5 Things You Need to Understand About Grit

How To Become a More Productive and Fulfilled Person by Cultivating Passion and Perseverance

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Since the 2016 Summer Olympics are just a few weeks away, let me ask you: Do you think those supremely talented athletes, especially the ones who will bring home a medal, are there because of their talent, or their incredible passion and perseverance?

The conventional wisdom says that talent is supreme. And for a long time, that sort of made sense—that genetics matter. How could they not?

Just take a look at Michael Phelps’ physique, for example.

The man has the perfect swimmer’s body and is the closest thing to a fish that humanity will ever produce. Is it any wonder, then, that he is the most decorated Olympian of all time, having won 22 medals (18 of which were golds) in 3 Olympiads (soon to be 4).

Of course not, he’s Michael Phelps! He’s Michael Jordan in a speedo!

He has the gift of the Gods, right?

Not quite.

As Michael Jordan, Michael Phelps, and Phelp’s coach will likely tell you, talent matters up to a point. How fully your talent is realized depends on your level of grit—the aforementioned passion and perseverance that you exhibit over the long term. Even a swimming god like Phelps couldn’t coast on talent alone. In fact, whenever Phelps failed to train as hard as usual, he underperformed, both in the pool and out of it.

As Duckworth put it, “Talent matters, but effort counts twice.” That’s why the best in many fields are NOT the most talented.

So grit is an important component of your professional and personal success and you should seek to cultivate it. That’s Angela Duckworth’s principle message in her new book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.

I highly recommend that you buy and read this book as soon as possible. In the meantime, here are 5 critical insights from that work that I simply feel you should not go another minute without.

1. Talent ≠ Greatness

When we see a masterful performance in any field, it is natural for us to marvel and say, “Wow!” But those wows are often followed by the thought that we could never play the guitar, speak in public or create art as good as that. We’re simply not gifted enough, our thinking goes.

Duckworth quotes the German philosopher Friedrich Nitzsche who summed this up best, “With everything perfect…we do not ask how it came to be…we rejoice in the present fact as though it came out of the ground by magic.”

But magic it’s not.

Few of us want to peer beneath the glamorous veneer of the virtuoso, to appreciate what sociologist Dan Chambliss has dubbed, the mundanity of excellence—the countless hours dedicated to the mastery of dozens of tiny skills that have been burnished into habits and which together create the illusion of perfection or magic in the performance.

“There is nothing extraordinary or superhuman in those actions; only the fact that they are done consistently and correctly, and all together, produce excellence,” adds Chambliss.

The Takeaway: Never say never. Never say that you can’t do something, even things for which you claim you have no talent. If you commit with grit to the right kind of practice, hard work and constant improvement, you can become fantastically better at just about anything you desire. What matters is ultimately not your talent or supposed lack thereof—what matters is your level of passion and perseverance over the long-haul. Grit is a skill that you can develop and apply to whatever endeavor you choose.

2. How Gritty are You Right Now?

If grit is key, then the first thing you need to understand is how gritty you are right now. This way you can establish a baseline of performance for this vital skill before you begin the work of improving it. Angela Duckworth has made this real easy through the development of her famous Grit Scale.

It’s a simple 10 question online survey that takes about 5 minutes to complete. When finished it will give you an overall grit score on a scale from 0 (not gritty at all) to 5 (totally gritty) and tell you what percentile your score represents. You can even break down your score into two sub-scales: one for passion and the other for perseverance.

You should know that the Grit Scale is designed to give you a general snapshot of your level of grit at any particular point in time. You should also know that grit can change and fluctuate over time and that the scale is not designed to be a precision instrument. Answer it truthfully and it will give you a pretty good idea of how gritty you are in the pursuit of your goals, right now.

The Takeaway: If grit is a great predictor of your success in attaining your goals in life, then you need to figure out how gritty you are right now so you can understand how you can begin to improve. Take the Grit Scale right now!

3. Gritty People Have a Single, Ultimate Concern

Back to Phelps. He’s out to build a legacy as one of the finest Olympians that has ever lived. That’s precisely what psychologists call an ultimate concern, and what Duckwoth calls a top-level goal.  To gritty individuals, nothing else matters more.

It turns out that gritty people can be gritty for two main reasons: (1) they are not chasing multiple top-level goals like so many others, they focus on pursuing 1 or 2, at the very most and (2) they see their ultimate concern as purposeful—as adding value and meaning, to themselves and to others.

