Grit has become a fairly common word now. Most people would understand it as referring to someone who keeps going when the going gets tough.
I hope that all of you are ‘gritty’ people because if you’re looking for a voice that’s going to pat you on the back when you quit as the going gets tough, you better look elsewhere.
We can thank Angela Duckworth for bringing Grit into common parlance, specifically her book Grit. When she wrote it, she had the goal of discovering in why talent is no promise of success, or of grit.
So it’s surprising, really, that talent is no guarantee of grit. In this book, we’ll explore the reasons why.
She divides the book up into three main questions.
- What is Grit and why does it matter?
- How do we grow grit from the inside out?1
- How do we build grit from the outside in?2
Let’s look at these questions.
What Grit is and why it matters
I’ve already defined grit above, but let’s look at exactly how Duckworth defines it so we can make sure that we’re on the same page she is for the rest of this look at Grit.
In sum, no matter the domain, the highly successful had a kind of ferocious determination that played out in two ways. First, these exemplars were unusually resilient and hardworking. Second, they knew in a very, very deep way what it was they wanted. They not only had determination, they had direction.
It was this combination of passion and perseverance that made high achievers special. In a word, they had grit.
In Duckworth’s view, it wasn’t just the continuing on that made up gritty people. It was also a passion for what they had committed to. She mentions later in the book that people who we’re gritty ate drank and slept their field of focus.
Duckworth also spent a bunch of time defining the difference between talent and grit. She cited an interesting study where you listened to two piano pieces. Before one, you were told that the person was always naturally talented. Before the other, you were told that the person struggled long and hard to get to the top of their field, but with that struggle behind them, they were now as skill as the naturally talented person.
What we say we care about may not correspond with what — deep down — we actually believe to be more valuable.
The hook here is that both pieces of music were played by the same person and despite this, people usually judged the naturally talented person as better.
So why do we judge a natural talent as better than someone who has worked hard to achieve the same level of mastery? Why do ‘naturally talented’ people seem to excel?
Part of it has to do with the fact that someone identified with talent is often given many more opportunities to practice, so they are in fact better.
There’s a vast amount of research on what happens when we believe a student is especially talented. We begin to lavish extra attention on them and hold them to higher expectations. We expect them to excel, and that expectation becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Two of my three kids figure skate, and I expect that as the 1-year-old becomes old enough to get on the ice, she’ll want to skate like her sisters and her mother3. Each of them has different skills, and yet we know that it’s effort sustained over and over in the face of doing hard things that will help them be better skaters. Knowing this, we work hard not to comment much about talent, and comment lots about how many times you fell and got back up.
In my view, the biggest reason a preoccupation with talent can be harmful is simple: By shining our spotlight on talent, we risk leaving everything else in the shadows. We inadvertently send the message that these other factors — including grit — don’t matter as much as they really do.
We do this to build grit. To build the type of kid that will continue to work hard at things in the face of long odds.
How many of us start something new, full of excitement and good intentions, and then give up — permanently — when we encounter the first real obstacle, the first long plateau in progress?
We know that the longer they skate, the harder every little increment of improvement will be.
We even know this and try to call it out in the endeavours that us adults take on. I ran an ultramarathon this year and coming from basically not running I knew that any running would help me improve. Having finished my first 50km mountain run, I now spend time running in the flats because that’s where I have the hardest time, and we try to call that extra effort on my weaknesses to my kids.
A common philosophy in self-improvement books is the idea that you have a purpose or WHY. In Grit, Angela Duckworth calls it your main goal. She divides goals up into a few levels.
You don’t change your top-level goal4, but you may change your intermediate goals.
What I mean by passion is not just that you have something you care about. What I mean is that you care about that same ultimate goal in an abiding, loyal, steady way. You are not capricious. Each day, you wake up thinking of the questions you fell asleep thinking about. You are, in a sense, pointing in the same direction, ever eager to take even the smallest step forward than to take a step to the side, toward some other destination. At the extreme, one might call your focus obsessive. Most of your actions derive their significance from their allegiance to your ultimate concern, your life philosophy.
You may start a video course, and find it doesn’t get traction. So you write a book, or you start training people in your field. All of these things point towards your ultimate goal, so you’re still showing grit. You’re just sorting out the path to achieve the main goal.
Duckworth finishes off addressing her first question by defining the four assets that gritty people have.
Passion begins with intrinsically enjoying what you do.
Interest doesn’t mean that you enjoy every part. I’m pushing a bunch of products as we end 2017 and I’m stressed and feeling overloaded. Right now I don’t love every day of my work.
But it all goes towards my ultimate goal, so I work hard through this season.
I love the endeavour as a whole.
One form of perseverance is the daily discipline of trying to do things better than we did yesterday.
I met a guy recently who said he was writing a book. When I asked about how much he had done, it turned out after a bit of mumbling and waffling around, that he wrote one chapter 12 months ago and hadn’t touched it since.
