Grit: The Secret Ingredient for Success

Photo by Namita Azad
Photo by Namita Azad
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The Challenge: Believing that only outstanding talent predicts success is actually limiting us.
The Science: Grit shows to be the common trait among leaders and high performers.
The Solution: Learn how to boost your grit and achieve success!

A special-forces officer, a high-achieving undergraduate at an Ivy League school, a spelling bee finalist, a top salesperson, and a highly rated teacher walk into a restaurant for brunch.

What do they all have?

Grit(s)

It might be a bad joke, but stay with me — the science is solid and the message is inspiring. The science: pick any field, and chances are that its leaders are the ones who have the most grit. The message: for high-achievement, talent matters; but in the long run, effort and focused discipline might matter even more. You have a chance if you are willing to put in the work.

Angela L. Duckworth, Ph.D. and a 2013 MacArthur Foundation “genius” award recipient, has been studying grit in a very gritty way for years. She defines grit as “passion and perseverance for long term goals”.

You need passion to maintain a narrow focus on a subject for years upon years to build the skills and knowledge that can take you to the very top. Gritty people are obsessed by an idea or a field of endeavor, and make it their life pursuit. They live it and breathe it, day in and day out.

Because grit is about long-term goals, setbacks and occasional lack of progress are inevitable — yet gritty people persevere until they get it done. No matter how many times they get knocked down, they always get up, dust themselves off and keep on going. They are the Edisons who try 1,000 times until the light bulb works.

Grit is about running a marathon, not a sprint. It is about staying up an extra hour to study each day, month after month and year after year, not about pulling all-nighters the day before the test. Grit is about stamina, not intensity.

Grit is different from self-control. You can be very self-controlled and productive, but lacking a life-long passion you might jump from one career to another without achieving distinction in any. Or you can be very gritty about your field of work, yet lack self-control to resist the temptations in other domains, such as food or impulse shopping.

So what about talent?

Of course it matters: talented people tend to learn quickly. But think of talent as having a fast car, think of effort as the driving time you put in, and of achievement as reaching a destination far away. A fast car can cover more miles per hour; but a slow car that travels for more hours in the end will get the farthest. That is why for many outcomes grit is a better predictor of success than measures of talent, such as IQ or SAT scores.

Having said that, maybe asking about talent is not that useful. As the ancient Greek philosopher Epictetus said in his Handbook: “Some things are up to us, some are not”. Grit and effort are up to us, talent not so much. So it’s best to focus on what is under our control.

But why would grit predict success?

Because gritty people are the ones who can put in the thousands of hours of deliberate, effortful practice needed to achieve mastery in any field — the (questionable, but still useful) 10,000 hours rule publicized by Malcolm Gladwell in his bestseller Outliers.

Note: deliberate practice, not just practice. What makes practice deliberate is that it is focused on a specific aspect of performance that is a weakness, in a way that allows you to get immediate feedback; moreover, in deliberate practice you do not stop until you achieve mastery for that specific aspect. So if you play piano, deliberate practice is not about playing again and again the tune you know how to play and you enjoy playing so much — rather it is about playing a specific challenging passage in Bach’s Fugue you have trouble executing, until you can do it 10 times in a row with no errors and at the right speed. It takes grit to do that!

Here’s what you can do to boost your success

  • In the long run, given a reasonable starting ability, effort trumps talent — achievement is about becoming good rather than being good.
  • Know what to expect. If you want to reach the pinnacle of your profession or field of endeavor, know that it takes time, effort and occasional failures. Moreover, even though you can choose your game based on your strengths, to improve it you need to work on your weaknesses — that is hard and it is not fun.
  • Do not quit on a bad day. Make a contract with yourself that you will stick with it for a certain amount of time, say six months or two year. If you want to quit then, fine. But not before. We can’t be gritty all the time so ask a friend to be there for you and not to let you quit before the time is up.
  • Get a coach. Deliberate practice is hard, and specific feedback is key. Professional support might be immensely helpful.
  • Be smart. Use evidence-based techniques to prevent obstacles from stopping you, such as this one.
  • Focus on getting a little bit better each day and adopt a growth mindset: when you practice outside of your comfort zone, failure and effort are not a sign that you are not good at it; rather, they are a sign that you are getting better at it!
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Paolo Terni

Paolo Terni

Dr. Paolo Terni, MAPP, PCC, is an expert on the psychology of achievement and on the development of human capital. A Solution-Focused coach based in California, he empowers his clients to work smarter, to accomplish more, and to thrive in challenging circumstances. Since 1997, Paolo Terni has been using his coaching and training skills to help companies in Europe and in the USA to successfully implement Organizational Development (OD) projects. Passionate about education, he mentors coaches for ICF accreditation purposes and he works pro-bono with schools and no-profits. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania Master of Applied Positive Psychology, Paolo Terni is conducting further research on the development of character strengths in conjunction with the Positive Psychology Center.
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