Grit, Not Talent or I.Q., Predicts Success

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  • June 20, 2016


“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 out-worked, 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, right?”

-Will Smith

Most people on Father’s Day like to spend a relaxing day with their family. Maybe they sleep in; go to a BBQ; play some sort of recreational sport like swimming, tennis or golf; or just lounge around. I like to relax too, but my relaxation takes a different form. For Father’s Day, I spent the morning with my family competing in a Spartan race. As my sister-in-law and I made our way through the grueling 21-obstacle course with its 8-foot walls, barbed wire, climbing ropes, sand bags and foul-smelling water, I noticed one quality I felt like all of us competing in the race shared: grit.

Just stop for a moment and say the word grit. Doesn’t it feel powerful? Doesn’t it conjure up images of so many great heroes, from Helen Keller to Teddy Roosevelt to Nelson Mandela?

I have discussed several similar themes on this blog, including cultivating a growth mindset and resiliency, but I think it’s important to give grit its own discussion. For me, next to integrity, grit is the single most important characteristic I look for when building my team at Learning House and what values I want to instill in my children.

I recently read Angela Duckworth’s book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, which does a wonderful job explaining grit and why it’s probably the most powerful quality we could all want for ourselves and our children. Her two big ideas are that grit predicts success more reliably than talent or I.Q., and also that anyone can learn to be gritty. How inspiring and empowering this concept is!

Defining Grit

Let’s start by stating what grit is not. According to Duckworth, “Grit is NOT at all about stubbornly pursuing—at all costs and ad infinitum—every single low-level goal on your list. Sure, you should try hard—even a little longer than you might think necessary. But don’t beat your head against the wall attempting to follow through on something that is, merely, a means to a more important end.”

Instead, Duckworth defines grit as passion and perseverance towards long-term goals. If this book were a PowerPoint presentation, the best slide would be the two equations that offer a simple proof for why grit trumps talent: Talent × effort = skill. Skill × effort = achievement. In other words, “effort counts twice” in the quest for achievement. Malcolm Gladwell called it the 10,000-hour rule in his book Outliers.

Here are some characteristics of gritty people:

  • Gritty people are fixed on high-level pursuits but flexible on low-level goals, like the daily to-do list.
  • Gritty people know the “Why?” behind everything they do.
  • Gritty people live life as a marathon, not a sprint.
  • Gritty people are stubborn, but not stupid.
  • Like a toddler learning to walk, gritty people don’t waste time being ashamed or feeling anxious because they are too busy seeking feedback and improving.
  • When gritty people get a rejection slip or encounter a setback, dead end or failure, they are disappointed, even heartbroken. But not for long.
  • Gritty people don’t just put in more hours than the next person, they fill their hours with intense undistracted focus.
  • Gritty people embrace boredom and avoid environments of distraction.

Four Steps to Developing Grit

Duckworth offers what amounts to a four-step program: (1) identify a burning interest; (2) practice it a lot; (3) develop a sense of higher purpose; and (4) develop a growth mindset.

  1. Develop a fascination (Interest). Charles Darwin admitted to not having great quickness of understanding. To discover the mysteries of natural science without possessing natural intelligence, Darwin developed an obsessive fascination with the subject. He kept questions alive in the back of his mind that related to what he was observing and drove him to discover the connection between all living things. This led to the breakthrough that we now know as the theory of evolution. What questions are most intriguing to you?
  2. Strive to improve each day (Practice). Aim to improve every day by competing with who you were yesterday. Olympic gold medal swimmer Rowdy Gaines once said that at every practice, he would try to beat his time from the day before. Duckworth says that the refrain of all paragons of grit is, “Whatever it takes, I want to improve!”
  3. Remind yourself of the greater purpose (Purpose). Duckworth conducted a survey of 16,000 adult Americans to determine what was a bigger contributor of grit — obtaining a feeling of pleasure or feeling a greater sense of purpose. She found that people on the upper half of her grit scale experienced a similar level of pleasure on what they were doing, but she found that higher levels of purpose directly correlated with higher levels of grit. The grittiest people see their ultimate aims as deeply connected to the world beyond themselves. For example, you can be a bricklayer simply laying bricks for a cathedral, or you can be a bricklayer building the house of God.
  4. Develop a growth mindset (Hope). Bill McNabb, the former CEO of Vanguard, the largest mutual fund in the world, interviewed leaders within the organization to see who was successful and who wasn’t. He found that long-term success was dependent on a core belief: There is always more to learn. Those who believed that they could not learn any more failed to move up to a senior level. To be gritty, you need to scrap the belief that your abilities are fixed. It’s not true! Neuroscience has shown that we can change our brains and mold them through continuous learning.

Being gritty is hard. Resisting endless temptations to quit or experience failure is extremely difficult to deal with. However, as Duckworth teaches us, learning to stick with something is a life skill, and it is possible to grow our grit. Learning that grit, more than talent, determines success is incredibly liberating. Sure, there are limitations. Thousands of us on the Spartan race course yesterday had zero chance of winning the race, but by showing incredible grit to train for and then compete in the race, we got many other rewards — a sense of accomplishment, a feeling of camaraderie, better confidence and a healthier mindset.

Where in your life can you show more grit? Think about it and act on it.

About Todd Zipper

President & Chief Executive Officer

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