That’s not what Duckworth is talking about when she says gritty people practice. She’s telling us that we need to have a daily session where we not only do our creative work, but we even get regular feedback so we can improve the quality of our work.
Gritty people continue to find their weaknesses and zero in on them to eliminate them.
What ripens passion is the conviction that your work matters. For most people, interest without purpose is nearly impossible to sustain for a lifetime.
If you don’t think your work matters you won’t keep going when it gets hard. If you don’t get deep personal satisfaction from the results of your work, you won’t jump the hurdles that get put in front of you.
You need to find your purpose if you want to keep going.
From the very beginning to the very end, it is inestimably important to learn to keep going even when things are difficult, even when we have doubts. At various points, in big ways and small, we get knocked down. If we stay down, grit loses. If we get up, grit prevails.
Finally, a gritty person has hope that eventually they’ll win the day. They’ll build that business they wanted. They’ll figure out their marketing strategy.
I have hope that maybe next year, maybe the year after, I’ll run the Frosty Mountain Ultra in under 8 hours.
Without hope, you won’t continue when things get hard.
Growing Grit from The Inside Out
The second big question Duckworth addresses is, how do we make ourselves into gritty people? She starts with a fairly sad story about her own experiences with her parents telling her that she shouldn’t be following the areas she had passion in.
Instead, I was told that the practical realities of surviving “in the real world” were far more important than any young person living a “sheltered life” such as my own could imagine. I was warned that overly idealistic dreams of “finding something I loved” could in fact be a breadcrumb trail into poverty and disappointment.
Reading this as a parent, made me sad. I hope that I never communicate this to my kids.
So, in the face of this, how does one build grit? How do they get to the thing that they want to be doing? What is the path?
Most grit paragons I’ve interviewed told me they spent years exploring several different interests, and the one that eventually came to occupy all of their waking (and some sleeping) thoughts wasn’t recognizably their life’s destiny on first acquaintance.
My journey to coaching involved eight years doing all manner of heavy lifting jobs and lots of talks with my wife about things we’d never do when we ran a business. It involved getting a counselling degree and realizing that traditional counselling wasn’t for me.
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It involved eight years running my own web development business as my sole income and many mistakes I had to learn from in those eight years.
Then, with all that under my belt and people calling me to ask questions about how to run their business well, we got back to coaching.
Second, interests are not discovered through introspection. Instead, interests are triggered by interactions with the outside world. The process of interest discovery can be messy, serendipitous, and inefficient.
It was this outside questioning that got me thinking about coaching a few years ago. Then it was thinking about the fact that throughout my life when friends have had issues they didn’t know how to handle they came and talked to me.
Is it “a drag” that passions don’t come to us all at once, as epiphanies, without the need to actively develop them? Maybe. But the reality is that our early interests are fragile, vaguely defined, and in need of energetic, years-long cultivation and refinement.
It may be frustrating that it took over 16 years to get to this point, but without those 16 years, I would only be talking about how to run a business from theory, not from practical experience.
It was only after a few years of reading at least 40 books a year on self-improvement and business that I had the depth to come up with many answers for people.
But I didn’t start with the passion to grow myself and my business.
Of course, developing an interest requires time and energy, and yes, some discipline and sacrifice. But at this earliest stage, novices aren’t obsessed with getting better. They’re not thinking years and years into the future. They don’t know what their top-level, life-orienting goal will be. More than anything else, they’re having fun.
My passion for reading and learning about how to run a better business started with my amazing wife recommending $100 Startup to me. At first, she was much more interested in personal growth.
It was with her encouragement that I started getting deliberate about the things I learned in my business.
Gritty people do more deliberate practice and experience more flow.
It was with her support that I stopped just reading these things for myself and started writing books about marketing, email, proposals, and really dove into writing on this blog.
It’s her fault you get to read me.
It’s my fault that I’ve kept going in the midst of lacking the traction I dream of. I naturally tend towards the mindset that, I can win if I keep trying and that tomorrow will be better, I just need to get to tomorrow.
I have a feeling tomorrow will be better is different from I resolve to make tomorrow better. The hope that gritty people have has nothing to do with luck and everything to do with getting up again.
Gritty people do suffer. They do get discouraged. They get down and think that they’re failures. They just don’t let those feelings linger for too long. They get back on the horse knowing that they can change what tomorrow will look like through action.
They know that the best predictor of future success is what they’re doing now. If they’re doing nothing, then expect nothing.
When you keep searching for ways to change your situation for the better, you stand a chance of finding them. When you stop searching, assuming they can’t be found, you guarantee they won’t.
That last quote is probably the shortest summary I could give you on what makes gritty people. They’re optimists. They know that further effort can bring a win, so they hang on and keep trying because the only thing not trying promises is that nothing will happen.
Part III: Growing Grit From the Outside In
This final section is the one I was most craving. I want to build kids that are gritty. Kids that work hard and keep trying and don’t whine about all the things that “life” owes them.
I also see that our society is all about policing how others parent, like this family who can’t send their kids on the bus in Vancouver anymore, and think that it’s this coddling from society that contributes to young adults that are crushed at the first point of failure in life.
