Why Grit Matters
Emerging research suggests that there is far more to success in life than a country club pedigree or natural ability and sheer talent. Passion and perseverance, it turns out, matter more than talent or intelligence when it comes to being successful. For most of us, the corner office or professional kudos is the result of hard work, rather than exceptional genes. The endgame, it turns out, belongs to the truly diligent, not the merely talented. It belongs to those who have grit.
Grit is a somewhat old-fashioned term, resurrected from a previous century. But it is enjoying a remarkable renaissance these days. Why? Because it seems as if we are getting soft. Grit is about sweat, not swagger. Character, not charisma. Grit has been equated more with methodical stick-to-itiveness and survival than any secret ingredient to success. Which is too bad, because for so many, grit is the secret to success. Grit is the result of a hard-fought struggle, a willingness to take risks, a strong sense of determination, working relentlessly toward a goal, taking challenges in stride, and having the passion and perseverance to accomplish difficult things, even if you are wallowing in the most difficult circumstances.
The Four Ingredients of Grit
Grit begins with the courage to take on a tough challenge, and not falter in the face of adversity. General George S. Patton famously defined courage as “fear holding on a minute longer.” Guts is what gives you the confidence to take a calculated risk, to be daring (without being reckless). Guts is about putting yourself out there, declaring your intention to triumph, even if victory appears to be nowhere in sight.
Some of the world’s most notable high achievers have flunked or dropped out of school, been fired from their jobs, evicted from their homes, or dealt some other major setback that forced them to hit bottom. But they bounced back. Jerry Seinfeld got booed off the stage during his first stand-up gig. It took three attempts before Steven Spielberg was accepted by a film school. But neither let humiliation or failure diminish their conviction.
By definition, initiative—being a self-starter—is what makes grit dynamic, what sets it in motion. Leaders are often judged by their ability to take the initiative. But some of the most compelling examples of initiative are found far from the boardroom or the battlefield. One of our favorites took place on the African savanna, where thirteen-year-old Richard Turere was devastated to discover that lions had killed his family’s bull. What could prevent such an attack in the future? When the Masai boy patrolled the cattle pasture at night in an effort to keep the herd safe, he noticed that the prowling lions were scared off by the bouncing beam of his flashlight as he walked. Tinkering with scavenged solar-charging cells and flashlight parts, he created a “lions light” fence that effectively keeps the predators away. The moral of this story? You don’t have to outweigh or outrun an opponent if you can outsmart them first.
Tenacity is the relentless ability to stay focused on a goal. This is perhaps the most recognizable trait associated with grit. We see it in every athlete who overcomes a setback or a loss to win an Olympic medal or a championship ring; in every Nobel winner who has sweated through thousands of failed experiments and dead ends before making some groundbreaking discovery that has changed her field; in every entrepreneur who spends years fighting to launch a new service or product that ends up changing the way we live. Tenacity requires industriousness and determination, a value that, in the wake of the Great Depression, brought America to its industrial peak in the twentieth century. But it is a quality that seems in shorter supply in today’s digital age.
Give some grit. As parents, mentors, friends, or bosses, we can encourage the development of grit in others by not only providing support and guidance but also allowing those around us to learn on their own. Positive feedback is important, but don’t redo a direct report’s lousy memo. Instead, tell them (nicely) how they can make it better. And the next time your kid asks for their favorite peanut butter and banana sandwich or macaroni and cheese, don’t make it for them. Show them how to do it themselves. Who knows, you could be inspiring a lifelong love of cooking.
The Talent Myth
Become an overpreparer. Talent is a good thing, but don’t let overconfidence get in the way of success. Practice. Do a dress rehearsal. If you have a talk to present at school or work, say it out loud in front of a mirror, or video yourself on your phone. Think of all the angles. Working just a little harder than someone else who might be just as talented (or even a bit more) is what will win the day.
