What makes a person successful? Is it inspiration? A gift from the muse that only strikes the blessed? Is it raw talent? Some kind of intrinsic advantage or inborn gift for a particular task? Is there a secret handshake you have to discover before you can really make it?
Not according to MacArthur Genius Angela Duckworth. No, the secret to success is far more obvious and attainable than we think – Grit.
Duckworth has spent most of the past decade trying to figure out what separates the winners from the rest of the crowd. Why children sitting in the same class, taught the same lessons go home with different report cards each year. Why some will get As, some will get Bs and Cs, and some will fail. She's gone to esteemed institutions like West Point military academy to find out why some of its student's thrive through the harrowing "Beast Week” that introduces students to the Academy's brutal standards, while others never last to see graduation despite all passing the same personality and candidate tests for admission. Why the smartest person you know is likely not the most successful person you know.
Her findings, over and over again, reveal the same pattern. Determination and resilience, or in other words, grit, is the strongest single indicator of success, trouncing other factors such as IQ and talent.
Duckworth arrived at these findings through multiple long-term studies carried out in locations as diverse as Chicago's harried public schools, and the top contestants of the National Spelling Bee. The study combined questionnaires, informed and observed behavioral cues, and long-term follow-ups to formulate Duckworth's conclusions.
When studying a group, Duckworth would have students and test subjects fill out IQ and aptitude tests to establish a baseline of who would be considered the most likely to succeed through traditional metrics. She would also record the opinions of students, teachers, and councilors when asked who they thought was the smartest in the class, most likely to succeed, most likely to fail, and so on. Finally, all test subjects were given a sort of "grit test.” A series of questions and small test activities devised by Duckworth to measure an individual's "grittiness” (for lack of a better term).
These results were then compared months and even years later against the actual academic and career performance of the subjects. Surprisingly (or not, depending on your perspective), the most successful subjects uniformly scored high on the grit test. Other factors, such as IQ, aptitude, physical health, or even social intelligence seemed to have little bearing on a subject's actual success. In fact, the trends in her research even showed that talent seemed to be a counter-indicator for grit, and consequently, overall success.
Interesting stuff, but what can we learn from it all? How can we use this information to improve our own career and business prospects?
Your career is a marathon, not a sprint
One prevailing take away from Angela's body of work is that success is less defined by your ability to excel as it is by your ability to be resilient in the face of failure. It's not the fastest runner who is able to win the race of life, but the one who won't quit when they stumble.
Consider how Angela herself defines grit - "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.”
Your career is not defined by a single great step you take in any particular direction. Whether you finally complete a major project that you've been working on for months, or screw up and lose a major sale, your success or failure isn't determined in that moment. Rather, it's defined by your ability to walk through the door the next day and get back to work, rain or shine.
Complacency is an insidious threat
Talent is great. While Angela's studies might diminish the overall value of talent, being good at something will always be a quality to celebrate. If you manage to find a career doing something you're naturally inclined towards, so much the better! However, the flip-side to talent is the expectation of success. The sense that your achievement is a given, the natural state of things. When something happens to upset this vision, that's when you run into trouble.
Talent has a peculiar way of undermining grit. When you step back, it's easy to see why. If you're used to easily accomplishing a certain task, or quickly picking up a related skill, any kind of failure in that field can become that much more daunting. Get too cozy with success, and it can be difficult to get back up and dust yourself off when failure inevitably strikes.
It isn't the talent that is the problem, it's the complacency. For talent to really drive success, it has to be married to resilience and long-term devotion rather than the positive feedback loop of expected success.
Grit is a muscle you can build
The problem with a term like grit is that it sounds as nebulous and ephemeral as talent, or gifted. Grit sounds like another inborn personality trait that you either have, or don't. But, this is not the case.
While it's of little use to tell someone to be "more talented” or acquire "more gifts,” grit is something we all possess the ability to build. Just as a bodybuilder will purposely strain a muscle to its limits so it will rebuild stronger and more capable to rise to the challenge, we can purposely tax our minds to expand our capacity for resilience.
The key lies in adopting a "growth mindset,” a way of looking at the world as a continual work in progress rather than an immediate series of hurdles. In the growth mindset, failing represents an opportunity to reassess, adapt, and improve rather than a shameful gaffe. It looks at goals through a long-term vision that values deferred gratification in the purist of a greater eventual payoff.
To be fair, these are not new ideas. The value of persistence, hard work, and dedication are all well enshrined in our society. However, it is refreshing to see them presented not as home-spun wisdom and commonsense, but measured and validated scientifically using real world observations and results.
Talent can take you far, but it's like the old jokes says - "how do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice.”