Grit, Courage, Follow Through, Resilience, Excellence…

“The only thing that I see that is distinctly different about me is 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 than me, you might be sexier than me, you might be all of those things — you got it on me in nine categories. 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…” ­Oscar ­nominated actor and Grammy award­-winning musician Will Smith

Angela Lee Duckworth writes “The metaphor of achievement as a race recalls Aesop’s fable of the tortoise and the hare. This oft-­told story, which many of us heard as children in one form or another, preaches the value of plodding on, no matter how slow or uneven our progress, toward goals that at times seem impossibly far away. At the starting line, it is the hare who is expected to finish first. Sure enough, the hare quickly outpaces the tortoise, accumulating so great a lead that he lies down to take a nap mid­race. When the hare awakes, the tortoise, who all the while has been laboring toward his destination, is too close to the finish line to beat. Tortoise 1, hare 0.

It may be obvious that effort and stamina are required to accomplish anything worthwhile in life. But how easy is it to forget this fact in moments when we feel tortoise­-like relative to our seemingly hare­-like peers? Who among us presses on even as we are passed by those stronger, faster, and/or smarter? Who among us stays the course, running the race we committed to rather than choosing a different, new pursuit, after stumbling and losing ground? Who lives life as if it were a marathon, not a sprint?”

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, grit in the context of behavior is defined as “firmness of character; indomitable spirit.” Duckworth, based on her studies, tweaked this definition to be “perseverance and passion for long-term goals.” Others refer to it as backbone, chutzpah, fortitude, guts, stick-to-it-iveness and more.

Measuring Individual Differences in Grit

Recognition of the necessity of hard work and persistence is age­-old and universal. Nevertheless, individuals differ dramatically in their stamina for long­term goals. Gritty individuals are tortoise-­like, distinguished by their propensity to maintain “effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity, and plateaus in progress” (Duckworth, Peterson, Matthews, & Kelly, 2007, p. 1088). Less gritty individuals are, in contrast, more easily discouraged, prone to take “naps” mid­course, and frequently led off track by new passions.

Early 20th-­century psychologists attempted to measure trait-­level persistence using tasks of physical fortitude (e.g., arm extension tasks) and mental effort (e.g., unsolvable anagrams). But whether perseverance in controlled laboratory challenges, lasting minutes or seconds, reflects the same trait that inclines individuals toward the dogged pursuit of their personally valued goals over the course of months and years is an unanswered question.

The Brief Grit Scale comprises items describing consistency of interests (e.g., the reverse­-coded item, “I often set a goal but later choose to pursue a different one”) and long­-term persistence of effort (e.g., “Setbacks don’t discourage me,” “I finish whatever I begin”). Grit was distinguished from the general tendency to be reliable, self­ controlled, orderly, and industrious, with its emphasis on long­-term stamina rather than short­-term intensity.

Findings From The Grit Lab

Duckworth’s suggests that prodigious talent is no guarantee of grit. She found that grit and talent were either orthogonal or slightly negatively correlated. Her current hypothesis is that talented individuals, for whom learning and advancement come easily, have fewer opportunities (or, more aptly, necessities) to develop a resilient approach to failure and setbacks. Her research indicates that grit increases monotonically throughout adulthood.

One possibility is that people have a growing appreciation of the efficacy of effort as they age. Alternatively, consistent with the literature on identity formation, it may be that the value of specializing versus exploring diverse pursuits shifts as we age. Early in life, it may make more sense to privilege exploration over specialization. Until we develop a solid understanding of our own inherent interests and abilities, it may make sense to hold off on committing to lifelong goals. Later in development, it may be increasingly adaptive to stay with a particular vocational (or avocational) pursuit, especially since division of labor in our modern economy tends to reward specialization.

What mechanisms link grit to achievement? One important behavioral mechanism is deliberate practice, defined as practice activities designed to improve specific aspects of performance. In a study of finalists in the Scripps National Spelling Bee, Duckworth found that grittier children completed more hours of deliberate practice, operationalized as the study and memorization of word spellings and word roots in solitude. Consistent with the broader literature on deliberate practice and skill acquisition, practice activities rated by spellers as more pleasurable and less effortful (e.g., reading for pleasure, being quizzed by their parents) were dramatically less predictive of spelling performance. Instead, it was the hardest, least pleasurable practice that really paid off — and the grittiest kids who were able to do more of it.

Salient Aspects of Grit

Courage: While courage is hard to measure, it is directly proportional to your level of grit. More specifically, your ability to manage fear of failure is imperative and a predicator of success. The supremely gritty are not afraid to tank, but rather embrace it as part of a process. They understand that there are valuable lessons in defeat and that the vulnerability of perseverance is requisite for high achievement. Teddy Roosevelt, a Grand Sire of Grit, spoke about the importance of overcoming fear and managing vulnerability in an address he made at the Sorbonne in 1907. He stated:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strived valiantly; who errs, who comes again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.

