You may be smart, talented, and curious, and yet fail to achieve what some of your less illustrious peers have… if you aren’t gritty.

You may have high IQ, and yet finish your school/ college with a low GPA… if you aren’t gritty.

Fins call it sisu; Dutch, gruis. It goes by different names across the world, but, as research is unravelling factors behind success, it is being considered as the single biggest predictor of high achievement (tough pursuits, the ones that bring big successes).

What is grit?

In 2002, Elon Musk started SpaceX, a company that would launch satellites, ferry stuff to space stations, and someday make leisure trip to Mars possible.

The first rocket launched on 24 March 2006 failed.

The second, launched on 21 March 2007, too failed.

And the third, launched on 3 August 2008, also met the same fate.

Each launch was massively expensive, and with each failure, SpaceX was accelerating toward becoming an also-ran.

But the next launch succeeded. Result: a company that’s revolutionizing space-launch industry.

Sir James Dyson went through 5,126 failed versions of Dual Cyclone vacuum cleaner, before he made the one that worked. Result: a multi-billion dollar enterprise.

That’s what grit is: perseverance for long-term goals, despite failures, frustrations, and disappointments.

Woody Allen famously said:

Eighty percent of success is showing up.

Its grit that makes you show up again and again. It keeps you going despite slow progress. It takes you the distance.

It’s what Kayla showed in pursuit of her goal to became a distance runner despite Multiple Sclerosis, a chronic, incurable disease that attacks central nervous system and can lead to numbness in limbs, which made running extremely challenging for her.

Watch how Kayla did it (duration: 01:58 minutes).

Angela Lee Duckworth’s work on grit

After quitting her management consulting career at McKinsey, Angela Lee Duckworth taught math and science in public schools in San Francisco, Philadelphia, and New York. During her work as a teacher, she noticed that IQ was not the only factor that explained the difference between the best- and the worst-performing students.

This intrigued her, and in years to follow it became the subject of her research as Ph.D. student, and later on as assistant professor, in the psychology department at University of Pennsylvania.

Her research with

  • cadets at West Point Military Academy, where she tried to predict which cadets would stay and which would drop out (as a result of gruelling training) in the first summer
  • children participating in National Spelling Bee competition, where she tried to predict which children would go the farthest in the competition
  • rookie teachers working in tough neighbourhoods, where she tried to predict which teachers will stay by the end of the school year and who will be more effective
  • undergraduates at an elite university, where she tried to isolate factor most strongly correlated to high GPAs

found that, despite such varied settings, grit was the most significant key to success in all the cases.

Not IQ. Not talent. Not smartness. Not SAT score. And… not self-discipline.

Grit.

And there are many more examples to add to above four where her research identifies grit as a strong predictor of success in pursuing high achievement. In her research at Chicago public schools, for example, she found that grittier kids were significantly more likely to graduate (the kids were matched on parameters such as family income and standardized achievement test scores).

To quote Duckworth:

Our hypothesis that grit is essential to high achievement evolved during interviews with professionals in investment banking, painting, journalism, academia, medicine, and law. Asked what quality distinguishes star performers in their respective fields, these individuals cited grit or a close synonym as often as talent. In fact, many were awed by the achievements of peers who did not at first seem as gifted as others but whose sustained commitment to their ambitions was exceptional. Likewise, many noted with surprise that prodigiously gifted peers did not end up in the upper echelons of their field.

Watch Angela Duckworth speak on grit in this popular TED talk (duration: 6:12 minutes).

What is not grit?

Does pulling off two straight all-nighters to meet a deadline qualifies as being gritty? Can you have too much grit? Are sustained effort and sheer perseverance more important than pure talent or opportunity?

Watch Angela’s response (duration: 3:49 minutes).

For the same reason, grit is also not about controlling the urge to be on Facebook when you’re struggling to complete an assignment.

How to develop grit?

Can grit be learnt?

Yes, it can be.

