Ever wonder why some people are a lot more successful than others?
How do these folks achieve peak performance in their fields? What do they do differently from the rest of us?
The answer is grit.
Thanks to the book Grit by Angela Duckworth, we now know why some individuals do a lot better at work or in life than others—even when they have a slower head start in life (lackluster academic grades, low income household or average sporting performance).
While how talented you are certainly play a role in your accomplishments in any field, what matters more is how tenaciously you work on a singular goal with a view towards continual improvement.
In this article, you will learn what grit is, how effort relates to success, how you can measure grit, and steps to developing grit in yourself or those you care about.
What is Grit?
So what is grit all about?
According to Duckworth, it can be understood as follows:
Grit is defined as your passion and perseverance for specific long-term goals.
A long-term goal would be one that takes years or even decades to accomplish. It can be any academic, professional, artistic or sporting endeavour that is worth pursuing.
Unlike the average person, gritty people can maintain their determination and motivation over long periods. They can do so despite experiencing repeated failure or adversity.
In short, gritty people are tough!
Thus, grit isn’t just a temporary flash-in-the-pan encounter.
Neither is grit talent. Or luck. Or how intensely you want something.
Grit isn’t just pure hard work either. Un-directed perseverance may sometimes lead to a lot of activity with very little to show for it.
Instead, grit is about “having an ‘ultimate concern’–a goal you care about so much that it organizes and gives meaning to almost everything you do.
And grit is holding steadfastly to that goal. Even when you “fall down seven times” because you’ll be able to “get up eight times” (see Japanese resilience for more).
Why Effort Matters in Grit
To master anything, you first need to develop the right skill. This will certainly be helped by your God-given (or genetically-gifted) talents.
However, it doesn’t just come automatically – some amount of effort is needed to develop just about any skill.
Playing the violin. Swimming. Tap dancing. Computer programming. Managing a team. Balancing the books. Growing your company.
All of these tasks require skill.
However, skill alone isn’t enough to achieve peak performance in any field. You need to hone and sharpen your skill with considerable effort to achieve anything.
This relationship can be summarized by the following two equations:
Talent x Effort = Skill
Skill x Effort = Achievement
Thus, effort counts twice. Once in helping you to develop a skill. Once to help you to achieve success.
How Gritty Are You?
So how do you know if you’re grittier than the average Joe or Jill down the street?
Well, you can take the Grit Scale – a series of questions aimed at measuring the degree of grittiness in any individual. (You can take the test here.)
The scale measures both your passion for what you do and your capacity to persevere. In most cases, people’s perseverance score tends to be higher than their passion score.
Hence, grit isn’t just about working hard on something you love, but staying in love with it as you continue to do the work.
As Duckworth puts it: “Enthusiasm is common. Endurance is rare.”
Your Hierarchy of Goals
In thinking about your long-term goals, consider how they’re stacked like a pyramid.
Your most important overarching goals are those at the top. These connect to the next tier of goals which are of medium importance. These are then connected to low-level goals which you can find in your everyday to-do lists.
While many people can articulate their dreams (ie top-tier goals), few can determine the right lower and mid-level goals to help them get there.
Without the critical in-between steps needed to support these high-level goals, you’ll end up merely “positive fantasizing” (Gabriele Oettingen, 1953).
It is also common to see people with various mid-level goals which do not align to form a top-level goal. These tend to have competing goal hierarchies, and could end up compromising the effectiveness of your efforts.
To sharpen your goal setting, follow Warren Buffett’s three-step process of prioritising goals:
- First, make a list of 25 career goals
- Circle the five that are most important
- Avoid all the remaining 20 goals “at all costs”
Beyond this, Duckworth suggests that your top five goals should be aligned to a single top goal – an internal compass guiding all other goals.
The Four Assets of Grit
To be what the book calls a “paragon of grit,” you need to have four different psychological assets:
These are evident in gritty people, who not only are interested in what they do, but practice hard, have a greater purpose (beyond self-interest), and more than a glimmer of hope.
Let us look at each of these qualities.
#1 Inculcating Interest
Interest always takes time and effort to be discovered and nurtured.
Research has shown that people who are happier tend to perform better at their jobs – especially when they’re doing something which they enjoy.
Sometimes, the journey to discovering what you’re passionate about may take meandering paths of experimentation and trial.
What’s important to note is that interests have to be inculcated – especially in young people. A support network is needed.
#2 Embracing Deliberate Practice
Studies show that gritty people practice more than others. However, they don’t just do the same thing over and over again – instead, they deliberately practice on areas that they’re weak in.
This can often be painful and hard. After all, doing something that you’re weak in – for example a particular dance move or football kick – can be difficult and demanding.
However, once a gritty person sets her goal, she will focus intently on improving that weakness. Often, she will get a coach or mentor to provide her with feedback on how she can improve.