Fear of failure, or atychiphobia as the medical-set calls it, can be a debilitating disorder, and is characterized by an unhealthy aversion to risk (or a strong resistance to embracing vulnerability). Some symptoms include anxiety, mental blocks, and perfectionism and scientists ascribe it to genetics, brain chemistry, and life experiences. Margaret Perlis write,” Courage is like a muscle; it has to be exercised daily. If you do, it will grow; ignored, it will atrophy.  Courage helps fuel grit; the two are symbiotic, feeding into and off of each other…and you need to manage each and how they are functioning together.” In the words of Eleanor Roosevelt, one can cultivate courage by doing “something that scares you everyday.”

Big Five Conscientiousness: Five core character traits: Openness, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism exists on a continuum with its opposite on the other end, and our personality is the expression of the dynamic interaction of each and all at any given time. According to Duckworth, of the five personality traits, conscientiousness is the most closely associated with grit.

Long-Term Goals and Endurance: Follow Through: Duckworth writes,“… achievement is the product of talent and effort, the latter a function of the intensity, direction, and duration of one’s exertions towards a long-term goal.” In “Outliers,” Gladwell contends that 10,000 hours of “deliberate practice” are needed to become world-class in any field. Perlis writes that “one of the distinctions between someone who succeeds and someone who is just spending a lot of time doing something is this: practice must have purpose. That’s where long-term goals come in. They provide the context and framework in which to find the meaning and value of your long-term efforts, which helps cultivate drive, sustainability, passion, courage, stamina…grit.”

But, a Princeton study contradicts this theory. In a meta-analysis of 88 studies on deliberate practice, the researchers found that practice accounted for just a 12% difference in performance in various domains. What’s really surprising is how much it depends on the domain: • In games, practice made for a 26% difference • In music, it was a 21% difference • In sports, an 18% difference • In education, a 4% difference • In professions, just a 1% difference

The best explanation of the domain dependency is probably found in Frans Johansson’s book ” The Clink Moment: Seizing Opportunity in an Unpredictable World.” In it, Johansson argues that deliberate practice is only a predictor of success in fields that have super stable structures. For example, in tennis, chess, and classical music, the rules never change, so you can study up to become the best. His first premise is that success is random.  The second is that individuals and corporations can do more to shape their success by identifying and focusing on the opportunities as they occur. Click moments are random events that lead to the opportunity for success. To increase your chances of achieving great success, Johansson believes that you need to increase the number of click moments in your life.  He proposes four ways to increase click moments.  These four ways are: (1) Take your eyes off the ball which is defined as taking time to explore ideas that are not related to your immediate goal, (2) Use intersectional thinking which is defined as finding a connection between unlike ideas, (3) Follow your curiosity because “curiosity is the way your intuition tells you that something interesting is going on”, and (4) Reject the predictable path which allows another set of opportunities to be presented that your competition may not be considering.

Purposeful bets are the actions that achievers take after a click moment occurs. Without investing time, money, reputation, or energy or some combination of all four, it is not possible to determine if the click moment is actionable.  Those investments are purposeful bets.  Johansson suggests how to place purposeful bets and suggests five different tactics.  These tactics are: (1) place many bets, (2) minimize the size of the bets, (3) take the smallest executable step, (4) calculate affordable loss, not return on investment, and (5) use passion as a fuel.

Johansson completes his book by discussing the three types of complex forces and how to harness them in order to improve your chances at dealing with the randomness of life and business.  His suggested tactics are:  (1) create large hooks for the forces to latch on to, (2) take a closer look at surprises and see them as opportunities, (3) look for an opening or a pathway to breakthrough success, (4) spot momentum and intensity which isn’t always as easy as it sounds, and (5) double down on your purposeful bets if you find something that works. So follow through on purposeful bets…

Resilience: Optimism, Confidence, and Creativity: In his book, Resilience, Why Things Bounce Back, Andrew Zolli defines resilience as “the ability of people, communities, and systems to maintain their core purpose and integrity among unforeseen shocks and surprises.”

According to Zolli, resilience is a dynamic combination of optimism, creativity, and confidence, which together empower one to reappraise situations and regulate emotion – a behavior many social scientists refer to as “hardiness” or “grit.” Zolli explains that “hardiness” is comprised of three tenants: “ (1) the belief one can find meaningful purpose in life, (2) the belief that one can influence one’s surroundings and the outcome of events, and (3) the belief that positive and negative experiences will lead to learning and growth.”

Excellence vs. Perfection: Margaret Perlis writes, “In general, gritty people don’t seek perfection, but instead strive for excellence. It may seem that these two have only subtle semantic distinctions; but in fact they are quite at odds. Perfection is excellence’s somewhat pernicious cousin. It is pedantic, binary, unforgiving and inflexible. Certainly there are times when “perfection” is necessary to establish standards, like in performance athletics such as diving and gymnastics. But in general, perfection is someone else’s perception of an ideal, and pursuing it is like chasing a hallucination. Anxiety, low self-esteem, obsessive compulsive disorder, substance abuse, and clinical depression are only a few of the conditions ascribed to “perfectionism.” To be clear, those are ominous barriers to success. Excellence is an attitude, not an endgame. The word excellence is derived from the Greek word Arête which is bound with the notion of fulfillment of purpose or function and is closely associated with virtue. It is far more forgiving, allowing and embracing failure and vulnerability on the ongoing quest for improvement. It allows for disappointment, and  prioritizes progress over perfection. Like excellence, grit is an attitude about, to paraphrase Tennyson…seeking, striving, finding, and never yielding.”


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