In other words, don’t pass judgment on that parent lecturing their child in the supermarket cereal aisle. In most cases, you don’t have enough context to understand how the child interprets the exchange, and, at the end of the day, it’s the child’s experience that really matters.
I know that at the park I let my kids climb on things and have been told by other parents that I’m allowing my kids do dangerous things and they may get hurt. You know what, they’re right. My kids might get hurt, and while I don’t want that, they need to explore and push boundaries and deal with things if I want them to be gritty.
Enough on that tirade though, because if you want gritty kids, it needs to start with you. What are you striving for? What setbacks are you working through?
If you want to bring forth grit in your child, first ask how much passion and perseverance you have for your own life goals. Then ask yourself how likely it is that your approach to parenting encourages your child to emulate you. If the answer to the first question is “a great deal,” and your answer to the second is “very likely,” you’re already parenting for grit.
Do your kids see you being gritty in the face of the random stuff that life throws at you? If you’re not gritty, then don’t expect your kids to show that trait.
Kids are an excellent mirror for the behaviour we have.
Outside of your actions, according to Duckworth, the best thing you can do for your kids is to have them in some extracurricular activity.
There are countless research studies showing that kids who are more involved in extracurricular fare better on just about every conceivable metric — they earn better grades, have higher self-esteem, are less likely to get in trouble and so forth. A handful of these studies are longitudinal, meaning that researchers waited to see what happened to kids later in life. These longer-term studies come to the same conclusion: more participation in activities predicts better outcomes.
Not over schedule them into 12 activities, but one that they stick with for a season. If it’s dance, then they dance till the recital is done, or the payments are done. They don’t quit in the middle; they stick it out when it’s hard.
For many people, they jump to the idea that sports are the best way to build gritty kids when it comes to activities, but the research doesn’t support that. The type of activity matters much less than that they stay with it. In high school, the research cited in Grit shows that those students who stuck with an activity for two years did much better than those that quit.
Notably, the particular pursuits to which students had devoted themselves in high school didn’t matter — whether it was tennis, student government, or debate team. They key was that students had signed up for something, signed up again the following year, and during that time had made some kind of progress.
I know in my high school, extracurricular activities died because teachers were negotiating contracts and not liking what they got. In most cases, the teachers wanted to coach sports or run the theatre program5. It was the union that shut the activities down.
Research by Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam and his collaborators reveals that affluent American high school students have been participating in extracurricular activities at consistently high rates for the past few decades. In contrast, participation among poor students has been dropping precipitously.
In the research Duckworth cites, this is a trend. There is less and less participation in extracurricular activities and specifically with poorer students where costs are prohibitive.
These circumstances will mean that our kids have less sticking power when they head out on their own.
One of the final great things Duckworth cites is the “hard thing” rule she uses at home.
The Hard Thing Rule
1. Everyone (including parents) has to do one hard thing
2. You can quit when the season is over, or tuition is done, but not in the middle.
3. YOU get to pick your hard thing; no one picks it for you.
4. In high school, you have to pick else and stick with it for two years. It can be another commitment with your primary hard thing, or something totally different.
At my house, it’s two kids in figure skating. The 1-year-old doesn’t have anything yet. I’m transforming myself into a faster ultramarathoner, and my wife is working to overcome some injuries and get back to running.
The last great thing I want to highlight is Duckworth’s acknowledgement that happiness matters.
My second closing thought is about happiness. Success — whether measured by who wins the National Spelling Bee, makes it through West Point, or leads the division in annual sales — is not the only thing you care about. Surely, you also want to be happy. And while happiness and success are related, they’re not identical.
While I tell my kids6 that “I’m building great adults” I must acknowledge that they should be having fun. I see this in my oldest daughter when her face lights up, her whole body lights up, at skating. Our friends see it and comment on it.
I see it in myself as I enjoy amazing mountain vistas on my training runs. I’m happy and feel a sense of peace wash over me in those times in the mountains.
What are you doing that’s both hard and brings you happiness?
Recommendation for Grit
Yes, you should be reading Grit. It’s one of the books we’ll be reading if you join me for my 8 Week Business BootCamp. Learning what makes a Gritty person and then working to build that in yourself is a key if you want to run an awesome business.
Without grit, you should close up shop now, because things will get hard. Ideas will fail. Products will not get traction. Client projects will go south.
Through all of that, you’ll have to keep learning how to run your business better. You’ll have to keep going.
- As in, how do we build grit in ourselves? ↩
- How do we build grit in those around us, for me that’s my kids. ↩
- My wife is a skating coach and in her teens was a great figure skater if her room of trophies at my in-laws is any indication. ↩
- Like mine, to help men build a thriving business and thriving home life. Because success at work and broken relationships is still failure. ↩
- I was a stage manager, lighting technician, sound technician, pyrotechnician, and props person in school. It was one of the best things that happened to me and kept my out of so much of the trouble I was getting into. ↩
- And my 6-year-old can recite this to you. ↩