We talk about the keys to success being hard work and perseverance. Yet we always look for shortcuts, certain that talent wins over grit and determination.
Grit – The real predictor of success
This week I reread Angela Duckworth’s book “Grit”. It is about her research into the real world components that predict success. There is a tendency to believe that people are born with certain talents and that those people blessed with intelligence, genetics, privilege, and education are always the most prone to achievement.
But Duckworth says that it is perseverance, not talent or any “blessings” that really determine succeeds. While talents can give people an edge, it is grit – the ability to stick with it – that is the dividing line between people who get what they want and those who do not.
The talent bias
The human bias towards beauty and talent is deeply ingrained. We think that attractive people are more intelligent, talented, and capable. Often we defer to them in these areas with no evidence that they actually possess any of the virtues we give them. It’s natural to assume that kids who can draw are destined to be artists, those who sing are going to be stars. The common wisdom is that young people who are tall and strong are naturals for sports.
We talk about our belief in hard work and grit. 2/3rds of us say that determination and perseverance carry more value than natural talent. Yet we maintain the belief that when someone is the top of their game it is because of their looks, their education, their station in life, or their god-given genes or genius.
Deep down, and for an ingrained reason, we don’t really think hard work is enough.
Grit outworks talent
The truth is that in many studies, Duckworth and others have found that not only is determination and persistence a key to success, but it is also most often the one factor that outweighs all others.
In testing everyone from kindergarteners to Navy Seals, it has been demonstrated that talent will get you a leg up, but it alone won’t get you there. Kids who believe they succeed due to innate talent frequently perform below other kids who believe they succeed based on the amount of work they put in. It is rarely the tallest, strongest, or most war-like recruit who makes it through Seal training; it is the one who will simply refuse to give in and ring the bell, regardless of the challenges thrown at them.
And it has been shown that talent without grit produces practically nothing. Leonardo DaVinci, universally acclaimed as the most talented man in history, studied from a very young age, apprenticed, and practiced for years, painting and drawing and sketching to hone the skills he needed to translate his concepts into art. Born to modest wealth, he was noted to be tall, handsome, urbane, and attractive. Even so, for all his great talent, he rarely finished commissions, worked on inventions that were more fantasy than practical, moved regularly to avoid debt, and left a relatively small legacy of finished works.
Michelangelo Buonarroti, a contemporary of DaVinci’s, was a “thick-necked bestial-looking man of ill-humor” who, by contrast, worked tirelessly on his projects, following through on most commissions and creating lasting works of art. His prodigious output of work makes him the best-documented artist of the 16th century.
Even Bruce Lee, the most famous martial artist of all time, recognized the value of hard work over plain talent: “I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.”
Grit meets passion
Without a doubt, you can get really good and things you like to do. When we say that “our heart isn’t in” a particular class, we can be sure that our efforts will not match those of someone who is passionate about that task.
Duckworth says that in areas where passion for a subject isn’t strong, don’t expect to see people exceeding. Motivation and a sense of purpose are vital for anyone, gritty or talented, to rise. If you are going to put in all the hard work that is necessary to climb the mountain, you are going to have to have a passion for it.
So, while “anyone could be President of the United States”, the truth is that only those who possess the determination to put in the work, coupled with a passion to achieve the job, will actually be happy in such a demanding position. Talent will simply make you a little better at it.
Practice on purpose
In the book, Duckworth says that you have to establish parameters for growth and achievement. You have to have goals and some of them have to be stretch goals.
If we want to get better at something we must put in the efforts to develop the skills, then apply the skills to reach our goals. In Duckworth’s estimation, talent alone not figure into achievement. It will factor into building skills, but only through effort.
She developed a formula that basically states:
|Talent x Effort = Skill|
|Skill x Effort = Achievement|
If you want to succeed, practice and build skills. But practice intelligently. Practice with deliberate intent.
Do this by setting goals and results. Make it measurable so it can be calculated. Make it something currently out of your reach so you are inspired, but not so far out of your reach that you are discouraged. Deliberate practice will get you off autopilot and simply going through the motions without actually improving. It will challenge you with new levels of achievement. And you will see great results, faster. This will happen regardless of your level of talent.
Having a coach to help develop and monitor a deliberate practice can be super-helpful in improving your skills. So is engaging with a culture of like-minded, like-motivated people. Building skill is hard work. It is hardest when you try to do it alone.
How I am using grit in my life
I’m not a natural at weight loss and fitness. But with sustained practice and effort, I could be successful at it. And I don’t think you need talent at weight loss.
The first thing is, of course, showing up. They say 80% of success is just showing up. After that, it’s hard work.
From my perspective there are 3 things to focus on:
- Determine my passion. I need to articulate my reasons for wanting to lose weight and get into shape more clearly. I need to make them pressing and relevant. When I have a “WHY” that resonates with me, I think I will be motivated to show up.
- Be deliberate in my practice. I’m not looking to be accidentally successful. I must have SMART goals that push me to reach a realistic goal that is nevertheless just out of my current reach. Then I have to judge my progress in measurable ways. Further on look into getting a coach or accountability partner to keep my efforts focused and effective.
- Create a winning environment. Change things around me to eliminate distractions and discouragements. Clean out the fridge and pantry of foods that are not in line with my eating program. Put my exercise clothes and equipment where it is easy to grab and use. Schedule my days so that I have time dedicated to building the skills I need. Move away from people who do not support my goals and towards people who do.
Most of all, as Angela Duckworth recommends, build my grit through little wins. Sustain my grit through positive reinforcement. Nourish my grit through clearly defined goals and feedback. And fall back on my grit when motivation and willpower flag.