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What Matters

How our environments shape our behavior.

At a conference a few years ago, I met a sociologist who expressed anger about what she called the “grit message.”

“What’s that?” I asked.

“Well, put it this way,” she said. “I happen to think poverty and inequality matter a heck of a lot more than grit.”

I thought for a moment. Then I said, “I see your point.”

Sociology is the study of society. Psychology is the study of the individual. I can understand why a sociologist like her might be exasperated by a psychologist like me.

She studies the forces outside the individual that shape destinies. I study what goes on inside the individual—their mindsets, their skills, their interests and goals—that do the same.   

Once, as part of a classroom observation, I sat next to two 12-year-old boys who were doing absolutely nothing. No passion? No perseverance? On the contrary, these students were unlucky enough to have chosen last from the laptop cart. The last two laptops in the cart were broken.

The teacher, who spent much of the class texting on his cell phone, didn’t notice.

So these boys sat silently, staring into space, for 90 minutes. When the bell rang, they gathered their belongings, stood up without complaint, and walked out the door.

At the end of the day, I counted the number of times I’d seen any student taught anything meaningful by a caring adult. I ran out of examples before I ran out of fingers. My guess is that the two boys I sat beside might go days or even weeks without meaningful challenge—at least not in the ways that a good teacher or loving parent would hope children are challenged.

In his 1936 book Principles of Topological Society, a psychologist named Kurt Lewin captured all of human behavior in a single equation:

B = f(P, E)

In plain English: behavior is a function of both the person and their environment.

When you see a child apply effort, or not, you observe their behavior. Before you conclude that the child has grit, or lacks it, you must fully account for their environment. Otherwise, you risk committing what is called the fundamental attribution error—essentially overlooking features of the situation that powerfully influence what we do.

So, the question is not whether behavior is determined by a person’s character or their environment. In the most profound sense, what matters is both.

With grit and gratitude,