Go the extra thirty minutes. You’d be surprised at the edge you can develop by applying yourself for an extra half hour on something—a goal, a skill, a job. Pick the time of day when you are most productive (early morning, after a jog, or in the quiet of a Sunday evening) and instead of watching a sitcom, devote yourself to whatever “it” might be. A half hour each day adds up to 180 hours of extra practice a year!
Ditch the Dream
Conduct a reality check. Take note of how often you daydream about changing something in your life. Next, promise yourself you will spend the same amount of time creating an action plan to make that change happen. Your plan should include everything that needs to get done to attain the goal, plotted against a timeline.
Keep your list visible, or add reminders to an electronic calendar. See how great it feels to check things off the list. A dream is only a mirage if it doesn’t lead to an opportunity to make it a reality.
Lose the Safety Net
Create your own high wire. Mentally fire yourself. Ask yourself what you’d do if you lost your job today or lost everything you had. Now write a list of the steps you would take. That simple act can take the bite out of the scary aspects of your life if it is upended—because you are mentally prepared. But it can also lead you to be proactive about making a change in your life. The answer may even be the key to your future happiness.
Stop the excuses. An excuse a day makes the goals go away. The next time you make an excuse for something you didn’t do or you did badly, turn the excuse into a question. Ask, what could I have done differently? Make a note of it. Then commit to doing it differently the next time.
Make yourself uncomfortable. Get out of your comfort zone. Try getting dressed with your eyes closed, or with one hand. Order something you have never tried before at a restaurant. Say hello to strangers in an elevator. Flexing those muscles will enable you to stick out uncomfortable situations. Research has shown that the brain craves novelty and that doing things that don’t feel automatic has a positive effect on neurological activity. It can keep you sharp and can make you more creative.
Get into Wait Training
Doing nothing is doing something. The next time you are waiting at the dentist’s or the doctor’s office, or for a train or a client, resist the urge to take out your phone and check email or Facebook. Be still. Notice the world around you. Think about what you are feeling. What in your life are you hungry or thirsty for? It’s in these moments of boredom and inactivity that we can be our most creative, solve problems, engage with the world around us, and train ourselves to accept that we don’t always have to feel busy to be fulfilled.
Lose your willpower. Research has shown that willpower only works for a short time. It’s the reason most of us make our dieting vows on January 1, and then go back to eating brownies and hot fudge sundaes two weeks later. Changing behaviors that tempt us on an hourly basis takes an enormous amount of energy, energy that gets readily depleted as the day wears on. A better strategy is to create a new behavior, and repeat it over and over, until it becomes an automatic, subconscious response. For example, instead of being tempted to text a friend while you’re driving, get into the habit of throwing your phone into the backseat when you get into the car, so that there is no way for you to reach it. And that hot fudge sundae that kid is scarfing down in the restaurant booth next to yours? Don’t fight the urge to dig your spoon into it. Instead, visualize an army of ants climbing into the bowl. Works every time!
Be grateful. A recent study in Psychological Science found that one key to self-control can be as simple as cultivating gratitude. Thinking about what we have puts us in a positive mood, which in turn helps us make better choices. Conversely, negative moods make us more impulsive. So the next time you find yourself about to make a hasty, spur-of-the-moment financial decision, like splurging on that expensive bottle of wine at dinner instead of paying off your Visa bill, hit pause, and remind yourself to be thankful for all you have. In that brief moment, you’ll probably realize that a less expensive bottle will taste perfectly fine. Your credit rating will thank you, too.
Bend Like Bamboo
Embrace Plan B. Sometimes it can even be more effective than Plan A. When Steven Spielberg’s mechanical shark malfunctioned on the set of Jaws, he used music as a stand-in, creating a lurking underwater menace that was even more terrifying than the shark we could see.
Setbacks move you forward. On average it can take as many as eleven attempts to quit smoking before someone is finally able to stop. But each time you fail, there is something you can learn about how to succeed the next time. Take the time to examine how each setback can propel you forward. Then get back up and try again, and again, and again.