Monday Mornings with Madison

Grit is an Essential Ingredient for Success

Word Count:  1,714

Estimated Read Time: 7  min.

Grit in Action, Part 1

Practically every major business news outlet has written or broadcast an article or show in the last few years about grit.  New York Times.  Entrepreneur.  Inc.  Fast Company.  Fortune.  Business Insider.   Wired.  Forbes.  NPR.  Psychology Today.   Slate.  Washington Post.  Ted Talk.  American Radio Works.  Success.  PBS.  Why is this topic getting so much media attention?  While there has never been a shortage of books and theories about what it takes to succeed, the current focus is on grit because it is not only an essential ingredient for success, but a top predictor of success too.   And doesn’t everyone want to know if they have what it takes to succeed?

Let’s start by understanding what grit is.  All of these articles aren’t referring to the Meriam-Webster dictionary definition of grit as “courage and resolve; strength of character; indomitable spirit”, although it does have some relationship to that.  In its application to human behavior and success, grit is defined as “a positive, non-cognitive trait that is based on an individual’s passion for a particular long-term goal or end state, coupled with a powerful motivation to achieve that objective.”[1] In other words, it’s about having a perseverance and passion for long term goals.  So, based on that definition, grit isn’t actually a single trait as much as a rich stew of traits that, when combined within a person, becomes more like a super trait…. and thus an excellent predictor of success.  People with a lot of grit are usually successful.  So exactly what does grit look like in practice.  And, is it possible to deliberately increase our ‘grittiness’?  Is grit an inherited trait that some people simply have (like winning the lottery of personality traits), or is it something that is learned?

Beyond the Basic Definition of Grit

One of the first to really study the concept of grit was Dr. Angela Duckworth, a former classroom teacher who spotted an ‘extra something’ in her most successful students that had little to do with intelligence.  She decided to return to grad school to study it.   As a MacArthur Genius winner for work in this area, Dr. Duckworth is worthy of the title of guru of grit.  In her work, she explained what grit isn’t. “Grit isn’t talent. Grit isn’t luck. Grit isn’t how intensely, for the moment, you want something.  Instead, grit is about having… an ”ultimate concern” – a goal you care about so much that it organizes and gives meaning to almost everything you do.  And grit is holding steadfast to that goal.  Even when you fall down. Even when you mess up. Even when progress toward that goal is halting or slow.”[2] That starts to paint a picture of what grit is.

When broken down, grit is actually an amalgam of a number of other traits including courage, resilience, conscientiousness, follow-through, and excellence, combined and demonstrated in very specific ways.  And this super trait, if you will, is a solid predictor of success.  Duckworth created a tool to measure grit called the “Grit Scale”, which is highly effective in predicting success rates in many achievements.  In an article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Duckworth and her team reported that grit accounted for an average of 4% of the variance in predicting success outcomes, including educational attainment among two samples of adults, grade point average among Ivy League undergraduates, retention in two classes of United States Military Academy, West Point, cadets, and ranking in the National Spelling Bee.  Grit was a better predictor than IQ or SAT scores or many other traditional measures used to predict success.  Their findings indicated that the achievement of difficult goals entails not only talent but also the sustained and focused application of talent over time.

So clearly it’s important to have grit.  But just what does grit look like in practice?  Here are some insights.

  • People with grit are courageous in moving toward a goal almost to the point of impervious.  They aren’t afraid to blow it.   They brush off what others may think of them and don’t even give much thought to their own failures.  They don’t take failure personally.  Instead they see failures as necessary steps to reach success.  No one wants to fail but people with grit don’t give failures all that much importance.

Think of the Wright Brothers.  People don’t realize this now, but at the turn of the century, there were many people trying to create a man-operated flying machine.  Others were in the lead.  And then, in Dayton, Ohio, were Orville and Wilbur Wright, two brothers who owned a bicycle shop.  They weren’t college educated and they weren’t inventors.  They just had an idea that if they could create a flying machine, it would change the world.  So they used the proceeds from their little bicycle shop to try to create the first airplane.  Every time the Wright Brothers went out, they would bring five sets of parts because that’s how many times they would crash before they would stop for the day.  They expected to fail.  They planned to fail.  They even prepared adequately each day for multiple failures.  And fail they did.  Five times a day, every day, for years, their attempts to create a man-operated flying machine crashed.  In fact, they failed so much that by the time they succeeded, on Dec 17, 1903, there was no one there to witness their first flight.[3] They didn’t take failure personally and didn’t care what anyone said or thought of their failures.  They were intensely focused on their goal.  That’s grit.

