To be gritty is to keep putting one foot in front of the other. To be gritty is to hold fast to an interesting and purposeful goal. To be gritty is to invest, day after week after year, in challenging practice. To be gritty is to fall down seven times, and rise eight.
We all face limits—not just in talent, but in opportunity. But more often than we think, our limits are self-imposed. We try, fail, and conclude we’ve bumped our heads against the ceiling of possibility. Or maybe after taking just a few steps we change direction. In either case, we never venture as far as we might have.
Success—whether measured by who wins the National Spelling Bee, makes it through West Point, or leads the division in annual sales—is not the only thing you care about. Surely, you also want to be happy. And while happiness and success are related, they’re not identical.
You might wonder, If I get grittier and become more successful, will my happiness plummet?
Some years ago, I sought to answer this question by surveying two thousand American adults. The graph below shows how grit relates to life satisfaction, measured on a scale that ranged from 7 to 35 and included items such as, “If I could live my life over, I would change almost nothing.” In the same study, I measured positive emotions such as excitement and negative emotions such as shame. I found that the grittier a person is, the more likely they’ll enjoy a healthy emotional life. Even at the top of the Grit Scale, grit went hand in hand with well-being, no matter how I measured it.
Mike tells me that two key factors promote excellence in individuals and in teams: “deep and rich support and relentless challenge to improve.” When he says that, a lightbulb goes on in my head. Supportive and demanding parenting is psychologically wise and encourages children to emulate their parents. It stands to reason that supportive and demanding leadership would do the same.
I begin to get it. For this professional football team, it’s not solely about defeating other teams, it’s about pushing beyond what you can do today so that tomorrow you’re just a little bit better. It’s about excellence. So, for the Seahawks, Always compete means Be all you can be, whatever that is for you. Reach for your best.
Culture building, Anson said, is a matter of continuous experimentation. “Basically, we’ll try anything, and if it works, we’ll keep doing it.”
The closest word to grit in Finnish is sisu (pronounced see-sue). The translation isn’t perfect. Grit specifies having a passion to accomplish a particular top-level goal and the perseverance to follow through. Sisu, on the other hand, is really just about perseverance. In particular, sisu refers to a source of inner strength—a sort of psychological capital—that Finns believe they’re born with by dint of their Finnish heritage. Quite literally, sisu refers to the insides of a person, their guts.
Short-term conformity effects are not what excite me about the power of culture to influence grit. Not exactly.
What excites me most is the idea that, in the long run, culture has the power to shape our identity. Over time and under the right circumstances, the norms and values of the group to which we belong become our own. We internalize them. We carry them with us. The way we do things around here and why eventually becomes The way I do things and why.
“So it seems to me,” Dan concluded, “that there’s a hard way to get grit and an easy way. The hard way is to do it by yourself. The easy way is to use conformity—the basic human drive to fit in—because if you’re around a lot of people who are gritty, you’re going to act grittier.”
How do you know you’re part of a culture that, in a very real sense, has become part of you? When you adopt a culture, you make a categorical allegiance to that in-group. You’re not “sort of” a Seahawk, or “sort of” a West Pointer. You either are or you aren’t. You’re in the group, or out of it. You can use a noun, not just an adjective or a verb, to describe your commitment. So much depends, as it turns out, on which in-group you commit to.
The bottom line on culture and grit is: If you want to be grittier, find a gritty culture and join it. If you’re a leader, and you want the people in your organization to be grittier, create a gritty culture.
In our family, we live by the Hard Thing Rule. It has three parts. The first is that everyone—including Mom and Dad—has to do a hard thing. A hard thing is something that requires daily deliberate practice. I’ve told my kids that psychological research is my hard thing, but I also practice yoga. Dad tries to get better and better at being a real estate developer; he does the same with running. My oldest daughter, Amanda, has chosen playing the piano as her hard thing. She did ballet for years, but later quit. So did Lucy.
This brings me to the second part of the Hard Thing Rule: You can quit. But you can’t quit until the season is over, the tuition payment is up, or some other “natural” stopping point has arrived. You must, at least for the interval to which you’ve committed yourself, finish whatever you begin. In other words, you can’t quit on a day when your teacher yells at you, or you lose a race, or you have to miss a sleepover because of a recital the next morning. You can’t quit on a bad day.
