Growing in Gritty-ness

Einstein quotes about intelligence“It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.” –Albert Einstein, physicist, 1879-1955

The question of individual success has long fascinated philosophers and life thinkers. From Confucius, the 6th century BC Chinese philosopher, who once wrote, “The nature of man is always the same; it is their habits that separate them”, to the 4th century BC ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle – “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit” – one can find various musings throughout the centuries on humanity’s capacity to accomplish great and marvelous things.

Yet, even with centuries of life wisdom at our disposal, and a repertoire of more recent research that shed light on human behavior, it seems that man’s quest to understand the underlying factors of man’s success may never cease, as evidenced by Angela Duckworth’s 2016 book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.

Duckworth, a 2013 MacArthur Fellow and professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, where she earned her PhD, along with a BA in neurobiology from Harvard and MSc in neuroscience from Oxford – thus, a highly accomplished individual – postulates that what really drives success is not talent, intelligence or even a particular skillset, but instead a combination of passion and long-term perseverance she defines as “grit.”

“To be gritty is to resist complacency”, she writes (p. 91). “To be gritty is to keep putting one foot in front of the other. To be gritty is to hold fast to an interesting and purposeful goal. To be gritty is to invest, day after week after year, in a challenging practice. To be gritty is to fall down seven times, and rise eight” (p. 275).

But, grit is not something you either have or don’t, she argues. It is mutable; you can learn to be gritty and can grow in your gritty-ness through “deliberate practice” and “effortful training.” She writes, “…grit grows as we figure out our life philosophy, learn to dust ourselves off after rejection and disappointment, and learn to tell the difference between low-level goals that should be abandoned quickly and higher-level goals that demand more tenacity.” In other words, she writes, “as much as talent counts, effort counts twice” (p. 86; p. 34).

In fact, it is ultimately our effort – in tackling the minutiae tasks of life and deliberately cultivating daily habits – that makes greatness attainable for anyone. She writes, “…the most dazzling human achievements are, in fact, the aggregate of countless individual elements, each of which is, in a sense, ordinary.”

grit book reviewDuckworth’s claims are bolstered by evidence-backed research, conducted by herself and prominent social scientists, in a variety of settings – from understanding why some cadets at West Point drop out in the first few days of training to how young finalists in the National Spelling Bee become extraordinary spellers. She interviews high achievers, including J.P. Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, and Super Bowl XXIX’s MVP Steve Young, along with lesser known, but equally “gritty” individuals, including New Yorker cartoon editor Bob Mankoff and Cinnabon President Kate Cole. Such highly successful individuals, she concludes, “had a kind of ferocious determination that played out in two ways. First, these exemplars were unusually resilient and hardworking. Second they knew in very, very deep way what they wanted. They not only had determination, they had direction.”

Perseverance, tenacity, resiliency, hard work, focus, consistency, practice and determination are hardly new concepts. In this sense, Duckworth’s book is not necessarily revolutionary. It is, however, important for the ancient wisdom she resurrects and that is so seemingly absent from our technology-driven existence. A reading of her book, listed as one of the top 16 business books to read for 2016 by Forbes, is like a boot camp for the mind, a spring cleaning of the cobwebs of one’s old ways, a readying of one’s spirit for the hard work it takes to establish better habits that lead to more meaningful, productive and successful living.

As Duckworth aptly notes, an obsession with talent, intelligence or particular skills distract us from this simple truth: that “what we accomplish in the marathon of life depends tremendously on our grit – our passion and perseverance for long-term goals” (p. 269).

No one – certainly not Confucius, Aristotle or the many other leading thinkers below – could argue with that.

“Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not: nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.” –Calvin Coolidge, 30th U.S. President, 1872-1933
“Courage and perseverance have a magical talisman, before which difficulties disappear and obstacles vanish into air.” –John Quincy Adams, 6th U.S. President, 1767-1848
“Practice yourself for heaven’s sake, in little things; and thence proceed to greater.” –Epictetus, Greek philosopher, 55-135 AD
“Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.” –Thomas Edison, Inventor, 1847-1931
“Failure is only the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.”
–Henry Ford, Industrialist, 1863-1947
“The man who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones.”
–Confucius, Chinese philosopher, 551-470 BC
“He conquers who endures.” –Persius, Roman poet, 34-62 AD
“Never, never, never give up.” –Winston Churchill, British Prime Minister, 1874-1965
Please note this piece was also published in The Huffington Post.

Notable Quotes from Grit:

“Enthusiasm is common. Endurance is rare.” p.58
“One reason I don’t worry much about an epidemic of grit is that such a prospect seems so removed from our current reality. How many days have you come home from work and said to your partner, ‘Gosh, everyone at the office is just too gritty! They stick with their most valued goals too long! They try too hard! I wish they were less passionate!'” p. 272 
“Why were the highly accomplished so dogged in their pursuits? For most, there was no realistic expectation of ever catching up to their ambitions. In their own eyes, they were never good enough. They were the opposite of complacent. And yet, in a very real sense, they were satisfied being unsatisfied. Each was chasing something of unparalleled interest and importance, and it was the chase — as much as the capture — that was gratifying. Even if some of the things they had to do were boring, or frustrating, or even painful, they wouldn’t dream of giving up. Their passion was enduring.” p. 8
“For I have always maintained that, excepting fools, men did not differ much in intellect, only in zeal and hard work; and I still think this is an eminently important difference.” –Charles Darwin, via p. 21
“Do not talk about giftedness, inborn talents! One can name great men of all kinds who were very little gifted. They acquired greatness, became ‘geniuses’ (as we put it)…They all possessed that seriousness of the efficient workman which first learns to construct the parts properly before it ventures to fashion a great whole; they allowed themselves time for it, because they took more pleasure in making the little, secondary things well than in the effect of a dazzling whole.” –Friedrich Nietzsche, via p. 40 
“…the human individual lives usually far within his limits; he possesses power of various sorts which he habitually fails to use. He energizes below his maximum, and he behaves below his optimum…[t]he plain fact remains that men the world over possess amounts of resource, which only very exceptional individuals push to their extremes of use.” –William James, via p. 23
“Superlative performance is really a confluence of dozens of small skills or activities, each one learned or stumbled upon, which have been carefully drilled into habit and then are fitted together in a synthesized whole. There is nothing extraordinary or superhuman in any one of those actions; only the fact that they are done consistently and correctly, and all together, produce excellence.” –Dan Chambliss, p. 36
“Our vanity, our self-love, promotes the cult of the genius. For if we think of genius as something magical, we are not obliged to compare ourselves and find ourselves lacking…To call someone ‘divine’ means: ‘here there is no need to compete.’”–Friedrich Nietzsche, via p. 36
“No one can see in the work of the artists how it has become. That is its advantage, for wherever one can see the act of becoming one grows somewhat cool.” –Friedrich Nietzsche, via p. 39
“Great things are accomplished by those ‘people whose thinking is active in one direction, who employ everything as material, who always zealously observe their own inner life and that of others, who perceive everywhere models and incentives, who never tire of combining together the means available to them.” –Friedrich Nietzsche, via p. 39-40
“…to do anything really well, you have to overextend yourself…In my case, I learned that I just had to pay twice as much attention. I came to appreciate that in doing something over and over again, something that was never natural becomes almost second nature. You learn that you have the capacity for that, and that it doesn’t come overnight.” –John Irving, via p. 45
“The separation of talent and skill is one of the greatest misunderstood concepts for people who are trying to excel, who have dreams, who want to do things. Talent you have naturally. Skill is only developed by hours and hours and hours of beating on your craft.” –Will Smith, via p. 51
“…there are no shortcuts to excellence. Developing real expertise, figuring out really hard problems, it all takes time — longer than most people imagine. And then…you’ve got to apply those skills and produce goods or services that are valuable to people…[g]rit isn’t just working incredibly hard. That’s only part of it…[g]rit is about working on something you care about so much that you’re willing to stay loyal to it.” p. 54
“What I mean by passion is not just that you have something you care about. What I mean is that you care about the 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.” p. 64
“Any successful person has to decide what to do in part by deciding what not to do.” p. 67
“…passion for your work is a little bit of discovery, followed by a lot of development, and then a lifetime of deepening.” p. 103
“Fundamentally, the emotion of boredom, after doing something for a while, is a very natural reaction. All human beings, even from infancy, tend to look away from things they’ve already seen and, instead, turn their gaze to thinks that are new and surprising. In fact, the word interest comes from the Latin interesse, which means ‘to differ.’ To be interesting is, literally, to be different.” p. 112
“If you look for a particular rule, like Always drink coffee, or Never drink coffee, or Only work in your bedroom, or Never work in your bedroom, you won’t find it. But if instead you ask, ‘What do these creators have in common?’ you’ll find the answer right in the title: daily rituals…[t]hey follow routines. They’re creatures of habit.” p. 139, referencing Mason Currey’s book, Daily Rituals
“…grittier people are dramatically more motivated than others to seek a meaningful, other-centered life. This is not to say that all grit paragons are saints, but rather, that most gritty people see their ultimate aims as deeply connected to the world beyond themselves.” p. 147-8
“…when you have setbacks and failures, you can’t overreact to them. You need to step back, analyze them, and learn from them. But you also need to stay optimistic.” p. 186
“So much of sticking with things is believing you can do it. That belief comes from self-worth. And that comes from how others have made us feel in our lives.” –Francesca Martinez, via p. 209
“Whether we realize it or not, the culture in which we live, and with which we identify, powerfully shapes just about every aspect of our being.” p. 244
“The closest word to grit in Finnish is sisu (pronounced see-sue). The translation isn’t perfect. Grit specifies having a passion to accomplish a particular top-level goal and the perseverance to follow through. Sisu, on the other hand, is really just about perseverance. In particular, sisu refers to a source of inner strength–a sort of psychological capital–that Finns believe they’re born with by dint of their Finnish heritage. Quite literally, sisu refers to the insides of a person, their guts…[i]f you’re a Finn with that ‘sisu spirit,’ you get up again no matter what.” p. 250-2
“Failures are going to happen, and how you deal with them may be the most important thing in whether you succeed. You need fierce resolve. You need to take responsibility. You call it grit. I call it fortitude.” –J.P. Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, via p. 253
“We all face limits–not just in talent, but in opportunity. But more often than we think, our limits are self-imposed. We try, fail, and conclude we’ve bumped our heads against the ceiling of possibility. Or maybe after taking just a few steps we change direction. In either case, we never venture as far as we might have.” p. 275
“Failure is probably the most important factor in all of my work. Writing is failure. Over and over and over again.” –Ta-Nehisi Coates, via p. 276

How Gritty Are You?

Find out how ‘gritty’ you are by taking Angela Duckworth’s grit test.
You can also watch her grit TED talk below:


ATG Note on Grit(s):

Check out our similar post from January 2015, “Smarts, With a Side of Grits“, on the importance of grit in education, also published in The Huffington Post, as well as a recipe for good old fashioned grits.

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