Do You Have Enough Grit to Succeed?

Life can be a tough slog sometimes.  You wake up, work out, fight traffic, put in your 10 hours, eat, play with the kids, and if you’re lucky, get an hour or two to spend with your spouse or a good book.  Whoa, sounds brutal.  That’s how I feel some days, as I’m sure all of us do.

Most of the time though, I have a different outlook.  You wake up and get to spend another day on this amazing blue orb, push your body to the max and see how much better you can do, ride to work on a controlled explosion listening to podcasts, practice the profession that you love and that provides a healthy income for you and your family, sit down with said family and eat a wholesome home-cooked meal, spend time laughing and horsing around with your kids, and spend an hour or two with your soulmate or an amazing collection of literature.

That second scenario obviously sounds better, but what do you do on the days that the first seems more accurate?  That’s when you discover how much grit you have.

Grit is the Key

Grit has become a popular buzzword in the last few years due to a TED talk and follow up research by Angela Duckworth in 2013.  If you have yet to see the TED talk, I suggest you watch it (it’s only six minutes long).  Duckworth focused on grit in an educational setting, as has much of the follow-up research.  However, grit is relevant in all aspects of our lives, and having it will lead to a much more successful life in any way it is defined.

Duckworth defines grit as the passion and perseverance for very long term goals.  Others define it as having firmness of character and an indomitable spirit.  I personally prefer the second definition, as it more easily relates to all aspects of life and implies more focus on habits and character rather than goals.  Regardless of which definition you use, grit is simply the act of showing up and doing what needs to be done.  It’s “stick-to-it-iveness” or a get up and go spirit, but a get up and go spirit that lasts for the long term.  In its most basic form, grit is the ability to continue to slog it out with all you’ve got, day after day, working towards a potentially unknown outcome.

Through research, and through common sense, grit appears to matter more than any other measure in determining success (again, however it is defined).  Grit matters more than IQ and more than raw talent.  The concept of talent being overrated seems to be true.  I think it is great that we actually have some evidence behind this now.  Not everyone is born with natural skill, but everyone can learn to be grittier.

If, as Duckworth suggests, skill is talent multiplied by effort and achievement is skill multiplied by effort, then effort is the most important determinant of achievement.  Effort is something that anyone can put forth, and more importantly, anyone can choose to increase.  The downside is that we begin to lose excuses for why we are failing or not living up to the standards we set for ourselves.  Failing no longer falls on some external factor that we cannot control.  “I’m too short”, “I went to the wrong school”, or “I’m just not good at math.”  None of these prevent the amount of effort you put into something worth doing.  We have to hold ourselves accountable and if we fail, we only have ourselves to blame.

Traits of a Gritty Person

But what does grit actually mean?  How do I know if I have enough of it?  What are some actionable steps that can be taken to build more grit?  Is it as simple as just blindly sticking to your goals?  Is it just following through on your commitments time after time?

There are a number of characteristics of grit that help define the concept itself.  Angela Duckworth came up with five traits, which I’ll use and expand on with my own definitions:

  1. Courage: Courage in the context of grit is getting past the initial fear of failure and doing what you haven’t done before.  Think about this for a moment in a broad context.  How many people do you know that are stuck in dead end jobs or generally dissatisfied with their lives but refuse to do anything about it because they’re afraid that what they change either won’t work or will be worse than what they have now?  Probably quite a few and maybe even you.

This one hits pretty close to home for me.  I spent 12 years working at an investment management firm, and most of those years were really quite good.  However, in the last three or four years, it became a tougher and tougher environment to work in.  We were purchased by a much larger company (I do better in a smaller setting), the focus shifted from client service to generating more revenue, and I was not as good about letting the little stuff bounce off me (frankly, I was becoming a crank).  However, for a long time, I did not put much effort into improving my situation or changing jobs.

Only after a particular incident did I being to look in earnest.    And fail, at least initially, I did.  I had one job fall through because the board overrode my would-be boss, and had another job that I had been working towards for months go to another individual.  I had fits and starts and dead ends and all the rest.  These failed attempts were tough to take, but eventually I was able to put myself out there and found a new and much more satisfying work environment.

