Skip to main content

You Gotta Have Grit

| May 17, 2016

by Jim Bruce

Not the grit you think of in “gritty from hard work in a grimy, greasy environment.”  But rather, it’s the grit that Angela Duckworth defines, in her 2013 TED Talk, “as the passion and perseverance for very long-term goals.”  In this view, grit is having stamina, it 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. 
In addition to being a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, Duckworth is a MacArthur fellow and founder and co-director of the Character Lab, a non-profit organization created in 2013 to advance the science and practice of character development.  Her research focuses on what grit is, how it relates to talent, and how you might become more gritty. 
As a psychologist, Duckworth has studied kids and adults in all sorts of challenging situations:  Kids in school, cadets at the West Point Military Academy, contestants at the National Spelling Bee, rookie teachers teaching at schools in tough neighborhoods, and sales staff in private companies among others.  In each study, the goal was to understand who was successful and why?
In every study, in all the different contexts, one characteristic emerged as the most significant predictor of success.  It wasn’t I.Q., it wasn’t social intelligence, nor physical health, nor good looks.  It was grit!  Interestingly, this result is consistent with a much earlier result from a study by Stanford Researcher Catharine Cox (1890-1984) who studied 301 eminent historical figures and concluded that persistence beats smarts.
So, if being gritty is such a key factor in being successful, what do I do to become grittier?  Several possible action steps are suggested by Duckworth and others:
1.  Pursue what interests you.  It’s hard to stick with something over the long haul if you don’t really care about it.  So, if you want to become gritty, you need to be focused on something that you care passionately about.  It can be a project, it can be a musical talent, your kid’s sports activities, …  If you don’t know what you care passionately about, step out and try something, you’ll soon discover your passion. 

Eric Barker notes from his interview with James Waters, SEAL Platoon Commander, that purpose and meaning are key.  “Grit often comes from a place of deep purpose and personal meaning.  Without a good reason to keep pushing, you quit.  Brain research has shown that our brains always give in long before our body does.” 
2.  Practice, practice, practice.  Hard work develops skill and we’re more likely to stick with things we’re good at.  You develop a capacity for doing hard practice, what’s called “deliberate practice.”  Over weeks, months, even years of practice on your weaknesses, you improve.  Duckworth gives as an example in her book, the story of 13 year-old Kerry Close.  Kerry logged more than 3,000 hours of practice on the way to becoming the National Spelling Bee champion.  Just practicing wasn’t the only reason she won.  It was how she practiced.  Her competitive edge came from the approach she took to practicing.  She identified and fixed her mistakes over and over again.
It’s all about “doing,” not “knowing.”  Once you have knowledge, you need to build the skills.  Try the 3F’s:  Focus, Feedback, FixIt.  Get outside your comfort zone in a focused way, with clear goals and a plan to reach the goals, and a process to monitor progress.  Be specific about what you want to work on.
Working on weaknesses is key;  work not by “trying harder,” but rather by “trying different.”  Repetition is not expertise.  To improve, get out of your comfort zone.  Do After Action Reviews of your practice and work, and take them seriously.  Navy SEALS spend as much as 90% of their After Action Review time focusing on what could have been better.
Celebrate small wins.  Small wins are a big deal.  Taking time to appreciate the little good things that happen is far more motivating than thinking you need to win that Nobel Prize or Academy Award before you’re allowed to be happy.  Lots of little good things beat infrequent great things when it comes to how we feel.
3.  Find purpose.  The difference between someone who is just a hard worker and somebody who has real grit is that the latter finds meaning in what they do.  And this meaning involves serving others.  Have a greater sense of the greater meaning of your work.  It’s important to others, not just yourself.  Be convinced that your work matters, is personally interesting, and valued by others.  It’s not a job, it’s a calling.
There’s an old story that makes this point:
     A man happened upon three bricklayers busy at work. He asked the first bricklayer,
     “What are you doing?”
     “I’m laying bricks,” the first bricklayer said.
     The man asked the second bricklayer the same question.
     “I’m putting up a wall,” was the reply.
     The passerby then posed the question to the third bricklayer.
     “What are you doing?” he asked. 
     “I’m building a great cathedral,” the third bricklayer replied.
The first had a job;  the second, a career;  and the third, a calling.
Barker also says that helping others through the work you do doesn’t just make you gritty, it makes you love what you do.  This leads to higher levels of job satisfaction and an upward spiral of grit.
4.  Have hope.  This is not just wishing things will go well.  In Duckwork’s view, grit requires a different kind of hope.  Grit rests on the expectation that your own efforts can improve the future.  “I have a feeling tomorrow will be better” is different from “I resolve to make tomorrow better.”  The hope that gritty people have has nothing to do with luck and everything to do with getting up again.  Duckworth suggests that if you are not hopeful, you might work to improve your growth mindset and engage in optimistic self-talk.  Optimistic self-talk is as simple as telling yourself, “Yes, I can do it” when things get hard, rather than giving in to the inner voice that’s saying “I can’t do this.”  The U.S. armed services have taught this approach to recruits to increase their grit.
5.  Join a gritty group.  Barker suggests that even if you’re not particularly industrious, you should hang out with people who are better and more committed than you are in an area you’re working on.  If you do, you’ll fall in line with the rest of the group because conforming is what we do.  Bob Sutton, professor at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business puts this this way:  “When you take a job take a long look at the people you’re going to be working with – because odds are you’re going to become like them, they are not going to become like you.
So, want to learn how gritty you are right now?  Take the grit test here
And, really consider what it would take to make you more gritty, more passionate and persevering with regard to your long-term goals.  And, perhaps begin to take the initial steps to step up your game.  All it takes is to commit to taking one more step and then asking again can I take one more, and one more … 
Make it a great week.  .  .  .     jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates, and Professor of Electrical Engineering, Emeritus, and CIO, Emeritus, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.
Judith Shulevitz, Book Review ‘Grit’ by Angela Lee Duckworth, New York Times
Angela Lee Duckworth, The Key to Success?  Grit, TED Talk
Angela Lee Duckworth, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, Simon & Schuster, Inc, 2016
Eric Barker, This Is The Research-Backed Way To Increase Grit, Barking Up the Wrong Tree weekly update for May 8, 2016
James Waters, A Navy SEAL Explains 8 Secrets to Grit and Resilience  
Wikipedia entry for Grit