And, finally, the Hard Thing Rule states that you get to pick your hard thing. Nobody picks it for you because, after all, it would make no sense to do a hard thing you’re not even vaguely interested in.
In homage to the earlier work of Seligman and Maier on learned helplessness, where the inability to escape punishment led animals to give up on a second challenging task, Bob dubbed this phenomenon learned industriousness. His major conclusion was simply that the association between working hard and reward can be learned. Bob will go further and say that without directly experiencing the connection between effort and reward, animals, whether they’re rats or people, default to laziness. Calorie-burning effort is, after all, something evolution has shaped us to avoid whenever possible.
[...], in one study, he gave pennies to second and third graders for counting objects, memorizing pictures, and matching shapes. For some children, Bob rapidly increased the difficulty of these tasks as the children improved. Other children were repeatedly given easy versions of the same tasks.
All the children got pennies and praise.
Afterward, the children in both conditions were asked to do a tedious job that was entirely different from the previous tasks: copying a list of words onto a sheet of paper. Bob’s findings were exactly the same as what he’d found with rats: children who’d trained on difficult (rather than easy) tasks worked harder on the copying task.
Bob’s conclusion? With practice, industriousness can be learned.
“My sense, from being in admissions for over forty years,” Bill concluded, “is that most people are born with tremendous potential. The real question is whether they’re encouraged to employ their good old-fashioned hard work and their grit, if you will, to its maximum. In the end, those are the people who seem to be the most successful.”
Each year, Bill Fitzsimmons explained, several hundred students are admitted to Harvard on the merits of truly outstanding academic credentials. Their early scholarly accomplishments suggest they will at some point become world-class academics.
But Harvard admits at least as many students who, in Bill’s words, “have made a commitment to pursue something they love, believe in, and value—and [have done] so with singular energy, discipline, and plain old hard work.”
Nobody in the admissions office wants or needs these students to pursue the same activities when they get to campus. “Let’s take athletics as an example,” Bill said. “Let’s say the person gets hurt, or decides not to play, or doesn’t make the team. What we have tended to find is that all that energy, drive, and commitment—all that grit—that was developed through athletics can almost always be transferred to something else.”
[...], I learned that Bill [Gates] himself has long appreciated the importance of competencies other than talent. Back in the days when he had a more direct role in hiring software programmers at Microsoft, for instance, he said he’d give applicants a programming task he knew would require hours and hours of tedious troubleshooting. This wasn’t an IQ test, or a test of programming skills. Rather, it was a test of a person’s ability to muscle through, press on, get to the finish line. Bill only hired programmers who finished what they began.
“Why wouldn’t Princeton take you?” Cody’s brother asked him. “You’re doing all right in school. If you work harder, if you keep pushing yourself, you can get to that level. You have nothing to lose by trying.”
“That’s when a switch flipped in my head,” Cody said. “I went from ‘Why bother?’ to ‘Why not?’ I knew I might not get into a really good college, but I figured, if I try, I have a chance. If I never try, then I have no chance at all.”
If you want to bring forth grit in your child, first ask how much passion and perseverance you have for your own life goals. Then ask yourself how likely it is that your approach to parenting encourages your child to emulate you. If the answer to the first question is “a great deal,” and your answer to the second is “very likely,” you’re already parenting for grit.
Growing up with support, respect, and high standards confers a lot of benefits, one of which is especially relevant to grit—in other words, wise parenting encourages children to emulate their parents.
[...] there’s no either/or trade-off between supportive parenting and demanding parenting. It’s a common misunderstanding to think of “tough love” as a carefully struck balance between affection and respect on the one hand, and firmly enforced expectations on the other. In actuality, there’s no reason you can’t do both. Very clearly, this is exactly what the parents of Steve Young and Francesca Martinez did. The Youngs were tough, but they were also loving. The Martinezes were loving, but they were also tough. Both families were “child-centered” in the sense that they clearly put their children’s interests first, but neither family felt that children were always the better judge of what to do, how hard to work, and when to give up on things.
