“Compared with what we ought to be, we are only half awake. Our fires are damped, our drafts are checked. We are making use of only a small part of our possible mental resources. . .men the world over possess amounts of resource, which only exceptional individuals push to their extremes of use.” – William James
If you’re in the field of psychology or just interested in it, you probably came across the term “Grit”. Grit, which is defined as passion and perseverance towards significant long-term goals, is the trait of greatest significance to leading researcher, psychologist and professor at University of Pennsylvania, Angela Duckworth.
Angela grew up being told that she was no genius, but years later was awarded the MacArthur Fellowship also known as the “genius grant”. She credits this monumental achievement not to an IQ that’s miles apart from her fellow psychologists, but to her passionate commitment and perseverance towards accomplishments in her field.
Through her journey, she discovered that what we eventually accomplish in life may depend more on our passion, resilience and commitment to our goals than on our innate talents.
The 2 Ultimate Questions: The What and How of our Abilities
In 1907, William James encouraged psychologists to focus on two problems which he believed could encompass the whole field of psychology. These two questions were:
- What are the types of human abilities?
- By what means do individuals unleash these abilities?
Since then, science has made remarkable progress in answering the first question. We now know a great deal about intelligence and mental ability, in fact we now know more about IQ than any other construct or factor that contributes to individual differences.
However what we have not fully grasped yet is why some of us accomplish more than others of equal intelligence.
“In plain words, you’ve got to make up your mind to study whatever you undertake, and concentrate your mind on it, and really work at it. This isn’t wisdom. Any damned fool in the world knows it’s true, whether it’s a question of raising horses or writing plays. You simply have to face the prospect of starting at the bottom and spending years learning how to do it.”― Eugene O’Neill
Have you ever seen someone demonstrate amazing ability in some field, maybe a dancer or basketball player, and thought to yourself, they’re gifted, they’re just equipped with an innate talent that only a few people possess?
If you’re like most people you said yes, I know I did. As a culture I think we’re in love with the idea of innate talent and “giftedness”. But what this mentality does is it assigns some people to a special box and leaves out the possibility of achievement for the less genetically fortunate ones.
So what is it that might explain extraordinary performance and success?
Angela suggests that there is one individual trait shared by leaders in every field, and that is grit.
“It entails diligently working towards challenges and being able to maintain effort and interest over long periods of time (years) despite setbacks and stagnation in progress.” (Duckworth, 2007)
The Nitty Gritty Science
Angela’s research looked at which traits besides IQ differentiate the students who then become leaders in their fields. Across 6 studies she found that grit significantly contributed to successful outcomes. Here are some of her top research findings:
- More-determined undergraduates earned higher grade averages than their peers.
- At West Point, a Military Academy in the USA that graduates more than 900 new officers every year, the grittier cadets were more likely to endure the rigorous summer training.
- Grit was a better predictor of completion of the military summer program than any other factor.
- Grittier Spelling Bee participants outranked their not-so-gritty competitors.
- People with grit had higher levels of education and made fewer career changes than less gritty individuals of the same age.
The Treadmill Test: A Word on Perseverance from Will and the Guys at Harvard
Grammy award winning Will Smith puts it this way: “I’ve never viewed myself as particularly talented. Where I excel is ridiculous, sickening work ethic.” When asked to explain his climb up to the top, he said:
“The only thing I see that is distinctively different about me is that: I’m not afraid to die on a treadmill. I will not be outworked, period. You might have more talent than me, you might be smarter, you might be sexier. But if we get on the treadmill together, there’s two things: You’re getting off first or I’m going to die. It’s really that simple.”
In 1940, before the era of the Fresh Prince, researchers at Harvard decided to study the characteristics of healthy young men to “help people live happier more successful lives.” They designed a study and asked 130 sophomores to run on a treadmill for up to 5 minutes.
But the treadmill was set so steep and so fast that the average man lasted about 4 minutes, others lasted only a minute and a half. The Treadmill Test was no walk in the park, it was physically and mentally challenging and it was particularly designed to assess stamina and strength of will.
Researchers were well aware that the performance on the test was not just a matter of fitness level but was highly correlated to the “extent to which a subject is willing to push himself or has a tendency to quit before the punishment becomes too severe.”
Decades after the study, psychologist George Vaillant went knocking on the doors of those research participants. Most of them were now in their 60’s and had been contacted by researchers every 2 years since college to complete questionnaires and interviews regarding their income, career advancement, sick days, social activities, satisfaction with work and marriage and use of psychological drugs. All the information was compiled into an estimate of the men’s overall psychological adjustment in adulthood.
And it so happens that The Treadmill Test, when they were 20 years old, was a surprisingly reliable predictor of their psychological adjustment in adulthood. Cool stuff right?
