July 13th, 2015

Recovery May Take Grit And Deliberate Practice

Predictions about who will successfully recover from an addiction are notoriously poor. Phrases such as “hitting bottom” or “not being ready” are often used, but not in ways that I find useful. In a recent Washington Post column, sportswriter Sally Jenkins, who was trying to understand why some college basketball teams are more successful than others, introduced me to the work of psychologist Angela Lee Duckworth.

Duckworth has developed some ideas that might help us with the recovery prediction problem as well as improving a person’s chances of recovery. In her April 2013 TED Talk, she introduced the term “grit,” which she, in part, describes as “having stamina and sticking with your future.” Isn’t this ultimately what addiction treatment professionals hope their patients will come to possess or develop more fully?

Angela Lee Duckworth has studied a variety of academic and commercial endeavors to identify the characteristics that distinguish those individuals who are successful. She concludes that more reliable a predictor than talent and intelligence is “grit,” which she defines as “the tendency to sustain interest in and effort toward very long-term goals.” Along similar lines, we know that recovery is a long-term goal that must be sustained over time.

People who possess grit have passion and perseverance, and they approach life as a marathon rather than a sprint. According to Angela Lee Duckworth, they also engage in “deliberate practice,” which refers to “not just working hard, but working at the things they are least good at.” They do not see failure as a permanent condition and are willing to endure the discomfort of failure to learn and change.

Most intriguingly, Duckworth does not see grit as being a character trait which is fixed, but rather an attribute that can change over time. This leads to the question of what interventions are most effective when a teacher, coach, or therapist is working with an individual to try to strengthen his or her grit.

Duckworth’s research on this issue is in the early stages, but is compatible with current “Motivational Interviewing” approaches to addiction treatment. In the MI approach, rather than try to impose a solution on the patient from the outside, the therapist tries to help the patient identify what is important to him or her and then work to overcome obstacles to achieving those goals.

For example, people in the very beginning of the recovery process are sometimes reluctant to ask openly for help, which can often be essential for making progress. The therapist can explore with the patient the reasons for this difficulty, while at the same time encouraging “deliberate practice” to make small changes rather than just accepting problematic behaviors as habits that cannot change.

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