When we see the world’s most successful people in any domain, it’s easy to assume that they were blessed with some otherworldly talent that is out of reach for the rest of us.
But that explanation isn’t enough to explain why some people are successful, and other people are not.
Albert Einstein famously said that “It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.”
In the book Grit, Angela Duckworth makes the case that the difference is a combination of passion and perseverance – or, as she calls it, grit.
Join us for the next 10 minutes as we explore what grit actually is, and why it literally means the difference between your success and failure in life.
What is Grit?
In order to make it through West Point at the United States Military Academy, you need to survive what they affectionately refer to as Beast Barracks – a seven-week training program designed to separate the wheat from the chaff.
During the West Point admissions process, something called the Whole Candidate Score is calculated. It is a combination of SAT scores, high school rank, appraisals of leadership potential, and physical fitness measures. It is designed to find the people who will thrive at West Point.
However, Duckworth found that the single most important factor in West Point admissions didn’t reliably predict who made it through Beast. In fact, those with the highest Whole Candidate Scores were just as likely to drop out as the those with the lowest.
By studying the world’s top performers in many different domains, Duckworth had a hypothesis – that high achievers were special in two specific ways. First, they were unusually resilient and hardworking. Second, they knew in a very deep way what they wanted. They had determination and direction.
She put this hypothesis to the test by creating the Grit Scale, and used it on the West Point candidates. As it turns out, it predicted with incredible accuracy who would make it through Beast and who would quit.
Encouraged by the results, she started to look at other domains to see if it could predict success in every field. It did. It predicted who would stay and who would quit in sales roles. It predicted who would get further in formal schooling as adults. It even predicted who would make it furthest in the Scripps National Spelling Bee.
In almost any domain, the grittier you are, the more successful you will be.
Effort matters twice
Dan Chambliss is a sociologist who completed a study of competitive swimmers titled “The Mundanity of Excellence.” He observed that most stunning human achievements are the aggregate of countless individual elements, each of which on their own are ordinary. Greatness, he concluded, was doable no matter what your starting level of talent.
Duckworth eventually came up with two simple equations that she used to try and explain how you get from talent to achievement.
– Talent x effort = skill
– Skill x effort = achievement
Talent, she says, is how quickly your skills improve when you invest effort. Achievement is what happens when you take your acquired skills and use them.
Will Smith, the Grammy Award-winning musician and Oscar-nominated actor, agrees. He doesn’t consider himself as particularly talented. Where he excels, he believes, is in his “ridiculous, sickening work ethic.”
Here’s how he describes his ascent into the entertainment stratosphere:
“The only thing that I see that is distinctly different about me is: I’m not afraid to die on a treadmill. I will not be outworked, period. You might have more talent than me, you might be smarter than me, you might be sexier than me. You might be all of those things. You got it on me in nine categories. But if we get on the treadmill together, there’s two things: You’re getting off first, or I’m going to die. It’s really that simple.”
Duckworth concludes that many of us quit what we start far too often and far too early. Even more important than the effort that gritty people put in on a single day is the fact that they get up the next day, and the day after that, ready to get on the treadmill and keep going.
In order for you to become the best you can possibly be, effort matters twice.
How gritty are you?
Now we are going to find out how gritty you are by taking the Grit Scale questionnaire.
For each of the questions below, answer with one of the following:
– Not at all like me
– Not much like me
– Somewhat like me
– Mostly like me
– Very much like me
Let’s get started:
- New ideas and projects sometimes distract me
- Setbacks don’t discourage me. I don’t give up easily.
- I often set a goal but later choose to pursue a different one
- I am a hard worker
- I have difficulty maintaining my focus on projects that take more than a few months to complete
- I finish whatever I begin
- My interests change from year to year
- I am diligent. I never give up
- I have been obsessed with a certain idea or project for a short time but later lost interest
- I have overcome setbacks to conquer an important challenge.
Now, let’s get your score:
For questions 2, 4, 6, 8 and 10 assign the following points:
5 = Very much like me
4 = Mostly like me
3 = Somewhat like me
2 = Not much like me
1 = Not like me at all
For questions 1, 3, 5, 7, and 9 assign the following points:
1 = Very much like me
2 = Mostly like me
3 = Somewhat like me
4 = Not much like me
5 = Not like me at all
Add up all the points and divide by 10. The maximum score on this scale is 5 (extremely gritty), and the lowest scale on this scale is 1 (not at all gritty).
You probably will have noticed a couple of things about the quiz. First, they look at the two components of grit – passion and perseverance. Second, the questions about passion didn’t ask how intensely you are committed to your goals. That’s because almost all high achievers will tell you that it’s consistency over time that matters most. Enthusiasm is common. Endurance is rare.