There’s a saying that the way we do one thing is the way we do most things, so if you step on the treadmill and give it your all, you’re likely to approach life with the same tenacity and determination and you’re likely to succeed because of it. So Will Smith was definitely on to something.
Now let’s hear it from Angela shall we?
So how do we develop grit?
The Grit Scale allows you to assess your own level of grit, but more important than placing yourself somewhere on a continuum is understanding how to become grittier. Most of us will benefit from this in some area of our lives and maybe you already know which area that is?
With that domain of your life in mind, let’s explore the practical steps that will help you work your grit muscles:
1) Take play seriously
Has anyone ever told you to find your passion? Like it’s something you’re going to stumble upon while shopping for hummus at Whole Foods… “Whoopsie daisy, there’s the passion I’ve been looking for!”
Instead of “finding” a passion or waiting for it to find you, which puts you in a passive and often helpless position, I think “developing” your passion is a lot healthier! It means there’s actually something we can do to develop it, instead of waiting for the passion lightning to hit us in the head someday.
To develop your passion try simply exploring and playing with different things without the added pressure to figure out which interests will stick and which won’t!
Longitudinal studies have shown that most people only begin to gravitate towards certain vocational interests and away from others around middle school. Plus interests are not found through contemplation or thought, but are developed through interactions with the outside world.
So first things first, don’t over think it, PLAY!
2) Develop a passion
“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
A big piece of the grit cake is perseverance, and let’s face it, nobody is going to work day in and day out on something they’re not the least bit interested in, right?
Research has shown that people have much more work satisfaction, and greater job performance when they do something that meets their personal interests. However the idea that someday you’re going to try something and immediately know that’s what you want to do for the rest of your life is misleading and doing all of us no good.
In multiple interviews, with high achievers and grit champions, Angela has found that for a lot of them the road to their passion wasn’t smooth and many of them spent years exploring different avenues.
Barry Schwartz is a psychology teacher at Swarthmore College and author of the book “The Paradox of Choice”. Barry thinks what holds people back from a serious career interest is their unrealistic expectations.
He makes an interesting analogy of finding a mate to explain this: “Meeting a potential match, not the one and only perfect match, but a promising one – is only the very beginning.”
Angela shows through her research that “passion for your work is a little bit of discovery, followed by a lot of development, and then a lifetime of deepening.”
If you’re in the discovery stage, these questions might be helpful:
- What do I like to think about?
- Where does my attention normally wander to?
- What do I really care about?
- What matters most to me?
- How do I enjoy spending my time?
But remember it takes developing and deepening your interest before it will actually turn into your passion.
3) Practice deliberately
I think we intuitively know that practice doesn’t equal mastery. Sure it helps, but let’s face it, you could be playing tennis for 10 years without mastering your perfect service.
So what is it that sets apart those who achieve extraordinary levels of mastery in their fields?
They don’t just practice, they do it in a particular way. They practice deliberately and here is how you can do it too:
- Set a stretch goal (a goal that exceeds your current level of skill)
- Practice with full concentration and effort (with Will Smith kinda effort)
- Look for immediate and informative feedback
- Repeat with reflection and refinement
4) Focus on purpose
At the heart of purpose is the idea that what you do matters, not just to yourself but to others- purpose has a prosocial focus.
In any activity there are bound to be setbacks, moments of boredom, doubt, anxiety, disappointment and struggle that we are most likely to endure if those efforts give us meaning and contribute to something larger than ourselves.
In her research, Angela found a correlation between grit and purpose. Grittier individuals were more motivated to seek meaning in life, and the contribution of their efforts to the lives of others revealed a powerful source of motivation to keep persevering.
So one way of focusing on your purpose is to seek out the prosocial benefits of whatever it is that you do. This exercise is also related with greater satisfaction at work and in life.
So is grit the new it when it comes to explaining extraordinary performance and achievement?
I think it’s definitely a part of the equation but we need to keep in mind that we are complex beings in which multiple factors and traits constantly interact, so trying to explain success and performance considering only a single trait might not be in our best interest.
With that said, Angela’s work is extremely valuable and especially significant in overcoming our infatuation with innate talent and to help us understand that behind every extraordinary person are countless hours of dedicated practice and commitment and a mindset that we too can develop.
Can you identify an area or time in your life where you demonstrated this kind of passion and perseverance? And what could you achieve if you started applying these grit steps in your life right now? I would love you hear from you so add your voice in the comments box below.
Want more information on Grit?
Watch Angela’s introductory overview of Grit or check out her book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.
Ducksworth, A. (2016): The power of passion and perseverance. Scribner
Ducksworth, A. L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M. D., Kelly, D. R. (2007). Grit: Perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(6), 1087-1101.