So Phelps isn’t trying to be the best runner, figure-skater or diver in the world. He can’t. He just wants to be the best Olympian EVER and his vehicle for accomplishing this is swimming—nothing else.

Remember when Michael Jordan quit basketball and tried to be a baseball player as well? What happened? He was barely good enough to play in the minor leagues. He could have persevered but he lacked the same passion he had demonstrated on the hardwood. So he went back to the single, ultimate concern to which he had committed his life for decades: mastery over the sport of basketball. In doing so he brought joy to millions of fans around the world.

The Takeaway: You need to do some serious soul-searching to discover your own ultimate concern—the single most important goal you have in your life. In other words, you need to discover your calling. We all have a gift, but it’s not your talent, it’s your passion for something that has meaning for you and others. Angela’s book has a great deal of detail on how to discover your gift.

4. Gritty People Align All Their Goals With their Ultimate Concern

Angela makes it clear that it’s not enough to designate a top-level goal if the rest of your life’s goals aren’t designed to reinforce it.

To understand this concept, think of your top-level goal as the very top of a pyramid. Below it are multiple levels of sub-goals—what Angela calls a hierarchy of goals-that support the weight of your ultimate concern. They might be long-term goals on one level, mid-term goals in the level just below, short-term goals below that, and weekly and daily goals at the base.

The point is, gritty people manage to organize this hierarchy of goals in a way that creates focus and intensity in supporting their ultimate concern. This, in turn, reinforces their grit.

Athletes, whose work hinges on performance, are a perfect example of this hierarchy at work. Someone like Phelps may have specific daily goals for sleep, nutrition, and training intensity. He likely has short-term goals consisting of hitting certain performance milestones in a few months. He likely also set goals for the Olympic qualifying rounds a year or so in advance. All his activities, in and out of the pool, are a carefully choreographed execution of sub goals that allow him to inch closer to the realization of his ultimate concern.

This is key to grit.

The Takeaway: You likely have a dream or a goal that you would love to accomplish, but you’ve been telling yourself that someday you will actually do it. But someday may never come. Life’s too short to wait. If you dream of building your own successful business, competing in the Iron Man triathlon, seeing all of Europe or anything else that you wish to assign as your top-level goal—start breaking that ultimate concern into a series of smaller, daily, monthly, yearly and long-term sub-goals. Depending on what your dream is, it may take many years to achieve your top-level goal but you can start making progress on it today! And that’s exciting.

5. Gritty People Engage In Deliberate Practice

Michael Phelps may get all the gold, but he’s the product of a team effort. He doesn’t just jump into the pool each morning and splash around without any clear plan, just doing laps, and putting in the time.

Not at all!

For starters, he has a coach and that coach has assistants. Together they scrutinize all aspects of Phelps performance in order to identify weaknesses so they can develop training programs that over time help to eliminate those vulnerabilities. The coach is there to challenge and push the athlete outside of his comfort zones and provide specific, expert guidance on how to keep improving.

This rigorous program of practice, designed to systematically attack the weak areas of our game, is known as deliberate practice.

Hours in the pool practicing, means nothing.

Hours in the pool doing deliberate practice, means everything

Gritty people succeed, in part, because they understand the difference.

The Takeaway: I’ve always wished that I could sing, but people keep telling me to keep my day job. So I will. I’ll limit my performances to to the shower and the car where I think I sound fabulous. However, if I was serious about learning to become a much better singer, I would stop wasting time in the shower and go out and hire a professional voice and singing coach and work with them for a minimum of 6 months. I would have them assess my current skill level and then craft a methodical, step-wise practice routine designed to improve my (very) humble abilities. I would spend an hour a day (or two or three, depending on how badly I want this) doing this very deliberate practice. And no matter what, I would NOT quit until the 6 months are over at which point I would re-assess my hierarchy of goals. I may not sound like Sinatra at the end of that period, but I know I’d be greatly improved. Same applies to you. What skill do you wish to improve? By using deliberate practice, you may astound yourself at what you’re able to accomplish in time.

Final Thought

After reading Angela’s book I can feel myself already changing and improving. Growing. Becoming grittier. I hope you will likewise take the time to explore this subject further and grow your own growth mindset and level of grit. It will change your life for the better. Trust me.

photo courtesy of the Michael Phelps Foundation