When it comes down to it, grit is about holding the same top-level goal for a very long time.
Growing Grit – Interest
No matter where you are on the grit scale today, the good news is that you can get better over time. Which is a relief to most people, because determination seems like something that would be hardcoded into your DNA.
There are four different elements to growing your grit. The first is by having a passion for what you do. There are a lot of reasons why this is true.
First, research shows that people are far more satisfied with their jobs if they work on something that they are naturally interested in. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case for most of the working population. In a recent Gallup study it was found that 87% of the workforce around the world is “disengaged.”
Second, other research shows that people perform better at work when they do things that interest them.
But how do you find what you are truly passionate about?
Duckworth found that most of the people she interviewed for the book spend years exploring different interests until they found the one that ultimately came to occupy all of the waking thoughts. So your passion probably isn’t going to come to you like a flash of insight. You need to try a lot of things to eventually find the thing that lights a fire in you from the moment you wake up to the time you go to sleep.
If you haven’t found your passion yet, you can start by paying attention to what occupies your thoughts during the day. How do you enjoy spending your time? Could you see yourself doing that for the rest of your life?
Once you’ve found it, you are now ready for a lifetime of “deepening”.
Which brings us to the next point…
Growing Grit – Practice
The most successful and gritty people practice more than their less successful peers. This isn’t surprising, because they enjoy what they do.
You’ve probably heard of the 10,000 hour rule, made famous by Malcolm Gladwell in the book Outliers. It was based on the work of Anders Ericsson, who has spent his career studying how experts acquire world-class skills.
The key insight of Ericsson’s work is that experts practice differently than the rest of us, not just longer. He calls what they do “deliberate practice.” People with grit are not just driven by a desire to spend a lot of time doing what they love doing, they are driven by a desire to continuously get better way what they love doing.
Here’s how they practice.
First, they set a clearly defined stretch goal, designed to improve a specific area of their performance.
Second, they do the task with full concentration and effort. If you are trying to get better at what matters most to you, you need to block out any and all distractions.
Third, they seek immediate and informative feedback about how they are doing. They find a way to measure the results they are looking for, and then pay very close attention to the results.
Lastly, they repeat this process with reflection and refinement. If what they are doing isn’t working, they try something else – usually with the help of a coach or a mentor.
The world’s top performers would tell you that this kind of practicing is exhausting. They can typically only practice this way for about an hour at a time, and then only for a total of three or four hours a day.
So take a look at how you are currently practicing your craft. Where can you get better? Are you simply going through the motions, or are you using deliberate practice to reach your goals?
Growing Grit – Purpose
Being interested in what you do is one way to fuel your passion. Giving your work a purpose greater than yourself is another. Gritty people rely on both, not one or the other.
The parable of the bricklayer illustrates this point very well.
Three bricklayers are asked: “What are you doing?” The first says, “I am laying bricks.” The second says, “I am building a church.” And the third says, “I am building the house of God.” The first bricklayer has a job. The second has a career. The third has a calling.
Duckworth gives us three different ways to cultivate purpose in our lives, no matter what stage we are at.
First, you can reflect on how the work you are already doing can make a positive contribution to society. In almost any job, there is some greater purpose that can be found.
Second, you can start thinking about how you can change your current work to enhance the connection to your core values. Find the small ways you can change the work that you do to bring you more (or even just some) joy.
Third, you can find a purposeful role model – somebody who inspires you to be a better version of yourself.
Growing Grit – Hope
Duckworth points out an old Japanese saying: Fall seven, rise eight. Gritty people have an expectation that tomorrow will be better than today. That today’s failure will be tomorrow’s success. Or as Nietzsche once said, “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.”
The world’s grittiest people know that if they keep searching for solutions to their problems, that they have a higher likelihood of finding them.
This mindset is something that fellow researcher Carol Dweck would call a growth mindset. And as Duckworth points out, a growth mindset leads to optimistic ways of explaining adversity (positive self-talk), which leads to perseverance and seeking out challenges that will eventually make you stronger.
By the way, positive self-talk isn’t about looking yourself in the mirror like Stewart Smalley and telling yourself how wonderful you are. It’s about paying attention to what you tell yourself about situations where you find yourself failing. The most helpful way to view any failure is that it’s a temporary situation that you can influence by trying a different approach the next time.
Getting to where you want to be in life will in large part depend on the amount of grit you bring to the table. Follow the suggestions in this book, and you’ll be on your way to producing the mindset that will allow you put in the work required to be great at something you love.