The Secret to Success? True Grit
September 24, 2014
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Secret to Success? True GritPhoto Credit: Celestine Chua

What does it take to be successful? Innate talent? High IQ? Money? Good looks? Social IQ? Turns out, while all of those things can help contribute to success, there’s something else that plays an even bigger role. That thing is called grit. Angela Duckworth, a psychologist and professor at the University of Pennsylvania, has done extensive research in this area, identifying the factors necessary for success.  Despite one’s age, background, talent, opportunities in life or lack thereof, her team at UPenn has consistently found grit to be the most significant predictor of success.

What is grit? 

Dr. Duckworth defines grit as “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. Grit is living life like it’s a marathon, not a sprint.”

Grit can be thought of as a personality trait, something that people may naturally have. However, like any other personality or character trait, grit can be cultivated.

Fixed vs. Growth Mindset

So how can we build grit?  It’s all about one’s mindset – the beliefs we hold about ourselves, our abilities, personalities, and intelligence.  Stanford professor Carol Dweck has studied the concept of achievement for decades and proposes two types of mindset that have a critical impact on the development of grit:  a fixed mindset and growth mindset.

People with fixed mindsets think that their personal qualities (e.g., intelligence, abilities) are set and cannot be changed and therefore do not take the time to further develop those talents or traits. For example, a person with a fixed mindset might believe that they are a mediocre baseball player and no matter what, will never be able to advance to a higher level of play. In thinking that they will never get better, they might stop practicing as hard or even quit playing baseball altogether. As such, they might miss out on developing their full potential as well as the pure pleasure of playing the game.

On the other hand, people with a growth mindset think personal qualities can change through effort and dedication. If our fictional baseball player had a growth mindset, even though they might start off as a benchwarmer on the junior varsity team, they believe that with practice, they will improve. With this mindset, their behavior will change.  They might go to baseball camps or spend extra time in batting practice or pitching. Even if they have a bad game, they go out the next day and try to play better. In short, even in the face of failure, they don’t give up because they believe that things can change.

How one relates to the experience of “failure” is an important part of the growth mindset concept.  First, there’s the recognition that failure is an integral part to learning and improving. Second is the recognition that failure does not define you as a person—it does not mean that you’re stupid, incapable, or destined to never get it right. With the growth mindset, failure is seen as a powerful ally and tool, something you can use to identify weak spots and figure out ways to improve.

“I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

– Michael Jordan

So how does a growth mindset tie into building grit? Someone with a growth mindset will put in lots of time and energy into developing a skill or getting better at something. They will believe that all of their hard work will lead to something positive.  This mindset allows one to persist and stick with a long-term goal, even when faced with obstacles, all of which leads to some type of success, however that is defined.

As Will Durant wrote (in summarizing Aristotle’s thoughts in The Story of Philosophy), “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” There is some research that backs up the idea that hard work and perseverance – and more specifically, deliberate practice – does lead to mastery of a skill. Results from a study conducted by Dr. Ericsson indicated expert performance was the result of “intense practice extended for a minimum of 10 years” rather than ability or talent. This idea was popularized by Malcom Gladwell in his book Outliers, suggesting that 10,000 hours of deliberate practice was “the magic number of greatness.” Although these ideas have been controversial within the research community, scholars appear to agree that deliberate practice does play a role (to what extent, is the current debate) in mastering a skill.

One of my favorite examples of grit was the 2012 San Francisco Giants run to the World Series (sorry, I can’t help using my favorite team as an example!).  Similar to what other MLB teams faced, the grueling season was filled with injuries and surprise departures of key players.  Despite this, the Giants continued to focus on their future goal of winning it all, putting in the long hours to watch video and work on batting and throwing mechanics, among other strategies. Their hard work and determination culminated in their playoff run, which in itself had many obstacles. Yet, their grit continued to show.  They came back from a 2-0 deficit in a best-of-five series to beat the Cincinnati Reds and faced three elimination games against the St. Louis Cardinals before sweeping the Detroit Tigers in the World Series.  Despite their challenges and limitations at the time, they continued to find a way to win – showing that passion and perseverance that Dr. Duckworth notes is at the heart of the concept of grit. What sets the Giants apart from the other MLB teams was their refusal to give up, even when they had made mistakes and lost key games. Their mindset about the process and the series – that it wasn’t over until it was truly over and the confidence in their abilities to work harder to win the next game – was the difference maker.

Of course, there are other factors that play into success; grit and having a growth mindset are not the only things that lead to accomplishing goals. As mentioned earlier, deliberate practice has been found to be a factor in developing mastery of a skill. Some studies have found starting age, genes, and even working memory capacity to be influential in developing expertise (Gobet & Campitelli, 2007; Hambrick & Tucker-Drob, 2014; Meinz & Hambrick, 2010). However, as the research indicates, grit is a pretty noteworthy trait to consider cultivating.

Get started by seeing how gritty you are and what your mindset is like. If you are low in grit and trend towards a fixed mindset, there are a few things you can do to change this.

4 Ways to Build Grit

1)     First, see if you can identify those beliefs you have about yourself, that inner voice that screams all the negative thoughts you might hold about who you are, your talents, abilities, and even identity. As Kim Pratt wrote in an earlier post, these cognitive distortions can lead to emotional distress and negative behaviors. This post gives some tips and tools to work on identifying those maladaptive beliefs. Identifying and understanding those negative thoughts can help give you some insight into your automatic thought processes that may be barriers to success.

2)     Challenge your distortions. When you encounter setbacks or failures, rather than applying the usual negative beliefs you’re accustomed to, try to view them as a tool to help you get better and succeed the next time. For example, rather than thinking, “I didn’t get it right, I’ll never get it right,” you can say to yourself, “Maybe I couldn’t do it right now, but with some changes or support, maybe I can do it the next time.” Changing your mindset is not going to be easy, and it won’t happen overnight. The key is to – as the theme of this post reflects – not give up, keep practicing, and try again.

3)     Practice Deliberately. In Deliberate Practice- A Primer, by John Pelley, Ph.D, an expert in the learning process, deliberate practice (DP) is defined as “a focused effort designed for the purpose of improving performance.” He suggests DP is most effective when it has the following characteristics: it’s accompanied by a teacher’s guidance in the early stages; it has a lot of repetition, but with a focus; and continuous feedback is available and utilized.

4)     Make mistakes and keep working. A characteristic of grit is perseverance, even in the face of failure. When you’re able to think of failures differently – a tool to help you learn what to do the next time – it’ll be easier to try, try again.

Achieving success (however you define it) doesn’t always come easily. However, if you’re willing to put in the work – if you’re gritty in your approach – you can get closer to meeting your goals.

To learn more about grit, check out Angela Duckworth’s excellent TED talk:

Further reading:

Ericsson, K.A., Krampe, R.T., & Tesch-Romer, C. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological Review, 100, 363-406.

Hambrick, D.Z., Oswald, F.L., Altmann, E.M., Meinz, E.J., Gobet, F., & Campitelli, G.(2013). Deliberate practice: Is that all it takes to become an expert? Intelligence, 45, 34-45.


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