Tuesday, August 25, 2009

With Grit, Nothing is Impossible

Over the years, I’ve used the phrase “grit, guts, and genius” – the “3G factor” – to describe qualities needed to succeed in the face of adversity. The term comes from a terrific (but out-of-print) book by John Hillkirk and Gary Jacobson called Grit, Guts, and Genius: True Tales of Megasuccess (1990). The book tells the stories of magnates, sports coaches, and spelling bee champions.

With 2009 being all about Winning Ugly, I’ve been keeping a keen eye on literature about human motivation and performance, both Zen and muscle-inspired. Jonah Lehrer is one smart guy to look out for, and his recent Boston Globe article, 'The Truth about Grit', turned my head.

Grit comes from working long days in the trenches and knowing more about that trench than anyone else. It’s the 10,000 hours principle that Malcolm Gladwell highlighted in his book Outliers – that to become an expert in anything you need to have spent at least 10,000 hours doing it. Hockey immortal Wayne Gretzky said: “I wasn’t naturally gifted in terms of size and speed; everything I did in hockey I worked for”.

The value of sweat and toil is not a revelation, but some new studies have unveiled the neuroscience of grit and its role in achieving goals. These psychologists have measured grit and compared its role in success compared with intelligence and innate talent. Guess what? Grit plays a huge role. “Nobody is talented enough to not have to work hard, and that’s what grit allows you to do”, said Angela Duckworth, the psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania who led the study. I know this first hand. I didn’t finish high school and left only equipped with a capacity to think big, talk fast, and work hard.

Personality traits, as I’ve mentioned with salespeople, can play a much larger role in personal achievement than mere intelligence alone. In fact, people who are told their whole life how smart they are may well be at a disadvantage. Better to praise your kids for working hard than being smart.

In the Grit studies, psychologists explore if grit can be taught or if it’s part of your DNA. There are some fascinating case studies, including the likelihood of cadets dropping out after the first summer of training (known as “Beast Barracks”). This may have profound implications for the way we educate students, recruit employees, identify leaders, and select teams. From science to sport to business to the military, success may well be about working harder than everyone else. Follow this and genius is close at hand.

Interested in knowing how you stack up on the “Grit Scale”? You can test yourself with the University of Pennsylvania’s 17-point survey at http://www.gritstudy.com/.