In Defense of Grit
One might well wonder, given that I just wrote a book entitled, When Grit Is Not Enough, why I’d be taking the time to defend grit as a concept at all. It’s not that I am anti-grit. Far from it. As a matter of fact, when I took the grit self-assessment that Angela Duckworth, Grit’s author, so helpfully included in her book, I was not surprised—and also quite pleased, to be honest—that I was grittier than most people. And I credit that grittiness for powering me through a couple of degrees, moves, and provided the wherewithal to weather several career ups and downs along the way. There are times when, indeed, grit may be all you need. Consider this your grit tutorial.
So for the uninitiated, grit is the combination of passion (an abiding, strong interest in something) plus perseverance (persistence in doing something despite difficulties) in the pursuit of long-term, often challenging goals. Grit took the sport world by storm back in 2014 when it was first published, as it was seen as the antidote to what some saw as the generation of entitlement - athletes of the “everyone gets a trophy” era. Don't just participate, get gritty and win!
I wasn’t a big fan of the term at the time, because I saw how it became just another tool to put down those who were struggling. Like “mental toughness,” grit had that gnarly, rugged connotation…so when you didn’t have enough of it? You were therefore soft, weak, a loser, or worse.
It was only after I actually read the book, Grit, that I got beyond the hype to understand what the term was really about. Grit is a result of Duckworth’s prolific research that suggested, surprisingly, in so many cases, talent isn’t enough to achieve success. The world is, in fact, littered with talented people who, for whatever reason, did not make it to their intended destination. What they did not possess, in enough measure, anyway, was a kind of “never give up attitude” that survived the inevitable failures or setbacks that come with the talent journey.
This isn’t so hard to imagine - if you are familiar with the fixed/learning mindset work of social psychologist Carol Dweck. In a nutshell, Dweck has found that people with a fixed mindset believe that talent is, well, fixed. And if my talent is a fixed quantity, and I identify with that talent, I will always want to be seen this way. Anything that threatens my identity as someone “talented,” such as a novel situation where I could fail, I will want to avoid that situation at all costs. On the other hand, individuals with a learning mindset see talent as changeable and value learning as the path to increasing one’s talent. Hand a fixed-mindset child a difficult puzzle, and you may well see that child hand that puzzle right back to you. No thank you, I might fail and that would mean I’m not as talented as I thought. On the other hand, learning-mindset kids love the too-hard puzzles for the challenge they provide and the chance to learn something new. And ask for more of the same.
Unsurprisingly, when Duckworth and Dweck teamed together, they discovered that, indeed, students with a growth mindset were significantly more gritty than those whose mindsets were fixed.
It is this thirst to learn and grow that fuels the secret sauce of grit. Gritty people, according to Duckworth, multiply the impact whatever talent they have by the efforts they make to increase their talent. By doing so, they become skilled. And by leveraging their skills further, with more effort, these people achieve.
The math looks like this:
Talent x Effort = Skill
Skill x Effort = Achievement
Duckworth would say that our talent is our potential, but that it takes more than just talent to succeed. Indeed, it takes even more than “just” effort and talent combined, in the sense that it’s the consistency of effort over time that really matters. That is, it does take a certain amount of grit to, say, do something challenging once. But coming back the next day…and the day after that? Way more emblematic of grit.
At the same time, it’s hard to imagine persevering over time on anything you aren’t truly interested in, and this is where the passion side of the grit equation comes in.
I admire Angela Duckworth’s candour when she admits that maybe the word ‘passion’ is not quite the term for this side of the equation. While we have all heard the old chestnut, “just follow your passion and you will be happy,” there are ample examples of where this fails us. As in, what if I don’t HAVE a passion? As well as the fact that passions are actually volatile things. No self-respecting marriage counselor would ever suggest that passion is durable enough to fuel a marriage for the long haul; it’s those couples who build on that initial passion with friendship, and who actively work to refresh their relationship who are more likely to (happily) go the marital distance.
In my book, I also take issue with the idea of passion for a few other reasons, preferring the idea of having a personal and professional sense of purpose. While passions often find us, we can work to discover and cultivate our purpose.
Whatever the case, there’s no disagreeing with the ample evidence Grit provides that says:
while talent is great, it’s overrated, and does not, on its own guarantee success in any endeavour.
effort matters more.
having a passion (or I might substitute purpose) gives the necessary interest and direction to effort. With that, our efforts all too often go awry or die on the vine.
Grit goes on to document what Duckworth calls “grit paragons,” people who demonstrated uncommon amounts of grit, as well as their stories. Well worth a read.
All this is to say that if you want to get a great grounding in grit before you read my book, Grit’s the real deal. Then you can buy my book and see why and how you might want to augment your grit. :)
Do you have a story of grit gone right (or wrong) to share? I’d love to hear about it!
For my newsletter tribe, I’m offering a limited-time 20% discount if you want to try on my book. Go to my website and, when prompted for a promo code, type in Newsletter2022. Happy reading! I'd love to hear how you found it!
P.S. In case you missed my main message :), I believe that high performance shouldn't hurt people. I provide individual and group coaching on achieving the performance goals you want without hurting yourself or your people in the process. In ways that are healthier, happier, and more sustainable. If you want more information or have questions, you can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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