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Grit: The Secret Formula for Long-Term Success

“Endeavor to persevere…”

In Measurements That Mislead, Jonah Lehrer tells us that many tests designed to measure talent turn out to be very bad at predicting long term success, such as SATs and the annual NFL combine. Economists at the University of Louisville say there’s no “consistent statistical relationship” between Combine results and NFL performance.

The reason is that those tests measure maximum performance, which is applied in short bursts. They don’t measure typical performance, which is measured over long periods of time. For example, supermarket cashiers were tested to find out who could scan a few dozen items the fastest. Those results were found to have a very weak correlation with job performance as measured by actual scanning results.

The problem is that some people who have the talent to do well over short bursts do not always have the work ethic or the motivation to sustain that performance advantage over time. These tests do not measure how hard and how consistently people apply their talents.

There’s even some evidence that the most “talented” performers actually perform worse. Angela Duckworth, who studies what she calls grit at Penn, conducted a study of children who competed in the National Spelling Bee finals. She found that performance was positively related to IQ—except for those in the top quartile. Their performance was on average worse than those in the third quartile. In a subsequent study of West Point freshmen to see what characteristics could predict their likelihood of completing the first six weeks of Basic training, she and other researchers found the same relationship between Whole Candidate Scores (a comprehensive measure that includes SAT scores, GPA, physical ability, etc.) and retention. The candidates in the top quartile were more likely to drop out than the second and third quartile candidates.[1]

I haven’t seen research that explains why the most talented seem to underperform on the grit scale, but I speculate that it’s because sometimes the most talented have not had the setbacks and difficulties in their youth that inure them to challenge. In addition, being praised for their talent can make them internalize it as part of their self-image, and make them reluctant to put it at risk. If you want to cultivate grit in your kids, praise them for their effort and not for their intelligence. As Carol Dweck tells us in Mindset, children who are praised for their intelligence often view that as an integral part of themselves, so they are unwilling to put that self-view at risk by trying harder puzzles and tasks.

We now know that genius is not something you’re born with—it takes at least 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to make excellence or genius in a field. It takes grit just to put that much time into anything, and even more to engage in deliberate practice. Deliberate practice is hard work; it forces you to work on things you’re not good at rather than the things you would prefer to do.

What can you do to cultivate your grit?

Know the difference between talent and skill. Talent is something you’re born with, skill is something you can acquire with work. If you see intelligence as a skill, you are more likely to work at something until you master it rather than thinking you’ve hit your personal limit when the going gets tough.

Develop habits. As I’ve said in an earlier article, excellence according to Aristotle is a habit, not an act. Self-discipline is like a muscle. It gets tired if you try to do too much, but can be strengthened with practice. If you get in the habit of working hard and trying challenging things you will grow.

Set your sights low. Big, hairy audacious goals (BHAGs) are great for the long term, but big changes also activate the fear response in our brains, which diminishes creativity and purposeful action, according to psychologist Robert Maurer. Small changes bypass this fear response, Grit allows for the magic of kaizen to take effect. Small changes patiently accumulated over time lead to big results. As John Wooden said, “When you improve a little each day, eventually big things occur.”

Reframe failures and plateaus. In real life, unfortunately, you don’t improve a little each day, at least not visibly. Don’t be discouraged by setbacks and plateaus. The road to mastery is like the stock of a good company, with dips and plateaus along the long-term climb. Sometimes we seem to stagnate, but that’s because different dimensions of improvement are getting better at different rates, and it takes time for them to click, but when they do we experience a sudden spurt of ability.

Focus on the next chance. If you keep trying day to day and getting bad results, don’t take that expectation into the new day. When I was in the early years of having my own company, there were some hard—even desperate—times. I would send letters and make phone calls and come up empty again and again, but I tried to look at every day as a fresh opportunity, deriving strength from two historical examples. The first was a quote from Tennyson that Churchill used in a speech to Britain on June 4, 1940, immediately after the fall of France:

“Every morn brought forth a noble chance

And every chance brought forth a noble knight.”

Regardless of how tough things looked today, remind yourself that another noble chance will come by tomorrow.

Another figure who personified grit was Ulysses Grant.  On the evening of April 6, 1862, Grant and William Sherman stood in the rain on the banks of the Tennessee River at Shiloh, TN. Their forces had been severely mauled by the Confederates and had just managed to avoid being pushed back into the river. Sherman said, “Well, Grant, we’ve had the devil’s own day, haven’t we?” Grant replied: “Yes. Lick ‘em tomorrow, though.”

Do what you love. It’s tough to sustain determination over time unless you have a real passion for what you’re doing. While I realize this is an ideal that’s not always realistic, if you can find a higher purpose in anything you do you can grow to love it.

If you’re interested in this topic, here are a few more resources:

Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment, by George Burr

One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way, by Robert Maurer

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, by Carol Dweck

Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, by Chip Heath and Dan Heath

Grit: Perseverance and Passion for Long-Term Goals, study conducted by Angela Duckworth

Measurements That Mislead, Article by Jonah Lehrer (note: if you can’t access the entire article, paste the title into Google, which will take you to a full-text version without needing a subscription to Wall Street Journal on-line.)

Go, Go, Grow! Blog post by Ram Raghunathan

Your Beliefs About Intelligence Affect Your Beliefs About Learning, Blog post by Art Markman


[1] It’s important to remember that in both these studies, even those in the bottom quartile are probably way above average in relation to the general population. I’m not saying talent does not matter.

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January 26, 2015
5 Comments
  • Hey, Jack,

    Just got around to reading this article and it reminded me of some of the science on persistence that my team did awhile back. Here’s a summary – it provides even more support for some of what you say above: http://www.excellencetree.com/journal/79/moving-from-wishing-to-doing-5-keys-to-getting-things-done

    Yours in grit,

    Brian

  • Thanks for the comment, Rick. although I wrote the article from the perspective of the individual, I think you’re on to something with your point about companies. I’ll have to do some checking and see if there is anything written about grit from the organizational perspective.

  • John, you’re right. I actually did think of you when I wrote the article (and not about the plenty of people smarter than you part). I went with Churchill and Grant because they’re (so far) still better known than you, but stick with it and that could change some day!

  • Jack – great article. John mentioned it on LinkedIn. I think this pieces a bit of the puzzle together for me…I work with a lot of early stage companies that tend to have the “true grit” mentality, and you are right – there seems to be a difference between the many that reach the three year mark, and those who have great startup ideas.
    I love and agree with your comment about BHAGS; they ARE for the long haul. It is the day in and day out getting up every day and making it happen – the discipline that separates successful business leaders from those that find themselves not achieving the goals set for themselves.

    Great post. Thanks!

    ~Rick

  • Jack — I LOVE this post. Persistence, endurance, determination, drive, desire… GRIT… I absolutely know it is one of the main foundations of enduring success. There are plenty of people smarter than me (for sure) — but VERY few who will work longer or hard than me at my area of expertise. As I have said for years, the formula for excellence is… FOCUS + DISCIPLINE + ACTION. Thank you for a fantastic post – and so many superb resources.

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