  1. Conscientiousness towards Achievement: Conscientiousness is acting in a vigilant manner with a desire to do well.  It is the trait that determines whether or not you set long-term goals and whether or not you achieve them.  It implies that you take seriously your obligations and work tirelessly to achieve your goals.

The attributes of being conscientious align well with grit.  Conscientious people are organized, practice self-discipline, and can’t seem to leave things undone.  The best way to determine whether or not you are conscientious is to ask: are you the parent of your peer group?  Not are you a parent in your peer group, but are you the parent of your peer group?  Are you the one organizing the activities and keeping people on task?  Are you the one that ensures all of the t’s are crossed and all of the i’s dotted?  Is so, you’re probably a conscientious person.

  1. Endurance: Building an above average life takes time and effort. Lots of time and effort.  Most people have heard of the 10,000 hour rule; the idea that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert in anything.  While I don’t know whether 10,000 hours is the correct amount of time and while it appears that certain types of practice is better than others (you must practice deliberately), I agree with the concept.

I like to use the analogy of a brick wall to illustrate this.  You keep working and hammering away at a brick wall and it feels like you’re going nowhere, until one day you hit it just right and it comes crumbling down.  All of a sudden, you’re on the other side.  This is how success often shows up.  You keep working and working and nothing happens for a long while, until finally, it does.  Others around you may (and often do) suggest that it was just luck, but I believe that we set ourselves up for our own luck.  Jeff Bezos was not “lucky” when Amazon took off; he worked his butt off.  Elon Musk was not “lucky” when the Model S was built or the Falcon Rocket lifted off; he worked his butt off.  Sure, both had lucky breaks along the way, but they also had their share of unlucky breaks and failures.  Keeping going after all of those unlucky breaks and failures is what endurance is all about.

  1. Resilience: Speaking of unlucky breaks, they happen to all of us. It’s how we react to them that determines how we fare in the long run.  There will always be external shocks that we have no control over.  The Global Financial Crisis which causes a job loss, changes to government policy that increases taxes, a job transfer on the other side of the country, a betrayal by a close friend; these are all shocks that we have no control over.  What we can control is our reaction to them and determine whether we get up and keep moving forward or lay down on the mat.

Resilience is a combination of optimism and the belief that we influence our lives and the outcomes around us.  It is also rooted in reality, not some pie-in-the-sky alternative.  Change is a constant, and our ability to adapt to that change will determine our level of success.

  1. Exhibit Excellence: Forbes contributor Margaret Perlis wrote “Excellence is an attitude, not an endgame.” Well said!  Excellence is putting forth your best effort at all times, accepting the inevitable failures along the way, and continuing to build the foundation for future achievement.  Excellence is an attitude, and it’s a choice that you can make day in and day out.  Will I practice excellence today?  Will I give it my all?  Will I fulfill my commitments, to others and to myself?  Will I strive to make those around me better?  Answer yes as often as you can and you will be practicing excellence.

Building Grit

Grit is as important in a family setting as it is in a professional one.  Gritty people inspire others, and I want to be an inspiration to my family.  Knowing the characteristics of grit is great, but they can also be vague.  How does one actually show resilience or courage on a daily basis?  Importantly, as a parent, how do I ensure that my kids have these traits?  What are the traits that I need to exhibit and the tasks that I need to complete to demonstrate grittiness?

  1. Get Started: Getting started is often the hardest part of doing anything. I am not a natural athlete, nor am I a natural writer.  Getting up early to run is the last thing I want to do most mornings.  And staring at a blank Word document wondering what the heck I am going to write that is worth reading is intimidating.  But a funny thing happens once you start: it gets easier.  After that first 60 seconds of running, I already feel better and have no problem continuing.  And once I start typing on the keyboard, most of these articles flow naturally.  So do what you must to get started.  Have your spouse yell at you.  Have them bribe you or threaten you.  Heck, have them use a cattle prod if you need to, just get started!
  2. Work on What’s Interesting: I am not a believer in the concept of finding your passion and the money will follow. For most of us, it doesn’t work that way.  However, once you learn a few of the basics, most things can actually be pretty interesting.  The key is to find topics that you can continue to expand upon.  If you are interested in finance, you can continue to work in math and economics.  If its art that interests you, you can go beyond the paintings and find out how the art business works (as an aside, art finance, to marry the two examples, is something I’ve looked at in my professional career and is pretty fascinating).

