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Leaders: Grit is Key to Success & Happiness

(posted: August 8th, 2016)

What makes people successful and happy?

Is it talent? Is it having the right education? The right connections? Luck?

There are a lot of elements that go into success, but perhaps the most interesting and least understood is the one Angela Duckworth calls "grit": Persistence, perseverance, passion, determination, an ability to stick with something no matter the setbacks and obstacles.

Duckworth, a psychologist, noticed something while teaching math to 7th graders - the most successful students were not always the ones with a natural aptitude for math. The students most likely to do well were the ones with what she came to call grit.

She went on to study the trait, creating a tool, the "grit scale" to measure it, and this year she has published the results of her studies in her new book, "Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance"

This book may be hands-down the single best, and most useful, book of 2016! Yes, I realize the year is barely half over. And yes, there have been some truly worthwhile books for leaders this year.

But "Grit" is special.

What Is it About 'Grit'?

Thomas Edison is credited with saying, "Success is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration", and Angela Duckworth basically agrees.

Dr. Duckworth's book on the elements that make up grit, and lead to success and happiness, is no doctoral thesis or research paper stretched to book length. Instead the book's conversational tone offers a very readable introduction to Duckworth's theories and discoveries about grit, people who exhibit grit, and why it matters, with lots of stories and examples to illustrate her points.

Her two biggest ideas are:

  1. Grit predicts success more reliably than talent or IQ
  2. Anyone can learn to be gritty

From the book: "Grit is passion and perseverance for very long-term goals. Grit is having stamina. Grit is sticking with your future, day in, day out, not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years, and working really hard to make that future a reality. Grit is living life like it's a marathon, not a sprint."

I think that second idea is the key: Effort counts for more than talent. It's not that talent doesn't matter, it's just that stick-to-itiveness is more important. It's the fuel that makes the engine run.

4 Key Elements of Grit

Duckworth has identified four elements that gritty people seem to share. She goes into greater depth about these, but in brief they are:

  1. Interest. This is the foundation for passion, and people with grit inevitably love what they do.
  2. Practice. This is the willingness to improve, to work on your weaknesses, and to focus on mastery.
  3. Purpose. A sense that your work makes a difference to the well-being of others is critical to sustaining passion and interest.
  4. Hope. An essential element that works together with the rest, woven throughout the process. It's what supersedes the doubts and helps us get back up when we get knocked down.

A note here about happiness - Interest, passion, and happiness matter. Research shows that people are enormously more satisfied with their jobs when they do something that fits their personal interests, and they perform better at work when what they do interests them.

In 2014 a Gallup poll, more than two thirds of adults said they were not engaged at work, and a good portion of them were "actively disengaged". So matching your job to what captures your attention and imagination is a good idea, and gives you a huge step on the path to success.

Grit: Potential, and Practice

We all have potential, whether tapped or untapped. But it's what we do with that potential that makes the difference.

In the people that Duckworth studied, they all had a goal or direction, something that they felt passionately about doing. All their other pursuits or tasks were in some way tied to that goal. In my coaching work I often refer to this as a personal mission or vision.

She points out that for the gritty individual, goals have a kind of hierarchy, with one single goal at the top, a few that are mid-level, and a bunch at the bottom. The bottom level are the basic things on your to-do list: get to work on time, call clients back, finish emails that didn't get done yesterday. These goals, and the mid-level goals, are the ones we accomplish to get to something else. A top level goal is an end in itself. Duckworth shares this example of how a pitcher for the Giants gave meaning to his lower level goals:

"'Pitching determines what I eat, when I go to bed, what I do when I'm awake. It determines how I spend my life when I'm not pitching. If it means I have to come to Florida and can't get tanned because I might get a burn that would keep me from throwing for a few days, then I never go shirtless in the sun. If it means I have to remind myself to pet dogs with my left hand or throw logs in the fire with my left hand, then I do that too. If it means in the winter I eat cottage cheese instead of chocolate chip cookies in order to keep my weight down, then I eat the collage cheese.' The life he describes sounds grim. But that's not how he sees it. He says, 'Pitching makes me happy. I've devoted my life to it. I've made up my mind what I want to do. I'm happy when I pitch well so I only do things that help me be happy.'"

A lot of people have dreams, and many of them are vividly imagined, but if they can't identify the low- and mid-level goals that support that dream, it will never become reality.

Grit is a trait that we develop as we move through life, learning from rejection, failure and disappointment. We learn to identify which goals are low level and should be completed or abandoned quickly, and which are the high level goals that we should stick with. Duckworth says, "We develop the capacity for long term passion and perseverence as we get older. You learn to do what you need to do."

Growing Your Grit

One of the best things you'll learn from this book is that grit can be developed!

Cultivating the four components of grit will help you develop grit internally, from the inside out. You can also get external help, from teachers, mentors, bosses, friends, coaches.

There is great satisfaction to be had in doing something that is important, that benefits others, that you enjoy even though it is really, really hard. Gritty people are dogged, determined. They don't allow their thoughts to impose limits on them. They work hard towards a challenging, satisfying goal. They "fall down seven times, and get up eight." Grit is who they are, not a tactic they pull out from time to time. This is important, because the costs and benefits of passion and perseverance don't always add up early on. It would probably be more "sensible" to give up and move on in a lot of cases, since it can be years before grit's dividends pay off, but the gritty stick to it.

I could go on and on about "Grit", but perhaps this will encourage you to pick up a copy and read it yourself: The author doesn't just say, "here, this is what it takes to succeed." She also makes suggestions for how to develop the habits and traits that can lead you to succeed, and in a way that includes happiness. That is worth the price alone.

Watch Angela Duckworth's 2013 TED talk

Challenge Yourself
  • What is your experience with grit?
  • If you have read the book, what was your biggest "Ah hah" moment?
  • What are the situations where, in retrospect, you see that grit would have given you a way to keep going?
  • How have grit and happiness worked together for you?

I would love to hear your experiences and share some of my own where my "never give up" attitude was what got me through it. If you prefer, email me to continue the grit conversation!

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