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.
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.
2. Score small grit-wins
Reinhold 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.
3. Recall your past successes
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?
4. Appreciate that success takes time and failure is part of the game
Last 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 – see research by Anders Ericsson) entails tackling challenges beyond one’s current skill level.
And this is what Chip Heath and Dan Heath say in Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard (it spent an incredible 47 weeks on New York Times Bestseller list) on inevitability of failures on the way:
Any new quest, even one that is ultimately successful, is going to involve failure…. You can’t learn to be an inventor, or a nurse, or a scientist, without failing.
And what do they say about how to keep yourself motivated when the path ahead is tough, long?
You need to create the expectation of failure – not the failure of the mission itself, but failure en route.
That’s an important mental manoeuvre you can do when you face an intermediate failure. You can say to yourself, “It’s not that bad. Such things do happen. It’s part of the process.”
5. Optimism, growth mindset, and faith
As per research, if you’re optimistic and have growth mindset (which means that you don’t term your problems as permanent, beyond-control, but rather believe that they can be influenced), you’re more likely to persevere and find a solution to the problems you face.
That’s easy to understand, isn’t it?
6. Have support
When you hit roadblocks pursuing your goals, a mentor can guide you. A friend or family member can pep you up when you get deflated.
Remember, roadblocks are common. But if others can make it easier for you to overcome them, you’re more likely to persevere.
7. Build habits
In a study mentioned in Switch, hungry (who hadn’t eaten for at least three hours) college students were taken to a room with two bowls on a table: one had chocolates and fresh-baked chocolate-chip cookies, and the other, radishes. Half the participants were asked to eat two or three cookies, but no radishes. And the other half were asked to eat at least two or three radishes, but no cookies.
After the students finished eating as per the instructions, they were given another task: series of unsolvable puzzles. The researchers wanted to see how long the students would persist before giving up.
The cookie-eaters spent nineteen minutes on the task, making thirty-four attempts to solve the puzzles.
Only eight minutes, making nineteen attempts.
Because radish-eaters ran out of self-control faster. When they started the second task (solving puzzles), they, unlike cookie-eaters, had already used some self-control in resisting the cookies.
Your self-control is a finite resource; you can have only that much in a day. It’s up to you where you want to use it in the day – on the most meaningful tasks or the ordinary ones.
If you automate (or make it a habit, in other words) routine, less-important tasks in your day, you’ll conserve your self-control for bigger, meaningful tasks, which also happen to be the most demanding.
So, for example, if you spend 10 minutes every morning deciding on what to wear, then you’re depleting your reserve of self-control on a mundane task. It’s better to lay out your dress the previous night itself or to have a simple rigmarole of deciding it. If you spend 5 minutes in the morning debating whether to go for a jog, then you’re depleting your self-control. Just decide quickly or, better, fix the days in the week when you’ll exercise in the morning.
Small tasks like these add up in the day and deplete your self-control.
How can parents/ teachers teach grit to children?
1. Talk about your own failures
Talk about your own failures and how you overcame them with your children. That’s the best way to tell them that failure is part of the process.
Paul Tough, author of How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, says:
Lots of parents don’t want to talk about their failures in front of their kids, but that’s denying kids the potentially powerful experience of seeing their parents bounce back. If they see that adults can mess up and then come back and solve a problem, that’s an important example they can use.
2. Don’t over-pamper
Don’t over-pamper. Don’t rescue them from non-fatal failures. Give them difficult, but manageable, tasks, which fluster them. This will help them build their grit muscle bit by bit.
3. Encourage gritty behavior
Encourage gritty behaviour by incentivizing it. Reward them, praise them when they show gritty behaviour.
4. Help them pick goals they’re likely to stick to
Help them pick 1-2 goals that they’re likely to pursue in the medium to long term.
Our findings suggest that children matched on talent and capacity for hard work may nevertheless differ in grit. Thus, a prodigy who practices intensively yet moves from piano to the saxophone to voice will likely be surpassed by an equally gifted but grittier child.
That’s common sense, isn’t it? Yet, we hop on and hop off from one activity to the other.
However, grit alone will not lead to high achievement
You got to learn from your mistakes and be flexible at micro level.
In such situations, openness to other approaches and learning from your mistakes can get you the results. Grit doesn’t mean you become a horse-with-blinkers and run till you achieve your goal.
Elon Musk didn’t just show grit in the face of those launch failures, but he also learnt from them and improved.
So did Sir James Dyson.
Second, you need to constantly stretch your limits just a wee bit outside your comfort zone. (This process, also called Deliberate Practice, of working at a level that exceeds your current skill, identifying flaws, and improving them is the stuff top performers do in all fields.) For example, if you’re working on your fitness or trying to lose weight and you’re comfortable doing 12 push-ups in a single rep, try doing 13 the next time. Get used to 13, raise it further, get used to the new level, and so on.
To quote Duckworth:
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 – see research by Anders Ericsson) entails tackling challenges beyond one’s current skill level.
In August 2015, Shaun Maley finished first in 333-km Leh ultra-marathon, world’s cruellest ultra which passes through Khardung La at 18,380 feet and two other passes above 17,500 feet. At those Himalayan heights, temperatures can change from minus 12 degree C to 40 degree C in a matter of few hours, and atmospheric oxygen is at 50% level of what you’ll breathe at sea level.
Do you think he achieved the feat because he is made of some superhuman stuff, which you lack?
Weeks before the event, he spoke to several past runners, took their feedback on what works (and what doesn’t), and chalked out a plan accordingly. He arrived in Leh 15 days before the event, and raised his level bit by bit adding extra feet to his practice every day.
If he was only gritty, without soliciting feedback, without improving, without stretching his limits, he wouldn’t have accomplished what he did.
Grit is necessary, but may not be sufficient for high achievement.
How do I know I’m gritty?
Aside from self-report and informant-report questionnaires (Duckworth et al., 2007; Duckworth & Quinn, 2009), my best idea for assessing grit is to infer passion and perseverance for long-term goals from an individual’s track record.
There is no better indicator than your past behaviour.
Have you stuck with something, say mastering a difficult subject or learning a new skill, for long in the past? Or, did you give up when you felt frustrated with the result you were getting, and hopped on to something else?
If you don’t see instances of perseverance for difficult pursuits in your track record, then you’re low on grit.
Besides, there are self-reported questionnaires on grit, which can provide you a quick assessment in the form of a grit score. Here is one from Duckworth et al:
Grit Scale (The page has separate grit scales for children and adults.)
Studies after studies have shown the same thing: you may be smart or talented, but you’ll struggle to reach your potential if you don’t develop the capacity to persist and overcome obstacles that inevitably crop up in any pursuit.
Talent alone … will take you only that far.
Grit is unrelated (or even inversely related) to talent. See what Duckworth says (duration: 43 seconds):
So, even if your peers are more natural in, say, math, you can surpass them by being gritty. Like Kyla did in running. Like gritty Ivy League undergraduates surpassed their peers in GPA despite a lower SAT score.
If you aren’t natural at something, you can still outcompete others.
Even employers and college admissions officers are increasingly looking for applicants who have stuck with something over time and have displayed some level of mastery in it, rather than those who have only dressed their resumes with little bit of everything.
To end, I’m reminded of a scene from Bond-movie Skyfall. On their way to Bond’s family estate in Scotland, M and Bond stop on the way, and M, looking faraway, says poignantly, “Orphans [referring to Bond] make the best recruits.”
Probably because they’re grittier.