Want to be exceptional? Develop grit.

How do world-class achievers push beyond their limits, rise up in the face of enormous challenges and setbacks, and ultimately achieve their goals? How do they develop the determination, and fortitude necessary to prevail? They have grit. Angela Duckworth does a great job of identifying what grit is, and how anyone can develop grit for themselves, in her book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.

Passion and perseverance

What is grit? Angela explains that grit is a combination of passion and perseverance.

“The highly successful had a kind of ferocious determination that played out in two ways. First, these exemplars were unusually resilient and hardworking. Second, they knew in a very, very deep way what it was they wanted. They not only had determination, they had direction. It was this combination of passion and perseverance that made high achievers special. In a word, they had grit.”

Angela quotes research from Stanford psychologist Catherine Cox, published way back in 1926 (the findings still resonate today!). Cox analyzed over 300 exceptionally accomplished historical figures, including people like Napoleon Bonaparte, Isaac Newton, and George Washington. Cox found four indicators that distinguished these high achievers. These indicators can be mapped to Angela Duckworth’s framework of passion and perseverance.

The first two indicators can be grouped under “passion.”

First indicator:

“Degree to which he works with distant objects in view (as opposed to living from hand to mouth). Active preparation for later life. Working toward a definite goal.”

Second indicator:

“Tendency not to abandon tasks from mere changeability. Not seeking something fresh because of novelty. Not ‘looking for a change.’”

These high achievers demonstrated passion because they had long-term goals, and remained dedicated to them. They weren’t distracted by other tasks — their passion enabled them to remain singularly focused.

The second two indicators can be grouped under “perseverance.”

Third indicator:

“Degree of strength of will or perseverance. Quiet determination to stick to a course once decided upon.”

Fourth indicator:

“Tendency not to abandon tasks in the face of obstacles. Perseverance, tenacity, doggedness.”

The high achievers demonstrated their perseverance by having the determination to stick to a course of action, and the persistence to continue in the face of setbacks.

Effort counts twice

Society puts too much emphasis on talent, and not enough on grit. What Angela argues in her book is that talent gives you some advantages, but it’s effort that matters more when it comes to achievement. Having grit is what enables you to put forth your best, concentrated effort when the stakes are high and the challenges are enormous.

Angela provides us with two helpful equations to keep in mind when we think about achievement:

  • Skill = talent * effort
  • Achievement = skill * effort

In other words:

  • Achievement = (talent * effort) * effort

So effort counts twice. She explains this point in more detail:

“Talent is how quickly your skills improve when you invest effort. Achievement is what happens when you take your acquired skills and use them.”

Grammy-award winning artist Will Smith recognized the importance of effort — and therefore grit — when he observed:

“I’ve never really viewed myself as particularly talented. Where I excel is ridiculous, sickening work ethic… The only thing that I see that is distinctly different about me is: I’m not afraid to die on a treadmill. I will not be outworked, period.”

This is why people who may be more talented often don’t prevail when they face competitors who have more grit. Those gritty competitors who go the distance, who put in the hours with continual practice, who get up and keep trying even in the face of setbacks and failures, will eventually outperform those who started with superior “talent.”

The four components of grit

So how does one develop grit? Angela points to four components of grit that can be cultivated over time:

  • Interest
  • Practice
  • Purpose
  • Hope

Interest means that you enjoy your work. You find the endeavor exciting, fascinating, and fulfilling. “I love what I do!”

Practice is the discipline of wanting to improve your performance. You have to be willing to devote focused time, day after day, to increasing your skill (talent * effort). “Whatever it takes, I want to improve!”

Purpose is having the knowledge that your work matters to people other than yourself. Your work becomes a way to serve others, to scale your impact beyond just yourself. “My work is important — both to me and to others.”

Hope is believing that your efforts will improve the situation, and that you will ultimately succeed. It’s what allows you to keep going in the face of setbacks, and live according to the old Japanese saying, “Fall seven, rise eight.” Gritty hope goes beyond saying, “I have a feeling tomorrow will be better.” It is saying, “I resolve to make tomorrow better.”

We marvel at the determination, tenacity, and persistence that world-class athletes, innovators and leaders have brought to their work. These high achievers have demonstrated grit with their singular, relentless focus on long-term goals in the face of enormous challenges and painful setbacks.

Angela Duckworth has done a fantastic job analyzing what grit is, and how individuals can develop grit from within. She writes that grit is a combination of passion (long-term, focused pursuit of your goals) and perseverance (will and persistence, even in the face of setbacks).

If you don’t have time to read the book, I recommend checking out the TED talk that she gave back in 2013:

She sums it up quite well in the talk when she says:

“Grit is passion and perseverance for very long-term goals. Grit is having stamina. Grit is sticking with your future, day in, day out, not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years, and working really hard to make that future a reality. Grit is living life like it’s a marathon, not a sprint.”

How do you have world-changing impact as an entrepreneur, product manager, or business leader? It’s by solving truly difficult problems. And these problems may take us years to solve. If you want to tackle these types of challenging problems, you need grit. Angela Duckworth’s book will give you some insights about how to develop grit in yourself. I learned a lot about what I want to cultivate in myself, as well as in my teammates, as we tackle hard problems together.