According to article by Travis Bradley in Entrepreneur, a study conducted by the College of William and Mary interviewed over of 800 entrepreneurs. They found that the entrepreneurs who were most successful from the group had two qualities in common.  First, they could not envision themselves failing.  They simply could not see it.  Second, they couldn’t care less what other people thought of them.  They invested no time or energy into worrying what others thought of their failures or even stressing about the possibility of failing themselves.[4] It is as if they had Teflon skin.

  • People with grit are not just conscientious and achievement-oriented, they are more motivated than others.  They are driven to work harder than everyone else.  They are willing to get up earlier than most.  They are willing to work later than others.  They will keep working even when they don’t feel well.  Their determination springs from within; a deep ambition to achieve a goal.  People with grit are carefully, painstakingly and meticulously tenacious.  Think Usain Bolt.  The six-time Olympic gold winner is one of the greatest sprinters in Olympic history. The 30-year-old Jamaican sprinter boasts an incredible maximum speed of 27.79mph and is the current world record holder in both the 100m and 200m events.[5] The champion sprinter spends 90 minutes in the gym every day doing workouts specifically geared toward improving his speed and agility while maintaining an athletic body.  He isn’t just trying to be a great runner.  He is focused on winning Olympic Gold medals and works harder than most to achieve that.
  • People with grit follow-through.  They simply are not quitters.  They face adversity and press on even after most others would quit.  They are habitually willing to do things that no one else is willing to do.  They keep going even when they are told the goal is impossible or insane.  They have tenacity.  They persevere. They know that they must overcome an obstacle in order to hit their goal so they keep going.  Think Elon Musk. In June 2002, Musk founded SpaceX, with an objective to lower space transportation costs and colonize Mars.[6] Those are noble, but some might say insane, goals.  Musk invested much of his own wealth into SpaceX.  The company’s first three launches failed, sparking a lot of criticism and skepticism.  By 2008, there was only enough money left for one more launch.  If they failed, they would have to file for bankruptcy.  The fourth launch was a huge success.  As a result, SpaceX received a contract from NASA for $1.6 billion.  SpaceX was sending rockets to space at one third the cost of any other agencies in the business.  Part of SpaceX’s goal was met.  No one’s laughing at Musk anymore.  Regardless of the risk or criticism, Must was willing to persevere.  Despite the adversity, risk, and stress — when others would certainly have quit, Musk followed through.  For people like Musk, who have tons of grit, quitting is not an option.
  • People with grit are willing to rip off the proverbial band-aid.  They don’t put off things they dread.  They deal with tough situations head on.  They fire someone without delay.  They shut down a product without hesitation.  They are willing to do the hard stuff that others might procrastinate doing.  Think Steve Jobs.  Jobs was willing to kill off the Apple II to dedicate the resources needed for the iMac.  This caused a lot of bitterness and anger among Apple employees at the time, but Jobs was willing to ‘bite the bullet’ and make the unpopular decision in order to take the company in his visionary direction.  The story goes that he actually pulled the cord out of the wall of the Apple II computer that Andy Hertzfeld was using and walked him over to the iMac department.[7] Grit!
  • People with grit are also resilient… a combination of deep confidence, optimism and creativity.  They are willing to make all kinds of mistakes, look foolish, and then try again and again without feeling defeated or ashamed.  They don’t even hesitate or flinch before trying again.
  • People with grit shut out extreme emotions that can cause them to lose focus.  They won’t listen to their own doubts or fears.  They won’t allow themselves to be swayed by negativity and pessimism. They also won’t be swayed by bullishness and impulsiveness.  They keep their eye on their goal and keep pushing toward it undeterred.

Grit is great.  And you can’t have too much grit.  Another piece of good news is that grit is also learnable and can be increased!  How?  Tune in next week as we explore how to measure and increase your grit…. and help your employees, colleagues and perhaps even your kids to have more grit!

Quote of the Week

“Failure is an option here. If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough.” Elon Musk

[1] Duckworth, Angela, Grit:  The Power of Passion and Perseverance, First Edition, Scribner.

[2] June 2007, By:  Angela Duckworth, Christopher Peterson, Michael D. Matthews, and Dennis R. Kelly, Grit:  Perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 92 (6): 1087–1101.

[3] April 27, 2017, By:  Simon Sinek, How Great Leaders Inspire Action, TED Talk,

[4] November 13, 2017, By:  Travis Bradly, 11 Signs You Have the Grit Needed to Succeed, Entrepreneur,

[5] May 2, 2016, By:  James Gold, Usain Bolt Training Routine, Born to Work Out,

[6] May 6, 2016, Eric Berger, Because Failure is an Option, SpaceX can do Things like land Rockets on a Boat, Arstechnica,

[7] October 24, 2015, Richard Trenholm, 19 Questions You Might be Asking After Seeing ‘Steve Jobs.’, C/Net Culture,


© 2018, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.

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