The Secret to Success: Authentic GritNone By Caroline Adams Miller
On July 5th, 2015, television-watching history occurred when the United States women played against Japan in the World Cup final. The game was epic, featuring heroics from several U.S. players, most notably Carli Lloyd, who scored three goals. It was the most-watched soccer game ever in the history of the sport in the U.S., leading many young girls and boys to proclaim that they wanted to become as tough and successful as the women they’d watched battle against long odds to be crowned world champions.
Although the game immediately became sporting lore, what is less well-known are the twisting, difficult, long paths that several of the team’s stars took to even make that squad. Six of them shared the failures and embarrassments they had endured after being eliminated from youth squads and Olympic developmental programs in formative years. Lloyd, for example, remembers the sting of being cut from the U-21 national team, which was a “wake-up call” resulting in the cultivation of obsessive practice habits and mindset training that took her from good to elite.
The quality that these players embody is “grit”—which has been defined as “passion and perseverance in pursuit of long-term goals.” Although these players all possessed high ambitions, discipline and even resilience, they all cited that their failures had been the crucial ingredient in pushing harder to develop grit, a rare but coveted quality that is unique to people who don’t just succeed in the short run—gritty people hang in there for years while trying to accomplish something that lights them up and gives them purpose.
Grit is a hot topic these days because of research emanating from academia, especially the work of Dr. Angela Duckworth at the University of Pennsylvania, who has found that her simple Grit Scale predicts success in a number of challenging environments, including retention at West Point Military Academy, black men who complete college, finalists at the National Spelling Bee, and even in marriages. Her 2013 TED talk about grit, entitled “The Secret to Success,” has been viewed millions of times, and even the Obama Education Department has named the cultivation of grit as its number-one priority in U.S. classrooms.
The conversations about grit couldn’t come at a more timely moment. There is a cumulative sigh of frustration in schools, universities and workplace settings about the problems noted in the Millennial generation. They were raised by parents who tried to protect them from failure and enhance self-esteem by praising them for participation instead of success. Many say this has led to rampant grade inflation, epidemic levels of anxiety and depression on college campuses, and even a dip in American entrepreneurial efforts. Even national headlines bemoan the lack of critical thinking skills of young adults who can’t hear dissenting opinions without complaining about “microaggression.”
Fortunately, the backlash about overweight, anxious, lazy and unhappy Americans has coincided with Duckworth’s findings that about half of one’s ability to display grit is inborn; like happiness, the other half is determined by what we choose to think about and do every day, and you don’t need to be an Olympic athlete to make the grade. All of us have the ability to change, if we choose.
For example, some of the most promising work about how to cultivate grit comes from Stanford University’s Carol Dweck, who has found that children develop a “fixed” mindset when they are overpraised for outcome over effort, which leads them to avoid scenarios in which they might fail. An example of an outcome that might not deserve to get praised in this new approach is “an easy A,” which wouldn’t be indicative of persistence, creativity or resourceful” effort,” all traits which do deserve praise. Conversely, cultivating a “growth” mindset of resilience and curiosity occurs when children are told that they have haven’t learned or demonstrated a competency yet. The use of this simple word has had a profound impact on learning environments, confidence and test scores.
Gritty people are also passionate about something that fascinates and engages them. You are more likely to be this way if you are lit up by a goal that is important to you, and not necessarily because it’s popular or meaningful to someone else. Everyday grit can also be cultivated when people rise to the challenge of fighting for a meaningful cause, pursuing sobriety, or just getting to and from a job, for example. In early 2014, the tale of James Roberson went viral because instead of complaining about public transportation, low wages or unrewarding work, he walked 21 miles round-trip to a much-needed job in Detroit, where he had a perfect attendance record.
Gritty people have the confidence to ask themselves “why not?” instead of “why?” when faced with a challenge. These are the people who have the power to alter history because they take risks and bet on themselves. Abraham Lincoln refused to back down on eliminating slavery in the United States in the 19th century in spite of losing elections and being publicly vilified, but where would we be if he’d simply quit? And no one would own an iPhone if Steve Jobs had been resigned to his fate after being fired from Apple, the company he had started.
Another distinguishing feature of grit is the ability to tolerate physical and emotional discomfort without quitting. Many do this by “changing the channel” in their heads and substituting inspirational slogans or positive mental images for negative self-talk, which is a learned skill.
And it goes without saying that to have grit, you have to possess hope. Gritty people know how to keep themselves in an optimistic frame of mind by connecting with people who inspire, support and motivate them. Diana Nyad, the distance swimmer who finally completed the daunting Cuba to Key West journey on her fifth attempt at the age of 63, cited dozens of people for their essential contributions to her victory. In the business world, these people are called “positive energizers”.
Grit is a key factor in happiness because the meaningful life often includes the pursuit of big, sometimes-impossible, goals. These goals can be linked to our ikigai—the Japanese word for purpose, or “that which I wake up for.” So if you want to live without regret, and take the risks that put you outside your comfort zone, you will want to become friends with the gritty behaviors that can amplify resilience and give you the staying power to get to the finish line.
Ready to get gritty? Join Caroline's 4-week Happify Labs track, Get Tough & Grow Your Grit.
Caroline Adams Miller is the bestselling author of Creating Your Best Life. She is on the advisory board at Happify and blogs about happiness, success and thriving at carolinemiller.com. Caroline's TEDx talk about grit, "The Moments that Make Champions," is here.
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