There are jobs out there that we each dislike, and those should be avoided.  I believe though, that most of the time we are just intimidated by what we don’t know rather than actually disliking something. So avoid the things you hate, but don’t be afraid to work on something new and interesting.

  1. Practice, the Right Way: Gritty people work through the daily slog and get better with time and practice. Here’s where the 10,000 hour rule comes in handy.  One of the corollaries to come off of that rule is the need for deliberate practice.  Just picking up a trombone and blowing away will not make you a musician.  Instead, develop a plan, and be honest about where your strengths and weaknesses are.  Track your progress and make sure that you are continuing to move forward.  Don’t just waste time haphazardly practicing.  Be disciplined.
  2. Be Consistent but Flexible: Hard work and consistency are the key to building grit, but working smarter will make progress come quicker. This is where “consistent but flexible” comes in.  Staying fit is a great example.  Maybe you’re not a natural runner and just can’t make it work.  Have you tried cycling or swimming?  Maybe you can’t make it as a gallery curator, but have you tried working as a dealer or an editor for an art publication?  Be consistent, but do not be afraid to try different tangents if the current path is not working.
  3. Get Small Wins: Starting something new is really challenging, be it a new career or a new plan for better interactions with your family. Momentum is both real and important.  Setting a series of small wins early on will help you get past the initial humps.  Perhaps you’ve been a bit of an absent parent or spouse in the past, and now your family does not react to you in the way you’d like.  Don’t expect seismic shifts immediately.  Offer to make dinner and clear the dishes and see your spouse’s (hopefully) positive response.  That’s a small win.  Offer to read to your kids before bed time.  See their face light up (that’s a much bigger win).  Building positive momentum will make it much easier to continue your progress.
  4. Use Social Support: I suspect that we keep many of our goals to ourselves because we’re afraid of failing and having others witness it. It’s much easier to make excuses to yourself when you fail than it is to make excuses to others.  Practice gritty trait number one: have courage.  Using social support, from a spouse or friend, makes it far more likely that you’ll achieve a goal or change a habit.  So tell them what you are trying to do.  Beyond the moral support another person can provide, the fear of disappointing them is itself a great motivator.  It’s time to throw your fear of failure out the window.
  5. Focus on Habits, not Goals: Setting a goal often works against your desire to change yourself or your situation for the better. Goals have several factors working against them: forces outside of our control can be impactful, most of us set our goals too low, and there are set endpoints and then what do we do?  Goals often don’t “stick”.  Habits, on the other hand, are the ugly stepsister to goals.  Habits are not as motivating as goals, so we tend to focus on goals (having a defined end point makes it more real).  However, habits are much more important.  Why?  Habits are for life and can allow us to overshoot our goals.  Positive habits compound on one another (for example, working out daily instills discipline, which flows into our work life and our family life).   Focus on habits, and you’ll blow right past your initial set of goals.
  6. Expect that Tomorrow will be better than Today: Optimism is not something I am naturally inclined to feel. In order to build grit, you need to feel like tomorrow is going to be better than today.  Furthermore, you need to believe that you have the ability to make tomorrow better than today.  Otherwise, what’s the point?  Optimism is just like any other habit (yes, optimism is a habit).  It needs to be practiced the right way and the most important part is just to get started.  Optimistic people believe a negative event is temporary and that they have the ability to deal with it successfully.  Isn’t this the essence of grit?  Obstacles happen all the time and are quite normal.  Grit is the action of perseverance.  Optimism is what allows us to continue to persevere.

What about the Kids?

Building grit is one of the most valuable skills that you can teach your kids.  We all want to protect our kids from bad things happening, but this is the opposite of building grit.  Challenge them continually and don’t be afraid to let them fail.  Nudge them to continue to persevere when things get tough.  Be their social support and biggest cheerleader.  Allow them to try new things, and be careful not to stay in old defaults.  Focus on habits, not results.  And finally, practice grit yourself and be a good role model.

Keep building my friends.


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