Have you ever seen someone—maybe a dancer or basketball player—demonstrate amazing ability in their field and assumed that they’re gifted with an innate talent that only a few people possess?
If you’re like most people, you answered “yes.” People are enamored with the idea of innate talent and “giftedness,” but this mentality has flaws. It overlooks the possibility of achievement for those who are not inherently “gifted.”
More and more, researchers are proving that inborn talent doesn’t determine success. Instead, grit, a relatively new concept in psychology, is becoming the key factor in achievement.
The concept of grit, defined as passion and perseverance in working toward significant long-term goals, is one explanation for why intelligence and talent do not always lead to success.
This article delves into it all things “grit,” and how it can become the drive that propels you forward.
This article contains:
The Two Ultimate Questions: The ‘What’ and ‘How’ of our Abilities
“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 resources…Men the world over possess amounts of resource, which only exceptional individuals push to their extremes of use.” – William James
In 1907, William James encouraged psychologists to focus on two problems that he thought encompassed the entire field of psychology. These two questions were:
- What are the types of human abilities?
- By what means do individuals unleash these abilities?
Since then, science has made huge strides in answering the first question. Psychologists know more about intelligence and mental ability than any other factor that contributes to individual differences.
However, psychologists still haven’t fully grasped why people of equal intelligence reach different levels of accomplishment.
“In plain words, you’ve got to make up your mind to study whatever you undertake, and concentrate your mind on it, and really work at it. This isn’t wisdom. Any damned fool in the world knows it’s true, whether it’s a question of raising horses or writing plays. You simply have to face the prospect of starting at the bottom and spending years learning how to do it.”― Eugene O’Neill
So what is it that might explain extraordinary performance and success? In contrast to what many of us have been taught, natural talent and intelligence often have little effect on success.
When growing up, Angela Duckworth, now a researcher, psychologist, and University of Pennsylvania professor was rarely complimented for her smarts. But in adulthood, she was awarded the MacArthur Fellowship — commonly known as the “genius grant.”
According to Duckworth, a high IQ or inborn talent wasn’t the reason she has succeeded. Instead, she credits her accomplishments to her passionate commitment and perseverance.
Duckworth discovered that what we accomplish often depends more on our passion, resilience, and commitment to our goals, rather than on our innate talents. Duckworth suggests that there is one individual trait shared by leaders in every field: grit. She wrote:
“It entails diligently working towards challenges and being able to maintain effort and interest over long periods of time (years) despite setbacks and stagnation in progress” (2007).
The Nitty-Gritty Science
Duckworth’s research looked at which traits, aside from IQ, differentiated students who later became leaders in their fields. Across six studies she found grit was a factor in successful outcomes. Here are some of her top research findings:
- More determined undergraduates had higher average grades than their peers;
- At West Point, an elite military academy in the U.S., the grittier cadets were more likely to endure the rigorous summer training, and grit was a better predictor of completion of the summer program than any other factor;
- Grittier spelling bee participants outranked their less gritty competitors;
- People with grit had higher levels of education and made fewer career changes than less gritty individuals of the same age.
The Treadmill Test: Perseverance Explained by Will Smith and Harvard Researchers
Will Smith, a Grammy Award-winning rapper and beloved actor, once said: “I’ve never viewed myself as particularly talented. Where I excel is ridiculous, sickening work ethic.”
When asked to further explain his climb to super-fame, he said:
“The only thing I see that is distinctively different about me is that: I’m not afraid to die on a treadmill. I will not be outworked, period. You might have more talent than me, you might be smarter, you might be sexier. But if we get on the treadmill together, there’s two things: You’re getting off first or I’m going to die. It’s really that simple.”
In 1940, long before Smith was known as The Fresh Prince, researchers at Harvard decided to study the characteristics of healthy young men to “help people live happier more successful lives.”
For the study, they asked 130 college sophomores to run on a treadmill for up to 5 minutes.
The treadmill was so steep and so fast that the average man lasted only about 4 minutes, and some lasted only a minute and a half. The study, known as the Treadmill Test, was physically and mentally challenging, and it was designed to specifically assess stamina and strength of will.
Researchers were well aware that the performance on the test was not just a matter of fitness level but was highly correlated to the “extent to which a subject is willing to push himself or has a tendency to quit before the punishment becomes too severe.”
Decades after the study, psychologist George Vaillant went knocking on the doors of those research participants. Most of them were now in their 60s and had been contacted by researchers every two years since college to complete questionnaires and interviews regarding their income, career advancement, sick days, social activities, satisfaction with work, marriage, and use of psychiatric medication.
All the information was compiled into an estimate of the men’s overall psychological adjustment in adulthood.
