“Talent is common. What you invest to develop that talent is the critical final measure of greatness.” In her book Grit, Angela Duckworth shares this quote from Anson Dorrance, coach of the hugely successful University of North Carolina soccer team, as she tells the story of how Dorrance won 22 national championships in 31 years through relentlessly recruiting the grittiest young women he could find. Grit is a remarkable book that challenged many of my beliefs about achievement and success.
In Grit, Duckworth argues that what people accomplish in life depends more on grit than on innate talent or ability. At first this gave me pause. As I’ve shared in earlier blogs, I’m a big believer in the “Strength Finder” school of thought, that the key to success, for an individual or an organization, is to identify innate talent and make sure we function in that “strength zone” as much as possible. In other words, talent is most important, so find it and deploy it. But Duckworth suggests otherwise. As much as talent counts, she says, effort counts more. This focus on effort led to the central finding of her decades of research: “Grit” is more important than anything in predicting human achievement.
According to Duckworth, grit has two components: passion and perseverance. First, passion. For Duckworth, passion equals “commitment over time.” Sustained, enduring devotion to a clear goal. Having passion for something is caring about it in a loyal, steady, enduring way. It means having the same ultimate goal over a long period of time, and not wavering in pursuit of it. It means “going after it” every day. Discovering our passion comes from a trial and error process of discovering what interests us and how that interest can best contribute to the well-being of others.
Perseverance is a little more straightforward. It’s about practice. You may have heard about the “10,000 hour rule,” the idea that you become an expert by practicing something for 10,000 hours. Not just any kind of practice, but deliberate, focused practice. The type of practice that focuses on one narrow aspect of overall performance, and then develops the habit of practicing it with full concentration and effort every day. Together with passion, this type of perseverance makes people “gritty.”
In her research, Duckworth sets out to determine what difference grit makes in people’s lives. She developed a “Grit Grid” which she used to measure the level of grit in 1200 high school students. She asked these students to identify their extracurricular activities in high school, how long they stuck with those activities, and their overall achievement level in these activities. Through this process, she developed the grit score for each student. After two years, only 34% of the students studied were still enrolled in college. But 69% of the students who scored 6 of 6 on the Grit Grid were still in college, while only 16% of the students who scored 0 of 6 on the Grit Grid were still enrolled. The predictive power of grit was striking.
Anson Dorrance administers the Grit Grid to every recruit for his UNC soccer team. Pete Carroll, coach of the Seattle Seahawks, uses grit principles when he selects players. The admission staff at Harvard College uses similar grit principles when they decide which of their many talented applicants to admit. Grit clearly makes a difference.
The best news about grit is that we can each “grow our grit.” Unlike talent, it’s something we can improve. Duckworth identifies two ways to accomplish that. First, from the “inside out”. Find something you’re interested and passionate about, and develop the habit of deliberately practicing it every day. Second, from the “outside in.” Get yourself in a gritty culture and hang around gritty people. It will wear off on you and shape who you are.
As I thought about Duckworth’s work, a few practical implications occurred to me. First, if you’re in a leadership role, pay more attention to identifying and hiring people with high levels of grit. They will usually outperform their more talented peers who lack grit. Second, if you’re a parent, work hard to develop habits of grit in your kids. It may be the most important gift you give them. And finally, if you run an organization, work hard to develop a gritty culture. It will wear off on everyone who joins your organization.
So I still believe in talent. There’s no sense in trying to develop a person in an area where they have limited talent. But once you’ve identified an area of talent, “grit” makes all the difference in whether or not a person will develop that talent, and ultimately achieve great things in their life.