The other day I was reminded of a podcast I listened a few years ago that really stuck with me. The theme for the podcast was success; or more specifically, whether there is a common link between those who thrive in life and achieve their goals, compared to those who just never seem to quite get there.
The podcast centred on research that looked at everyone from professional elite athletes, to newbie teachers working in rough neighbourhoods; primary school students, to high-flying CEO’s. Fascinatingly, what emerged from the research in all of these contexts was one key characteristic that was a significant predictor of success.* It wasn’t IQ, social intelligence, family background, physical appearance, natural talent, health or income –
It was grit.
Grit is defined by the Cambridge dictionary as: ‘courage and determination despite difficulty’. Angela Duckworth, the lead researcher of this particular study who is pioneering advances in this area, has another definition: ‘passion and perseverance for very long-term goals.’ Or in other words, as Duckworth brilliantly summarises in her Ted Talk:
‘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.’
Let’s be honest, Millennials and Gen Z often get a bad rap when it comes to this characteristic. Older folk complain that ‘young people today’ are impatient with career progression, have a sense of entitlement to being promoted quickly, and lack the same work ethic as previous generations. I also know a lot of teachers who regularly comment that students today are lacking in resilience, which has often been highlighted in conversations around the growing percentage of young people experiencing mental health issues.
However, Duckworth believes Millennials and Gen Z deserve a break, saying that these younger generations have grown up in a very different environment and culture to their parents, teachers, and work superiors. Duckworth also notes that: ‘in general, people get better (with age); you get more emotionally stable, more conscientious, more self-controlled, more dependable.’
While Duckworth’s book and Ted Talk (which has now been viewed by over 11 million people) has prompted more discussion and research in this area, she does admit that the concept of grit and how to develop it remains somewhat elusive. In response to this, I’ve scoured different articles to bring you what a variety of experts believe are the 4 main characteristics of grit and examples of how to cultivate these.
1) Bravery: Don’t be afraid to give it a go
If you haven’t discovered the genius that is Brene Brown, do yourself a favour and watch this. Brown believes that instead of being put off by the haters (whether that’s a voice inside your own head or an actual person), we must ‘reserve a seat’ for the critics and our own self-doubt. As Brown advises in her talk, ‘Tell them: I see you, I hear you, but I’m going to do this anyway.’
This idea of taking more risks and not being afraid to fail is something that is increasingly being identified as an important element to cultivate in university settings and workplaces. So much so, that there’s now a start-up conference dedicated to failure, so people can learn from their own and others’ failures, and realise it’s just part of life and not a reason to quit.
A New York Times article recently did a feature on Smith University in the United States, who have launched a recent initiative called ‘Failing Well’, which is helping students to see that failure is a part of life and it can actually open up other opportunities to take advantage of.
2) Achievement oriented
When you arrive at work or uni, are you bringing your A-game? Or are you just showing up and doing the minimum required in order to get by?
I remember reading an article about a young woman who was working as accessories editor in the magazine world, who decided to start her own business making handbags. The night before her first trade show, she realised she needed to do something more to distinguish her handbags from all the other bags that would be at the show. On impulse, she ripped off all the fabric labels from the inside of the handbags and hand sewed them onto the outside of each one until her fingers were swollen.
That woman was Kate Spade.
Vogue spotted her handbags at the show and featured them in a spread soon after. Her iconic brand, now worth millions, is known for its fabric labels being on the outside.
Achievement oriented people are the ones who work tirelessly- not striving for perfection, but striving for excellence; people who are passionate about what they do and realise that sometimes you need to stay up late and put in that extra 10% to make something go from being good to great.
3) Perseverance: Commitment to long-term goals
Having the commitment to follow through on long-term goals is a crucial element of Duckworth’s definition of grit. As Duckworth explains in her book:
‘… achievement is the product of talent and effort, the latter a function of the intensity, direction, and duration of one’s exertions towards a long-term goal.’
Author Malcolm Gladwell agrees with this sentiment. In his bestselling book, Outliers, Gladwell examines the conditions required for outstanding success. Looking at the stories of people like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and the Beatles, what emerges is a common theme that is described as the ‘10,000 hour rule’ (based on a study by Anders Ericsson). The basic premise is that in order to master something you need to spend 10,000 hours practising how to do it. However, it’s essential that the practice has purpose, otherwise it just becomes something else you’re spending a lot of time on. This is where long-term goals come in, as these help to provide context and a framework to sustain motivation, commitment, and passion.
While we’re striving to achieve our goals, there will, of course, be set-backs; little things that make us stumble – sometimes a little and sometimes in a really massive way.
In their book, Resilience, Why Things Bounce Back, Andrew Zolli and Ann Marie Healy define resilience as: “the ability of people… to maintain their core purpose and integrity among unforeseen shocks and surprises.” While resilience is often referred to as having the ability to ‘bounce back’, there’s a new wave of thinking that views resilience as the ability to ‘bounce beyond’. This looks at how truly resilient people don’t only survive adversity, but hold the belief that they can be positively transformed by it.
While this all sounds very similar to the definition of grit, there is a difference. Think of resilience as a key component of grit, where it is the force that makes you pick yourself up and keep moving forward despite obstacles. People who are resilient believe that, ‘everything will be alright in the end, and if it is not alright, it is not the end.’
So there you have it. The exciting thing about all of this research is that it really shows that success, whatever that means for you, is really about putting in the effort day in, day out. While of course opportunity and luck are involved as well, on the whole, being a grittier person is something that each of us can get better at.
Keen to know where you currently sit on the ‘grit scale’? Duckworth and her team have created a short quiz to get you started.
*Success is defined here as each individual’s own version of what success is; living the life that you want to live; achieving the goals you set for yourself.