That The Treadmill Test, conducted when they were just 20 years old, was a reliable predictor of their psychological adjustment in adulthood.
There’s a saying that goes: The way we do one thing is the way we do most things. So, if you step on a treadmill as a study subject and give it your all, you’re likely to approach life with the same tenacity and determination.
Will Smith is definitely on to something.
So, How Do We Develop Grit?
The Grit Scale allows people to assess their own levels of grit. But more important than placing oneself on a continuum is understanding how to become grittier.
Here are practical steps that will help you exercise your grit “muscles:”
1) Take Play Seriously
Has anyone ever told you to find your passion? Though it’s common advice, “find” might be the wrong verb to use when it comes to discovering a passion.
Instead of “finding” a passion or waiting for it to find you — which puts you in a passive and often helpless position — “developing” your passion might be more productive. Instead of waiting for the passion to strike us like a bolt of lightning, we can take action in order to cultivate passion.
To develop a passion, try simply exploring and playing, without the putting pressure on yourself to figure out which interests will stick and which won’t.
Interests are not found through contemplation or thought but are developed through interactions with the outside world. So don’t overthink it, just go out and play.
2) Develop a Passion
“Whatever it is that you want to do, you’ll find in life that if you’re not passionate about what it is you’re working on, you won’t be able to stick with it.” – Jeff Bezos
A big component of grit is perseverance, and let’s face it: Few people are willing to work day in and day out on something in which they’re completely uninterested.
Research has shown that people have much greater work satisfaction and job performance when they do something that fits with their personal interests. However, it’s unlikely that someday you’ll try something and immediately know that it’s what you want to do for the rest of your life.
In multiple interviews with high achievers, Duckworth has found that for a lot of them, the road to their passion wasn’t smooth and many of them spent years exploring different avenues.
Barry Schwartz, a psychology teacher at Swarthmore College and author of the book The Paradox of Choice, argues that what most often holds people back from a serious career interest is unrealistic expectations.
Schwartz compares this to the process of finding a mate, saying, “Meeting a potential match, not the one and only perfect match, but a promising one — is only the very beginning.”
Duckworth, meanwhile, shows through her research that “passion for your work is a little bit of discovery, followed by a lot of development, and then a lifetime of deepening.”
If you’re in the discovery stage, these questions might be helpful:
- What do I like to think about?
- Where does my attention normally wander to?
- What do I really care about?
- What matters most to me?
- How do I enjoy spending my time?
But remember: You have to develop and deepen an interest before it becomes a passion.
3) Practice Deliberately
Practice doesn’t always lead to mastery. Sure, it helps, but let’s face it: You could practice tennis for ten years and never master the perfect serve. So, what is it that sets apart those who achieve extraordinary levels of mastery in their fields?
They don’t just practice; they practice deliberately. Here’s to do it:
- Set a stretch goal (a goal that exceeds your current level of skill);
- Practice with full concentration and effort (Channel Will Smith.);
- Look for immediate and informative feedback;
- Repeat with reflection and refinement.
4) Focus on Purpose
At the heart of purpose is the idea that what you do matters, not just to yourself but to others. Purpose has a prosocial focus.
In any activity, there are bound to be setbacks and moments of boredom, doubt, anxiety, and disappointment. we’re more likely to push through the hard times if our efforts give us meaning and contribute to something larger than ourselves.
In her research, Duckworth found a correlation between grit and purpose. Grittier individuals were more motivated to seek meaning in their lives, and the contribution of their efforts to the lives of others revealed a powerful source of motivation.
So one way of focusing on your purpose is to seek out the prosocial benefits of whatever it is that you do. Doing so is linked to greater satisfaction at work and in life.
So is grit the new “it” when it comes to explaining extraordinary performance and achievement?
Research shows it’s definitely part of the equation. Still, keep in mind that we are complex beings whose outcomes are determined by numerous traits and factors, so improving success and performance requires us to consider more than a single concept.
With that said, Duckworth’s research work is important in that it challenges the importance of innate talent, helping to highlight the fact that behind every extraordinary person are countless hours of dedicated practice and commitment. That’s something each of us can work toward.
Can you identify an area or time in your life where you demonstrated this kind of passion and perseverance? And what could you achieve if you started applying these grit steps in your life right now?
We’d love to you hear from you, so add your voice in the comments below.
Want More Information on Grit?
Watch Angela’s introductory overview of Grit below, or check out her book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.
Ducksworth, A. (2016): The power of passion and perseverance. Scribner
Ducksworth, A. L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M. D., Kelly, D. R. (2007). Grit: Perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(6), 1087-1101.