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Talent isn’t enough: it takes ‘Grit’

Stories of how mediocre performers upped their game to join the elite

It happens to almost everyone. The time arrives when you are “between jobs”. Now it’s happened to me, and it has given me time to reflect on my talents and experience to figure out what to do next.

So it was a bit of serendipity that a book recommended by the staff at the local library was Angela Duckworth’s bestseller, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. It is filled with stories of self-discovery by famous scientists, philosophers, athletes, teachers, and artists. More importantly, the anecdotes are buttressed with data since Duckworth is a psychologist and scientist.

Duckworth’s research offers useful career advice for anyone, but it can be especially useful for entrepreneurs and innovators who are trying to decide what to dedicate their life to. (I first heard about Duckworth on a recent Freakonomics Radio podcast, where she talked about how to set personal and professional goals.)

Talent vs effort

In her book, Duckworth attempts to answer some questions that have puzzled great minds for thousands of years: What separates elite performers from the rest of us? What do they have and what do they do that makes them different? Can we, too, become achievers if we just apply ourselves?

Duckworth draws on her own research and that of many others to argue against what she calls the naturalness bias–“a hidden prejudice against those who’ve achieved what they have because they worked for it, and a hidden preference for those whom we think arrived at their place in life because they’re naturally talented.” For some of us, the talent prejudice is an excuse for not trying something we’re interested in because “I just don’t have the talent”.

She presents evidence of the importance of hard work–the 10,000 hour rule–when it is driven by “deliberate practice” that focuses on making small improvements in performance step by step. Not just time on task but better time on task.

I have to admit being one who emphasizes the importance of talent. My management philosophy has been to focus on developing people’s talents and manage their weaknesses. Duckworth would tell me that talent is just the beginning.

Follow-through

What is one thing that separates the elite from the mediocre in any field of activity? A strong differentiator, Duckworth says, is that elite performers have follow-through. For example, the Educational Testing Service, which produces the SAT college entrance exam, did a five-year study of thousands of high school students, measuring more than 100 personal and academic variables, including grades, test scores, and participation in extracurriculars.

The single greatest predictor of academic success in college was follow-through, defined as “evidence of purposeful, continuous commitment to certain types of activities (in high school) versus sporadic efforts in diverse areas.”

A prime example might be Olympic medalist Rowdy Gaines. He told Duckworth he loved sports in high school and tried out for several before he finally decided to focus on swimming. He fell in love with the camaraderie, the competition, the events, and the travel to the point that he learned to tolerate his least favorite part–the hours and hours of training.

The Grit formula for achievement

Duckworth developed a hypothesis that hard work, or grit, has as much to do with achievement as talent. She developed a 10-question test to measure grit. She first applied it to West Point cadets and spelling bee champions. Then she refined it and has applied it to thousands of people from all types of occupations and professions. Based on this research and that of others, she came up with a formula on how the elite perform better, and how all of us can improve as well.

Achievers, she decided, have grit, and this grit has four elements, which are described in four chapter headings of the book: interestpracticepurpose, and hope.

Interest: You have to find something you’re interested in. Finding a career or vocation is a bit like dating. You try a lot of different things (you date different people) until you find something (or someone) that just feels right, that fits. New York Times crossword puzzle creator Will Shortz showed an early interest in words and games. His mother encouraged him. He ended up creating his own college major in the science of puzzles.

Practice: This involves perfecting each element of a skill. Julia Child awoke to the marvels of French cuisine when she tasted seule meuniere in Paris. That was just the beginning. She began visiting cafes, bistros, and restaurants and talking to chefs about their craft. She read books. She took classes from elite chefs. She made extensive notes. She experimented with recipes in her own kitchen. And when friends encouraged her, she decided to write a book.

Purpose: This is the intention to contribute to the well-being of others. Discovery of purpose is gradual. For an elite actor like Will Smith, his purpose, as he describes it, is giving joy to audiences with his movies and music. For you, the purpose might be to be a better parent and help your children find fulfillment in life. Or your purpose might be to develop your students to be good citizens. Purpose develops over time. As a young writer, I wanted to draw attention to my work. Later my purpose became helping media entrepreneurs.

Hope: This is what helps you deal with failure and obstacles and say, “I resolve to make tomorrow better”.  As Duckworth says, “The hope that gritty people have has nothing to do with luck and everything to do with getting up again.” 

One way to develop grit, she suggests, is “find a gritty culture and join it.” There are gritty cultures in business, academia, sports, the arts, the military, and politics, among others.

Hard work, through the ages

Some of my favorite aphorisms have to do with the importance of hard work. “Chance favors only the prepared mind,” said 19th century vaccine scientist Louis Pasteur. “I’m a great believer in luck, and I find the the harder I work, the more I have of it,” said (supposedly) Thomas Jefferson. “Luck is the residue of design,” said baseball guru Branch Rickey.

Here are a few of the people quoted in Grit:

“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.” — scientist Charles Darwin

“Compared with what we ought to be, we are only half awake. Our fires are damped, our drafts are checked. We are making use of only a small part of our possible mental and physical resources.” — philosopher William James

“Do things better than they have ever been done before.” — Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll

“Whether you think you can, or think you can’t–you’re right.” — Henry Ford

And this one from Duckworth herself, who has two daughters: “Infants and toddlers spend most of their time trying to do things they can’t, again and again–and yet they don’t seem especially embarrassed or anxious. No pain, no gain is a rule that doesn’t seem to apply to the preschool set.”

More From The Fix: How to be a leader rather than a manager

Photo by Jake Blucker on Unsplash

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