Here are some of the things you can do to be grittier (you need to really stick it out, because it isn’t easy; if it was, everyone would become gritty):

1. Pursue your passion

It’s hard to be gritty. You’ve to pursue long-term goals, many time with uncertainty about the exact path to take or even outcomes, and on the way you’ve to overcome several obstacles.

But, what if the goals you’ve chosen are something that you’re passionate about. You like the process. If that’s the case, you’re less likely to give up when faced with challenges.

Take Action

Keep looking for things that genuinely interest you. Good thing is that you don’t have to be passionate about 4-5 things; just 1-2 meaningful goals will do.

2. Score small grit-wins

score small grit winsReinhold Messner, the first climber to scale all fourteen peaks above 8,000 metres and widely regarded as the greatest mountaineer, spent first ten years climbing smaller peaks in Alps before pursuing Himalayan peaks.

Likewise, you can start small and gradually build your grit up. Just as it’s tough to attempt 8,000+ metres peaks straightaway, it’s tough to be gritty on an extremely challenging task without having first scored smaller grit-wins.

So, for example, don’t break your exercise routine (or any routine which you find hard to maintain) for a month, resist the temptation to eat processed food for a week, and complete all your assignments at least a day in advance for two weeks.

By scoring such small wins – and there is no reason why you can’t – you can develop stamina for the big ones.

Take Action

Rome wasn’t built in a day.

Build your grit muscle by scoring small wins first, and then moving on to bigger challenges.

3. Recall your past successes

grit - recall your past success11 April 2011.

Arunima Sinha, a national volleyball player in India, was traveling from Lucknow to New Delhi by train when robbers struck. She resisted their attempt to take away her belongings, but they were too many. She was overpowered and, worse, thrown out of the running train in the middle of night.

She fell on the opposite rail track and, before she could gather her senses and move, her left leg was run over by the train coming from the opposite direction. Because it was dark there, no one spotted her in the night. Next morning, when local people found her, she was teetering on the edge after loss of so much blood.

Eventually, she survived, but her left leg had to be amputated.

Fast forward May 21, 2013.

She became the first woman amputee in the world to summit Mount Everest. (She has now climbed the highest mountains on five continents.)

On the summit day, when she started out from camp 4, she realized that she didn’t have enough oxygen. The camp leader rightly advised her to turn back, but she carried on fully knowing the consequences.

“I believed if I did not die inspite of lying on the [rail] tracks for seven hours, I’ll not die on the way to Mount Everest because it was not time for me to go,” she recalls her thought process at the time of taking that decision.

And guess, what happened? A British mountaineer who had abandoned his climb gave his oxygen cylinder to her.

Notice, how she relied on her past success in beating a near-fatal incident to draw strength for this one. Don’t we do this all the time: drawing strength from a past success to keep going in an even bigger challenge?

Take Action

Know your past grit-successes. You may think that you can count them out any time, but you may not: because, you may not have even looked at some of them from the perspective of grit.

Remembering that you’ve done it earlier, even if at a smaller scale, even if in an unrelated field, gives you the confidence to keep going when pursuing an arduous goal.

4. Appreciate that success takes time and failure is part of the game

grit - success takes time and failure is part of the gameLast May, I met Manu, a young man in late twenties, who used to (I’m not sure if he still does) perform with his band at What a Comic Show on Saturday evenings. He was the lead, and was masterful at playing guitar and singing.

In one of the breaks between two songs, I asked him, “How long have you been singing?”

He said, “Since when I was ten!”

It takes time!

I’m not saying it’ll take you several years to accomplish your goal, but meaningful goals do take time. And the path is often littered with setbacks and frustrations.

Angela Duckworth precisely makes this point when she says:

In terms of intentional change, one promising direction for research is the correction of maladaptive, incorrect beliefs about skill development and achievement. For instance, individuals who believe that frustration and confusion mean they should quit what they are doing may be taught that these emotions are common during the learning process. Likewise, individuals who believe that mistakes are to be avoided at all costs may be taught that the most effective form of practice (deliberate practice