If talent is overrated and we need grit to excel, how can we cultivate it for work and life?
Angela Duckworth opens her 2017 book, Grit, with an anecdote about cadets at the US Military Academy at West Point. She was intrigued as to why, after a lengthy and rigorous admissions process, one in five of the cadets drop out before they graduate – and a substantial number during the first two months, a time when they’re subjected to an intensive seven-week training programme know ominously as Beast.
By the time Duckworth was asking questions about who exactly makes it through Beast – and why – the army had been asking itself the same question for years. Its own rigorous scoring system for new recruits, which carefully plots talent and ability, was no help. It seemed that the answer was much less tangible: it had to do with perseverance, a “never give up” attitude. In Duckworth’s language, those successful cadets had grit, the passion and perseverance that helps us to achieve long-term goals.
Duckworth is not saying that talent is unimportant, just that it’s overrated. However much we appear to applaud effort, most of us have a natural tendency to gravitate towards what we see as natural ability, that magical skill we couldn’t hope to acquire ourselves. But whether that’s the cult of seemingly effortless sporting stars or workplace talent programmes aimed exclusively at the people considered to be high potentials (HiPos), there’s a real danger that everyone else gets left in the shadows.
And, as we saw from those West Point cadets, it’s also clear that potential and natural ability are not the only path to achievement. “Our potential is one thing” says Duckworth, “what we do with it is quite another.”
Effort counts twice
So, if potential doesn’t always, on its own, lead to achievement, what does?
“With everything perfect, we do not ask how it came to be,” wrote Nietzsche. That mystical talent again. But the reality is that even the most shining exemplars are what Nietzsche calls “craftsmen”, acquiring greatness through the “seriousness of the efficient workman”. This is at the heart of Duckworth’s answer: effort. In fact, effort counts twice because it not only builds skill, but makes skill productive.
Talent x effort = skill
Skill x effort = achievement.
The trouble is, we humans all too often fall short when it comes to the perseverance needed to get really good at something. Without effort, even the most talented linguist is likely to give up on that new language. How many of the most well-intentioned of us actually carry through on those life plans? The strivers among us, on the other hand, put in continuous and consistent effort over the long term to improve our skill - so much so that we become better than the talented who are more complacent.
Effort, therefore, is a multiplier, to the extent that “someone twice as talented but half as hard-working as another person might reach the same level of skill but still produce dramatically less over time". And time matters; with grit; it’s a marathon, not a sprint.
Passion and goals
Despite – or perhaps because of – the popularity of Duckworth’s grit thesis, it’s come in for a fair share of criticism, notably that she gives undue attention to only one of the many “independent variables” that contribute to achievement and personal wellbeing. Others have suggested that, as a disciple of positive psychology guru, Martin Seligman, her work is no more than a reframing of positive psychology’s “learned optimism”.
In particular, alarm has been raised by the adoption of grit strategies in schools, with critics seeing the “cult of effort” as damaging and unhelpful. As with Carol Dweck’s ideas about growth mindset, there’s unease about the widespread application of thinking that tends to put the onus for improvement on children themselves rather than the context within which they learn.
The same is probably less true for us adults, who need to take responsibility for our own personal growth and development. Crucially, too, Duckworth is clear that perseverance on its own is not enough. Remember, grit is also about passion. If we’re in it for the long game, we’re going to need that passion to sustain us along the way. And for that, we need a hierarchy of personal goals, a combination of:
an overarching vision, a big dream, something greater that’s meaningful to you and that can inspire you for a long time
smaller, achievable, goals, to help you get wins, make progress and stay motivated.
In between could be all sorts of mid-level goals, but however these goals are articulated, the alignment between them is what matters, as is the decision we make about which goals to pursue and which ones we can ditch.
We may have more than one top-level goal to which we aspire; Duckworth, for example, has different goals for her personal and professional lives. It might also not always be possible – or desirable – to focus too intently too soon on what could become a straitjacket rather than an ambition. But when it comes to high-level achievement, having a clear vision and a sense of the steps we need to take to achieve it is an important component of grit.
All this talk of goal alignment and effort may sound exhausting. It’s important to bear in mind, though, that grit isn’t a fixed quality. We can cultivate it. If we want to be grittier, we need to ask ourselves why we aren’t already as gritty as we’d like to be. Perhaps we abandon things because we get bored, because we think they aren’t worthwhile, or because we lose self-confidence. To overcome these problems, Duckworth identifies four key characteristics of grit:
We need to care enough, and be curious about, what we want. Charles Darwin might not have had the IQ of many of the contemporary thinkers of his time, but his fascination with, and love of, the natural world was a powerful leveller. The rest, as they say, is history.
We won’t get better unless we work at it. Think about the principles of deliberate practice and consider how they might help. And make that practice a regular habit. When writing, the author, Haruki Murakami, reputedly works from 4am to 10am, exercises at 12 noon and spends the rest of the day reading and listening to music. He’s in bed by 9.00pm before starting over the next day. Perhaps not luxury most of us can afford, but we get the idea.
We need a reason to do what we do. Purpose, according to Duckworth, is “the idea that what we do matters to people other than ourselves”. As well as a core grit factor, purpose can be a great motivator. Albert Einstein said: “Strive not to be a success, but rather to be of value.” Not a bad role model.
If we don’t think it’s possible, we won’t try to do it. Grit rests on the expectation that our own efforts can improve our future. We need to adopt a Carol Dweck’s growth mindset and reframe our thoughts about adversity; in Duckworth’s words ,“if we stay down, grit loses. If we get up, grit prevails.” A little optimism, it seems, can go a long way.
Take the Grit Scale
Duckworth’s Grit Scale is a simple series of questions designed to elicit how we score for those core components of grit: passion and perseverance. The scale can only measure how gritty we perceive ourselves to be, but it’s a good starting point to reflect on our staying power and how it might influence our life goals.
Country and Western doyenne, Dolly Parton, has spoken regularly about the effort she’s expended to make it to, and stay at, the top: "Above everything else I've done, I've always said I have more guts than talent."
Parton is clearly not without talent, but it’s also easy to see how her perseverance, her effort, has more than counted twice in a career that continues to confound expectations. Bottling some of that ol’-fashioned grit might just provide the resilience we all need.
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