What’s Grit Got to Do With Success?

“In plain words, you’ve got to make up your mind to study whatever you undertake, and concentrate your mind on it, and really work at it. This isn’t wisdom. Any damned fool in the world knows it’s true, whether it’s a question of raising horses or writing plays. You simply have to face the prospect of starting at the bottom and spending years learning how to do it.”

—Eugene O’Neill, American playwright and Nobel laureate

Angela Lee Duckworth started her career as a management consultant but then moved on to become a 7th-grade math teacher. The experience aroused her curiosity. Why did some of her smartest students (IQ-wise) lag while some others with lesser innate talents succeeded? Duckworth’s curiosity was sufficiently aroused to motivate her to become a psychologist. In that role, Duckworth and her research team have sought to answer the question: Why do some succeed while others do not?

The researchers studied a variety of people—cadets at West Point Military Academy, contestants at the National Spelling Bee, rookie teachers and salespeople—searching for the secret to success. After all the study results were in, one predictor of success emerged. No, the answer was not IQ, good looks, social grace or any other talent one might guess to be the root cause of success. The answer is offered using one simple word: grit.

So what is grit? Duckworth describes grit as “passion and perseverance for very long-term goals.” It’s the ability to stick with a thing, like lint sticks to Velcro. One hangs on tight, refusing to let go, even in the face of repeated failures or inevitable obstacles. An Internet search for grit synonyms turned up words like courage, bravery, pluck, mettle, steel, determination and tenacity. It’s easy to love those words. It’s not as easy to live up to them.

But the successful, it would appear, do live up to them. How do they do it? Words like courage, bravery, pluck and mettle seem a bit ethereal, begging for some kind of more tangible definition. Carol Dweck, a researcher at Stanford, offers at least part of that definition—some insight as to how to acquire grit.

In her book “Mindset,” Dweck discusses the findings of her research indicating that people possess two types of thinking: growth mindset and fixed mindset. In reality, most of us are a mixture of both. The key to grit, however, lies in the growth mindset—the view that failure is not a permanent thing, but is a temporary condition, urging the holder of that mindset to “try, try again.” In addition, Dweck says that those with more growth mindset than fixed mindset realize that what we are born with is not the end of the story, but is the beginning of it. No matter our God-given gifts, much can and should be learned and developed throughout life. Resting on the laurels of what you were born with—for better or for worse—just doesn’t cut it for the growth mindset person.

So is grit a key to success in almost any endeavor? It sure looks that way. Our intuition has whispered the secret of grit to many of the most accomplished inventors, musicians, teachers, politicians and athletes throughout history. Modern-day research confirms that the wisdom of the ages was and is true. Sure, IQ, talent, experience and skills matter, but the biggest brainiac ever is not likely to fulfill his or her potential without grit. The ability to stick to a thing through all of the trials, tribulations, obstacles and setbacks is the distinguishing factor in those that achieve the most. The best among us are that way because they hang in there, refusing to be distracted from the long-term goal for the sake of short-term reward.

How do you acquire more of this “passion and perseverance for the long term”? Make up your mind that failure is an option worth embracing, because today’s “no” will take you one step closer to tomorrow’s “yes.” Then, vow to learn from every mistake, every trial and every hurdle, because that’s what it takes to achieve one’s dreams. It’s not a straight shot up; instead, there’s a lot of ups, downs and loops around.

Questions for thought:

  • Who do you know that is “gritty”?
  • How can you become even “grittier” tomorrow than you are today?
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