principally because of their own effort. And they offer visions of the good that center the individual over the common good – or, at least, that elide talk of the common good – and the relations of care and accountability it implies. Quite simply, neither offers a structural analysis or an ethic of care, and both therefore present a distorted picture of the good, and an impoverished view of community.  

These commonalities are perhaps the most striking in the way both Noem and Duckworth rely on invisible others for the gritty individual to succeed. In Noem’s case, the cowboy imaginary does not work without violent, threatening “Indians,” who become disposable extras in the cowboy’s task to keep the homesteaders safe. The vision is inseparable from a romanticized settler colonialism in which the stealing of land, forced displacement, and multiple violences are acceptable within a vision of the good centered on white, Euro-American interests. It is a virtue ethics that comes from a literal white washing of the history and persons, imperialism, and aggression, that enables such a virtue ethics to exist. 

Duckworth’s gritty entrepreneur puts an even finer point on this. Though she presents Bezos as a self-made man, in reality there is no Jeff Bezos without the thousands of exploited Amazon workers who made him the wealthiest person in the world. In his recent book on Bezos’ Amazon empire, Fulfillment: Winning and Losing in One-Click America, award-winning journalist Alec MacGillis quotes the spouse of an Amazon employee working forced overtime in one of the company’s warehouses during the COVD-19 pandemic: “‘They may be doing quite a bit,’ she said, but the company ‘is also profiting every step along the way on the backs of their employees, who are not being protected, and neither are their families being protected…They call themselves a technology company, but it’s really a sweatshop’” (MacGillis 2021, 6). Like Noem, Duckworth renders invisible grit’s inconvenient helpers. 

Noem and Duckworth also fail to consider what we owe to others. Just as Noem’s father had no patience nor caring response for his children when they were nearly trampled by an angry cow because of his directive, so the tough, lead-from-your-gut gritty leader also lacks care, at least beyond one’s closest relations and friends. Duckworth never asks if it is possible for every person to be gritty and to succeed in the way her exemplars do. Instead, her praise for “gritty” exemplars like Bezos implies that the most virtuous displays of grit can co-exist with, can even be predicated on, the exploitation of others. For both Duckworth and Noem, grit’s end is a “good” society characterized by a dog-eat-dog, winner-take-all game in which the “winners” often meet success at the expense of the “losers.”

Duckworth does in a few places briefly address objections to her lack of structural analysis. On her website, for instance, she writes, “If you pit grit against structural barriers to achievement, you may well decide that grit is less worthy of our attention. But I think that’s the right answer to the wrong question.” It’s unclear what the “right” question is. Duckworth does not say. In the end these comments certainly do not clarify how grit, framed as a virtue, can co-exist with critical structural analysis. To be a virtue oriented toward the common good and relations of care and accountability, grit must come to terms with such analyses.

In the end, grit as a virtue is the alchemy that turns a complex lead into a simpler gold. It cuts through the moral complexity of modern life by reassuring us that, as long as one is raised right and is tough and dogged enough, she ought to be able to succeed. It allows us to bypass insights from the social sciences and critical theory. One needn’t think about getting a leg up on success by accident of birth, or about the invisible others on which our success relies. One needn’t bother oneself with structural matters that, by their very name, structure who we are, how we think, and what our “gut” tells us. Grit certainly entails hard work and discipline. But it may actually allow us to get out of even harder work: the work of fashioning ourselves into people able to recognize and relinquish our privilege as an act of care for those vulnerable to grit’s own more predatory exemplars.

Joseph Wiinikka-Lydon is an education and research fellow at Wake Forest University. Sara A. Williams is Assistant Professor of Community-Based Learning, Ethics, and Society and Director of Field Education at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary