Did you know that the US has one of the highest dropout rates for two and four year college courses in the world? Why is it that students, similarly situated in terms of financial resources and academic ability, dropout at very different rates? Well, it turns out that how “gritty” an individual is is a fairly accurate indicator of who will drop out and who will stick it out.
Your college education may be far behind you so why should this grit stuff be of interest to you? When psychologist and researcher Angela Duckworth decided to dive deep into the study of grit it was because of a fascination with the question of why so many people fail to realize their potential. Why are some people successful in reaching their goals and realizing high achievement while others, with perhaps equal potential and opportunity, fail to do so? If you’re committed to maximizing your chances of success in life, an appreciation of the power and significance of grit, and how to cultivate it, is something well worth your time!
“The human individual lives usually far within his limits. He possesses powers of various sorts which he habitually fails to use. He energizes below his maximum and he behaves below his optimum.”
– William James
Often when we see extraordinary achievement in an area we tend to label it the product of talent as though talent were some invisible substance beneath the surface reality of performance which distinguishes the best from the “also rans”. When we can’t explain an achievement easily we tend to throw up our hands and declare it a “gift” and say such things as “you just can’t teach that!”
How convenient is that?!
The thing is greatness is doable. High level performance in every single area is the culmination of the mastery of mundane, individual components.
“With everything perfect we do not ask how it came to be, instead we rejoice in the present fact as though it came out of the ground by magic.”
We willingly seduce ourselves into inaction by mythologizing talent and thereby letting ourselves off the hook. If we see this notion of magical “born with it” talent or genius as the only true path to stellar achievement, then we shield ourselves from having to compete. We don’t need to compare ourselves to these otherworldly creatures who must clearly have been anointed by fate or the gods, and find ourselves lacking. How very convenient indeed! Let’s not do that, shall we? Instead let’s dig in and learn how to leverage this grit stuff for our own advantage and see just how far we can go in life. Are you in? You’re fabulous, so of course you are!
How do we progress from talent to achievement? Angela Duckworth looked at this in one of her initial studies and concluded, succinctly, the following:
Talent X Effort = Skill
Skill X Time = Achievement
So talent is basically how quickly your skills improve once you invest effort. Those of us who might not identify as a “natural” would require more time to acquire skills – but we can still gain the skills. Without effort your talent is nothing more than your unmet potential.
So where does grit come in?
Grit comprises two components; passion and perseverance.
Passion is your compass in life. Legendary Seattle Seahawks coach, Pete Carroll, would ask you;
“What is your Life’s Philosophy?”
I know, I know! We’re all coming out in a cold sweat, in panic-mode, just at the thought of being confronted with such a question. It’s up there with “What’s the meaning of life?”. Actually it’s pretty much the same question. Before you start quoting me The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy and blurt out “42!” let’s dig deeper.
Consider your goals in a hierarchy, as in the diagram below. Here all of the goals are interrelated. The short-term goals sit at the base and these are your projects, your “to-dos”. They are a means to an end. The higher up in the hierarchy, the more the goal is an end in and of itself, until you reach the highest level goal at the very pinnacle of the hierarchy. This goal is often referred to by psychologists as your “ultimate concern”. This is the driver for all of the goals below. It is more abstract.
For example coach Pete Carroll’s ultimate concern is;
“Do things better than they have ever been done before”.
This is his compass, his life philosophy, his passion.
I haven’t one hundred percent crystallized what my life philosophy is, but this is my working draft;
“To inspire others to take up more space in the world, in every arena, and to teach them the tools they’ll need to do just that – including grit, growth mindset, and killer confidence.”
Why not take a shot at drafting your own life philosophy? It doesn’t have to be perfect. But I think just making the effort to begin is hugely helpful. Having a starting point which you can then refine and edit and try out will propel you forward. It also feels pretty darn good to produce something succinct that really resonates with you. Go on! Give yourself this gift of using your time in a highly focused way in service of your highest purpose.
The more unified, aligned and coordinated our goal hierarchies the better. Duckworth recommends having a single top level goal for your professional life. She obviously acknowledges that we will have hierarchies for our personal lives too and that there will be a degree of tension between the two. We’re all familiar with trying to balance our home and professional lives after all!
Grit in essence is about holding steady to your ultimate concern, this top level goal, for a very long time.
Duckworth calls these very gritty individuals “Grit Paragons”. Let’s get to know one of them!
Bob Mankoff is a celebrated cartoonist, editor and author. He was the cartoon editor for The New Yorker magazine from 1997 to 2017. Rejection in the cartooning business is kinda high. How does a 96% rejection rate sound to you? How well do you think you could persist in pursuing your passion in the face of that kind of rejection? Yep! That requires G.R.I.T!
Do you remember the TV series “FAME” from the 80s? Mankoff went to that high school in New York, The High School of Music and Art. Surrounded by kids who oozed talent he was totally intimidated and didn’t pick up a pencil or paintbrush for three years. Next he went to Syracuse University where he studied philosophy and psychology and it was there, in his final year, that he picked up a book by cartoonist Syd Hoff, “Learning To Cartoon” – which had a whole chapter on how to survive rejection!
He used what he learnt from Hoff to create 24 cartoons and off he went to try and sell them…100% rejection. He was told to come back the next week with more. Over the coming years he would draw cartoons by night and write stand-up routines in the day. Over time his interest converged solidly to cartooning – it became his top level goal. His ultimate concern came sharper into view and he wanted not just to be a cartoonist; he wanted to be the best cartoonist in the world. To be the best meant The New Yorker! After 2 years he had enough rejection slips from the New Yorker to paper the walls of his apartment. Yet still, he kept going.
Years of effort hadn’t gotten him published in the New Yorker so what now? Well, not all effort is created equal. Mankoff decided to do something different. He went to the New York Public Library and studied every cartoon ever published in the New Yorker since 1925 and looked for patterns. He determined that the cartoons all had two things in common; they made the reader think and they had a distinctive style. Mankoff used what he learnt and adopted a drawing style he’d developed in his youth called “stippling” – a dot style.
After two thousand New Yorker rejections between 1974 and 1977 Mankoff sent in another batch of cartoons to the New Yorker, this time in his stippling style. His first cartoon was accepted. The next year 13 cartoons were accepted, then 25, then 27 and in 1981 he became a contract cartoonist for the New Yorker. That’s grit – doggedly sticking with a top level goal for a very, very long period of time.
If you find the prospect of distilling your life into a life philosophy and a neatly aligned goal hierarchy overwhelming, there’s help at hand. How about some advice on how to prioritize from one of the most successful people in the world, Warren Buffet? Here’s Mr Buffet’s 3 step approach for getting clear on your goals.
Warren Buffet’s Simple 3 Step Approach To Goal Planning
- Write down a list of 25 Career Goals
- Pause, Reflect, Consider – Now circle your top 5
- Take a hard look at the 20 you didn’t choose – Avoid these at all costs!
A lot of time is freed up when we commit to this type of exercise because the kernel of efficiency is knowing when to say yes and when to say no.
When constructing your goal hierarchy ask yourself this question, repeatedly, to ensure that you stay on track;
To what extent do these goals serve a common purpose – Are they part of the same goal hierarchy, serving the same ultimate concern?
Grit is about the dogged perseverance towards a top level goal. Low level goals may change but not your ultimate concern. Low level goals are simply the means to the end and so you may need to change them if you hit an obstacle. The approach you take can alter but not the ultimate concern. The ultimate concern is the enduring compass; It is written in ink whereas the lower level goals are written in pencil.
Let’s take a look at the second component of grit; perseverance.
In 1924 Stanford psychologist Carol Cox undertook a study of 301 historical high achievers from all areas of the arts and science. All had died in the four centuries prior and all had left behind records of high achievement worthy of inclusion in six popular encyclopedias. She examined their biographical data and estimated their IQs based on all data available. She found that the difference in IQ level between the most and least eminent was extremely trivial (the average IQ of the top 10 being 146 and the bottom 10 being 143).
Next she asked herself, if it wasn’t IQ that separated these high achievers what was it? She looked at a total of 67 personality traits of a subset of 100 of the geniuses and discovered that there was a cluster of 4 traits that set the highest achievers apart. She grouped these traits under the label “Persistence of Motive”.
In her report summary she said;
“High, but not the highest intelligence, combined with the greatest degree of persistence, will achieve greater eminence than the highest degree of intelligence with somewhat less persistence.”
Grit tends to grow as we mature into learning our life philosophy. Think about Mankoff when he was interested in psychology, and comedy, and cartooning and only over time, as he matured, did his top level goal become crystal clear. Longitudinal studies show that most of us become more conscientious, confident, caring and calm with life experience. Duckworth identifies four psychological assets that Grit Paragons have and which develop, typically in order, as they mature.
- Capacity To Practice
Let’s take a look at each of them in order.
“Whatever it is that you want to do you’ll find in life that if you’re not passionate about what it is you’re working on, you won’t be able to stick with it.”
– Jeff Bezos
Study after study shows that those who do work that is aligned with their interests are enormously more satisfied and also perform better in that work than those for whom this is not true. A 2014 Gallup poll revealed that two-thirds of US adults did not feel engaged in their work and worldwide the figure was only 13% for those who did feel engaged.
Are you like me in that you feel that this “Find your passion! Find your purpose! Live your dreams!” Pinterest inspirational quote stuff is nauseating and off-putting? It just feels onerous to me. It just feels like a judgment on my life choices and that I’ve come up wanting. My life isn’t sparkly and glossy enough and why on earth am I not doing more to upgrade it. The message we need to hear instead is;
Foster your passion!
I think there’s this misconception that it will be some dramatic life-changing moment when our purpose is somehow revealed to us. If we set this as the standard we’re likely to shoulder shrug the whole endeavor and get back to the important work of cruising through our e-mail and jumping on social media when our boss isn’t looking! Duckworth’s research however revealed that the reality is much different. The grittiest people she interviewed often pursued a variety of interests over a significant period before their primary interest came into focus and became the top level goal.
Instead of falling for the mythology that falling in love with a career should be sudden and swift we need to open up to the patient fostering of passion through diverse interests. It’s important to understand that interests are triggered through experience rather than revealed through introspection. It’s an active exercise! An interest is triggered and then continuously re-triggered through further and repeated exposure. A supportive and resource rich environment is also essential if that interest is going to thrive.
If you’re a parent considering how to guide your children in this area, the research shows that in the early years it’s the parents who let their kids make more decisions about their interests and what they like to do who are more successful in guiding children to uncover the interests which later become passions. Overbearing parents and teachers who rush a beginner do more harm than good and bludgeon the child’s interest thus killing the all important intrinsic motivation.
How do you discover an interest which may become a passion? Here are some questions Angela Duckworth suggests you ask yourself. I’d also recommend reading the book, Finding Your Element.
- What do I like to think about?
- Where does my mind wander?
- What do I really care about?
- How do I enjoy spending my time?
- What matters most to me?
As soon as you sense even an inkling of an interest you must trigger it. You must go out into the world and experiment! Trigger and re-trigger. Find people who share your interest. Seek out a mentor.
You may have heard about the work of cognitive scientist Anders Ericsson. He studies how skills are developed and it is his work that is the source for the standard of 10 thousand hours of practice over 10 years is what is needed to become an expert. But the real insight from Ericsson’s work is not the 10 thousand hours, but rather the type of practice which leads to expertise and that’s about a lot more than just time spent on task.
What Ericsson’s research showed was that experts practice differently. Experts do “deliberate practice”. There are three elements to deliberate practice:
Set A Stretch Goal
Experts set a stretch goal zeroing in on one narrow aspect of their overall performance. They specifically work on their weaknesses with full concentration and effort, seeking out challenges that they haven’t already met. They are in essence in search of their “achilles heel” so they can work on it and, in time, eliminate it.
Immediate Detailed Feedback
Experts hungrily seek out feedback in the moment. Much of that feedback will be negative and that doesn’t matter to them. They are practicing to improve not just to log hours. They want to know immediately what they did wrong so that they can correct it.
Here’s where it feels like what you and I might know as practice; they repeat and repeat and repeat and do over until what was initially a struggle becomes fluid. Where before they were consciously incompetent they work until they are unconsciously competent. They work until they don’t need to think about it anymore it just comes naturally. It is a process of repetition, reflection, and refinement.
Once they’ve mastered these three steps for one stretch goal they take on another, and another, and another until every component of their performance has been elevated. One after one these subtle adjustments add up to dazzling mastery and that’s the result of constant deliberate practice!
Deliberate practice has been studied in chess players, musicians and athletes and what Ericsson’s studies have shown is that deliberate practice is experienced in all cases as supremely effortful. An individual engaged in deliberate practice is working at the far edge of their skill and, even for world-class performers, it is exhausting. Because of this it typically is only undertaken in one hour blocks with no more than three to five sessions of deliberate practice in a day.
Studies of high achievers have also revealed that they are, unsurprisingly, creatures of habit. They have defined rituals.
“There is no more miserable human being than the one for whom the beginning of every bit of work must be decided anew each day.”
– William James
The message is clear; make it a habit!
Another important element when you engage in deliberate practice is to ditch the judgement. With deliberate practice you are working at the very edge of your ability and you will be greatly tested. You’ll need to practice self-compassion and ditch the judgement. Failure will be an ever present companion and you must befriend it as your teacher rather than crumble before it as some harsh judge. I like this acronym for fail;
First Attempt In Learning
No matter what age or stage in life you are at it’s never too early or late to cultivate your purpose. It’s about your “Why” and the idea that what we do matters to others. Stanford developmental psychologist Bill Damon has made studying purpose his life’s work and he believes that developing a “beyond the self orientation” can and should be cultivated.
Here are a number of ways to begin the work of contemplating what your purpose might be;
Reflect on how the work you’re already doing could make a positive contribution to society
Think about how, in small but meaningful ways, you could change your current work to enhance its connection to your core values. (If you haven’t identified your core values you might find this list from Brene Brown’s website useful. Brene advises choosing no more than 5 values – check!). Some psychologists refer to this as “job-crafting” and it’s an ongoing area of study and the subject of projects at Google to improve employee’s job satisfaction.
Find inspiration in a purposeful role model. Who do you know who is engaged in clearly purposeful work? Research them, observe them, or reach out to them if appropriate.
Imagine yourself in fifteen years time. What do you think will be most important to you then?
Can you think of someone whose life inspires you? If so, why does it inspire you.
Many people’s route to a purposeful life is unpredictable and it may well take quite some time and effort to uncover what, for you, will make life purposeful. These questions above will help you begin that work.
Lastly we come to hope. Duckworth introduces a Japanese saying when she begins her discussion on the relevance of hope and says that if she were ever to get a tattoo, this is what it would say;
Fall Down 7 Times
I’m not in the market for a tattoo but I think, if I were, this would definitely make the short list! This “hope” is about effort not luck. It’s the distinction between – “I feel tomorrow may be better” and “I resolve to make tomorrow better”. Grit is active. It’s the expectation that it is our own efforts that can make our lives and our futures better. Hope involves curating your self-talk so that it serves you.
Martin Seligman is often described as the Father of Positive Psychology. His early experiments in the 60s led him to identify what he described as “learned helplessness”; a state where an individual projects a recent failure into the future as a permanent inescapable condition. Seligman became keenly interested in discovering the antidote to this learned helplessness which led him to retrain as a clinical psychologist under Aaron Beck a psychiatrist specializing in depression research.
Seligman noted that optimists are just as likely as pessimists to encounter challenges in life but they diverged in their response to those challenges. Optimists habitually search for a temporary and specific cause for their suffering whereas a pessimist assumes that permanent and pervasive causes are to blame. His work became focused on how to teach people to become optimists so that they could overcome adversity rather than sink beneath its weight. You can check out some of Seligman’s books here including his 1991 classic Learned Optimism.
Duckworth also worked with fellow psychologist and author Carol Dweck to examine the intersection of a growth mindset and grit. They found, not surprisingly, that gritty students tended to have a growth mindset rather than a fixed mindset. Dweck and her collaborators have consistently found that children are more likely to develop a fixed mindset if their parents respond to their mistakes as if they are harmful and problematic. More growth mindset friendly responses to your child would include;
That didn’t work, so let’s talk about how you approached it and what might work better.
This is hard so don’t feel bad if you don’t get it yet.
Great job! What’s one thing that could have been even better?
A cautionary word to overprotective parents. I have come across many people who parent for success in that they protect their kids from failure to an incredible degree. Psychologists would say you are raising an invisibly vulnerable high achiever or a “Fragile Perfect”. These are the kids who cruise through life frictionless and who have no experience of falling and getting back up again. They know how to succeed but not how to fail – and failure is inevitable!
If there is too much focus on and praise of “talent” you risk creating a fixed mindset. This typically leads to very pessimistic explanations of adversity and that can lead to giving up on challenges or avoiding them altogether to protect the ego; the worshiped status of “talented” or “gifted”.
In contrast a gritty growth mindset leads to optimistic explanations of adversity which in turn leads to perseverance and seeking out new challenges which automatically lead to more learning and ultimately strength.
If you want to teach yourself hope there are three phases;
Adopt a growth mindset
which leads to
which leads to
Perseverance over adversary
“Personally I have learnt that if you create a vision for yourself and stick with it, you can make amazing things happen in your life. My experience is that once you have done the work to create the clear vision it is the discipline and effort to maintain that vision that can make it all come true. The two go hand in hand. The moment you’ve created that vision you’re on your way. But it’s the diligence with which you stick to that vision that allows you to get there.”
- Pete Carroll, Seattle Seahawks Coach
Each of us can grow our grit. We can grow it from the inside out by cultivating our interests, developing a daily habit of taking on the challenge of practice that exceeds our skill, connecting our work to a purpose beyond ourselves, and learning to hope in the face of adversity. We can also grow it from the outside by surrounding ourselves with fellow gritty folk and finding a gritty mentor!
And if all you want to be in life is happy you shouldn’t be surprised to find out that Angela Duckworth’s research also showed that the grittier a person is the more likely they are to enjoy a healthy emotional life!
Wishing you heaps of success on your grit journey!