Grit matters more than talent

By | September 28, 2016

Grit is a casual word which means “resolve” in English. Endurance with a mission. Doing something difficult and not giving up. It is the opposite of complacency or indecision. Clearly, people with grit are going to be more successful – because by definition, they are not giving up. That said, how important is it? Is it more important that talent? Angela Duckworth, Professor from Wharton Business School thinks so and see’s the formula for success like this:  Talent x effort = skill. . . . skill x effort = achievement.

consultantsmind-grit-formula

So basically you need to apply a whole lot of effort twice. . . 1) to get good at a skill  2) to apply that skill usefully. This is in sync with a barrage of academic research, business books, and old-fashion thinking, which hammers home some of the same points:

  • (True) passion occurs after you master a skill / field (hat tip: Cal Newport)
  • Success requires obsessive focus on a goal (hat tip: Tony Robbins)
  • Mastery requires relentless deliberate practice outside your comfort zone; popular short-hand has become the 10,000 hour rule  (hat tip: Anders Ericsson)
  • Think ahead. If you plan on quitting in the future, quit now before you start. Otherwise, you should push through the Dip (hat tip: Seth Godin)

I watched Duckworth’s 6min TED video a few years ago. She started as a McKinsey consultant then taught underprivileged students. She quickly realizes that GRIT (stick-to-it-ness) was a better predictor of long-term success than pure talent – and went back for a PhD. Fascinating story about doctoral thesis adviser who pushes the author to “stop reading so much and go think.”  BOOM.

She just published a book, GRIT: The Power of Passion and Perseverance (affiliate link) and tells dozens of great stories illustrating her points. Stories of Steve Young, Warren Buffett, Jeff Bezos, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Geoffrey Canada, Pete Carroll, Anders Ericsson, Jamie Dimon, Will Shortz, Barry Schwartz, and John Irving.

West Point. In the book, her first example is military academy where the selection process is brutally selective. 14,000 apply, 2,400 qualify (grades, athleticism, sponsorship by a US Congressman), 1,400 are chosen. Most applicants were captains of their high school sports teams. Yet, 1 in 5 quit before graduation. 1 in 5. That is monster attrition. It turns out that those with more GRIT (passion + perseverance) were much more likely to graduate. For these people “endurance is the passion”. They have determination and direction. Giving up is literally not an option. They are never good enough.

Grit Score. How in the world do you measure this stuff? She has a 10 question Grit Scale here which measures both your passion and perseverance. It’s funny because there are parts of my life where I have major GRIT (blogging 4years, married 17years) and some where I don’t any grit (golf, gym membership heh heh). All-in-all, looks like I am a 3.6, which honestly, is less gritty than I thought I was. Bummer. We all want to be gritty, right?

consultantsmind-grit-score

Distracted by talent. Duckworth argues that we undervalue hard work, grit, and perseverance. Instead, organizations (read: universities, companies etc) seek out “talent” using a host of metrics to measure intelligence, education, athleticism which often correlated poorly with long-term success. She goes further to say that there is a mythology around talent which gives people an easy way out.

Our vanity, our self-love promotes the cult of 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 not need to compete.’ – Nietzsche

Growing grit from the inside:

  • Interest: Test to see what you like. Where does your mind wander to?  How do you like to spend your time? What do you detest? Experiment with different difficult things.  Two caveats here: 1) Cal Newport argues in So Good They Can’t Ignore You, that you cannot really get passionate about something without being good at it first. 2) This is not a fleeting interest. To really develop a skill – it takes years and thousands of hours of practice. So you had better develop nuanced interest in a topic. . not just the puppy love “oh maybe golf would be fun to learn”.
  • Practice: This can take many forms, but clearly it needs to be deliberate practice, which challenges you to do difficult things a little better each time. Also, it should be pleasurable enough that you occasionally (or frequently) have Flow (affiliate link).
  • Purpose: This chapter was a bit inconclusive. Simple idea: if you have a top-level goal (a purpose) that can be very motivational. Did not require 26 pages to make this point.
  • Hope: This is powerful. Focusing on growth and improvement gives hope. Language can be critically important here. Some words promote growth and grit (e.g., you are learning, what else can we do better?) while others impede grit (e.g., you are a natural, at least you tried, maybe this is not your strengths). As parents and mentors, it’s important we focus on their efforts, not bland compliments on results.

Grit from the outside. A good portion of this section is on parenting, getting kids exposed to extracurricular activities, and generating a culture of grit. For me, I like how she summed up her personal parenting experience with Hard Thing Rule:

  1. Everyone has to focus on 1 hard thing
  2. You can quit, but only at a logical milestone (end of year, end of lessons etc). This prevents wishy-washy, quit-whenever-I-want-to attitude
  3. You pick your own hard thing
  4. Need to do a “hard thing” for at least 2 years, once you have started.

Some criticism.  To Duckworth’s own surprise, this Grit-talk has taken off in educational circles and schools, parents, etc are eagerly trying to reverse-engineer it so their kids have grit and succeed. Big surprise, this fails for lots of reasons as Duckworth explains here. Duckworth also got a lot of academic slack for research methods here and the similarities with previous research on conscientiousness.

In her defense, she has done the hard work. She has 37 pages of notes and annotations and her TED talk is only 6 minutes long (not the usual 17 min) because she says there is a lot to find out on this topic.

Consultantsmind takeaway: GRIT matters because big (interesting, worthwhile) problems take a long time to get done. As Seth Godin mentions, “Only the perfect [difficult] problems remain.” It takes GRIT to transform an organization or culture. It takes GRIT to get to a world-class level of mastery. It takes GRIT to do things that matter.

We see wishy-washy behavior in corporate America all the time. Very few companies have GRIT. Don’t be like them.

Set a goal worthy of your passion and perseverance. Find what you are good at, challenges you, satisfies you. Find what gives you flow and get at it.

Related links:

Leave a Reply