While deliberate practice may be tough, psychologists find that gritty people may actually experience flow when they practice. Flow is defined by renowned psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi as “the state of euphoric absorption and intense concentration where one is so focused and absorbed on the task at hand that the rest of the world just fades away.” When this happens, time slows down.
Thus, the more the person prepares, the more she can enjoy herself when called to perform.
Ultimately, gritty people make deliberate practice a habit.
#3 Developing a Purpose
A gritty person has a purpose which goes beyond his self-interest. When his interest and purpose coalesce – passion is formed.
While most people begin any endeavour with interest, it is the regular deliberate practice which transforms that interest into a purpose.
This higher order purpose is what makes the difference between having a job, developing a career and answering a calling.
A mason involved in constructing a church doesn’t just think of himself as a bricklayer, or a construction worker, but as one who is “building the house of God.”
#4 Possessing Hope (aka a Growth Mindset)
Most gritty people have an optimistic and expansive mindset.
Also known as a growth mindset, they have the internal resources to overcome setbacks and challenges. They also look for ways to constantly improve, and to get out of their current situation.
On the flip side, people without grit tend to have a fixed mindset. They consider themselves as victims of fate. They get stuck in their ruts, and are unable to escape their lot in life.
Thus, gritty people have a learned optimism unlike non-gritty others.
(Read more about Carol Dweck’s ideas on growth versus fixed mindsets here.)
How to Develop Grit in Yourself and Others
Now that you’ve read all about qualities and paragons of grit, your next question will be this – how do you develop grit in yourself and in others?
#1 Developing Grit in Yourself
To develop grit in yourself, consider doing it two ways.
To do it on your own, you can nurture your own grit from the “inside-out.” Cultivate interests, adopt a habit of daily deliberate practice, and work on a larger purpose beyond yourself.
You can also work with others to develop your grit from the “outside in.”
Work with a parent, coach, teacher, boss, mentor or friend to help you in strengthening your grittiness. Get them to hold you accountable for your actions and milestones en route to achieving an interesting and purposeful goal.
Quoting from the book:
“To be gritty is to keep putting one foot in front of the other. To be gritty is to hold fast to an interesting and purposeful goal. To be gritty is to invest, day after week after year, in challenging practice. To be gritty is to fall down seven times, and rise eight.”
#2 Raise Gritty Kids through Wise Parenting
To parent a gritty child, consider adopting an authoritative parenting style. This is defined by Angela as “wise parenting” which involves being equal part demanding and supportive.
(The other forms of parenting commonly found are…
- Authoritarian parenting: Demanding but not supportive
- Neglectful parenting: Neither demanding nor supportive
- Permissive parenting: Supportive but not demanding)
Wise parenting means pushing hard for your child to continue on the journey of their own undertaking – even when they don’t feel like it – but being there with support when they need it.
And yes, wise parenting produces grittier children who are happier and more successful than their counterparts.
An important point to note is that children follow what adults do more than what they say.
Thus, parents who are gritty tend to raise children who are gritty. Ditto for teachers, coaches, siblings, guardians, and managers – these individuals may sometimes play parenting roles in their charges’ lives.
#2 Follow-Through on Extracurricular Activities
Most extracurricular (or co-curricular) activities have the ability to instill grit in students who take them up.
What’s important for success though, is follow-through.
Students who stuck to the same activity for several years and progressed to more advanced levels (for example, becoming a leader or star player rather than remaining a mere player) usually do better later in life.
Those with the highest follow-through abilities were more likely to graduate with honours, hold leadership positions, or assume noteworthy roles in various commercial or non-profit sectors.
#3 Foster a Gritty Organisational Culture
Most of the successful sport teams, companies, or universities around the world have similar values anchored on grit.
When you join such an organisation, the likelihood of you assimilating them into your own identity becomes strong.
Thus, army trainees who join the Commando battalion or the Navy Divers programme during their National Service are likely to remain gritty long after they completed their National Service.
This is nicely encapsulated by the Finnish word sisu which is concept that is encapsulated by stoic determination, tenacity of purpose, grit, bravery, resilience and hardiness.
It is formed by the ability to overcome adversity and challenges – whatever these may be.
For parents, forming a gritty culture may be as simple as encouraging your children to do one or two “hard things” – and for you and your spouse to also be role models doing “hard things” for your children to emulate.
Watch Angela Duckworth on TED
Wish to learn more about Angela Duckworth? Do watch her legendary Ted Talk here:
Life is a marathon.
Often, our eventual success depends on our ability to stick-to-it when it comes to achieving a long-term goal which we believe in.
However, it isn’t just about mindlessly doing the same thing over and over again. Rather, it should be focused on continually improving ourselves as we work hard.
While talent may get us a head start, it is our grit – our passion and perseverance for a long-term goal – which will eventually determine our success.
Are you ready to pursue a life of grit? What steps will you take to do that?