It was telling, for example, to hear Alex, who is a writer, talk about the work ethic he modeled for his children: “To finish things, you have to put the work in. When I was younger, I’d meet many people who were writing stuff. They’d say to me, ‘Oh yeah, I am a writer as well but I’ve never finished anything.’ Well, in that case, you are not a writer. You are just somebody who sits down and writes things on a bit of paper. If you’ve got something to say, go ahead and say it and finish it.”
One time, Grit says, he went to pick up Steve from school to take him to his uncle and aunt’s house for the day, and Steve simply couldn’t stop sobbing. He was petrified to be away from his own home. Grit was flabbergasted. I waited to hear how he and Sherry reacted. Did they tell their son to man up? Did they remove some of his privileges?
No and no. Grit’s description of the talk he had with his son when Steve refused to go to school makes it clear Grit did more questioning and listening than lecturing and criticizing: “I said, ‘Well, is somebody picking on you?’ He says, ‘No.’ Do you like your teacher? ‘I love my teacher.’ Well, why don’t you go to school? ‘I don’t know. I just don’t want to go to school.’ ”
Sherry ended up sitting in Steve’s second-grade classroom for weeks until, at long last, Steve felt comfortable going to school by himself.
“It was separation anxiety,” Sherry told me. “At the time, we didn’t know what to call it. But we could tell he was all tight inside, and we knew that he needed to work through all that.”
When it came time to raise their children, both Sherry and Grit very deliberately set out to provide the same challenges. “My goal was to teach them discipline,” Grit said, “and to go at things hard like I learned to do. You have to learn those things. They don’t just happen. It was important to me to teach the kids to finish what you begin.”
In no uncertain terms, Steve and his siblings were made to understand that, whatever they signed up for, they had to see it through to the end. “We told them, you’ve got to go to all the practices. You can’t say, ‘Oh, I’m tired of this.’ Once you commit, you discipline yourself to do it. There’s going to be times you don’t want to go, but you’ve got to go.”
Sounds strict, right? It was. But if you listen closely, you’ll discover that the Youngs were also tremendously supportive.
The word parenting derives from Latin and means “to bring forth.” You’re acting in a parentlike way if you’re asking for guidance on how to best bring forth interest, practice, purpose, and hope in the people you care for.
[...] the brain is remarkably adaptive. Like a muscle that gets stronger with use, the brain changes itself when you struggle to master a new challenge. In fact, there’s never a time in life when the brain is completely “fixed.” Instead, all our lives, our neurons retain the potential to grow new connections with one another and to strengthen the ones we already have. What’s more, throughout adulthood, we maintain the ability to grow myelin, a sort of insulating sheath that protects neurons and speeds signals traveling between them.
Here’s an excerpt from his email to me in June: “Numbers and executing quantitative concepts have always been difficult for me. But I embrace the challenge, and I’m going to apply all the grit I have to improving myself and making myself better, even if it means graduating with a GPA less than what I would have earned if I just majored in something that didn’t require me to manipulate numbers.”
I have no doubt that Kayvon will keep getting up, time and again, always learning and growing.
[...] what about a life history of challenge without control?
“I worry a lot about kids in poverty,” Steve said. “They’re getting a lot of helplessness experiences. They’re not getting enough mastery experiences. They’re not learning: ‘I can do this. I can succeed in that.’ My speculation is that those earlier experiences can have really enduring effects. You need to learn that there’s a contingency between your actions and what happens to you: ‘If I do something, then something will happen.’ ”
Ultimately, adopting a gritty perspective involves recognizing that people get better at things—they grow. Just as we want to cultivate the ability to get up off the floor when life has knocked us down, we want to give those around us the benefit of the doubt when something they’ve tried isn’t a raging success. There’s always tomorrow.
Language is one way to cultivate hope. But modeling a growth mindset—demonstrating by our actions that we truly believe people can learn to learn—may be even more important.
Author and activist James Baldwin once put it this way: “Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.”
Mindsets have been shown to make a difference in all the same life domains as optimism. For instance, if you have a growth mindset, you’re more likely to do well in school, enjoy better emotional and physical health, and have stronger, more positive social relationships with other people.
Here are four statements Carol uses to assess a person’s theory of intelligence. Read them now and consider how much you agree or disagree with each:
Your intelligence is something very basic about you that you can’t change very much.
You can learn new things, but you can’t really change how intelligent you are.
No matter how much intelligence you have, you can always change it quite a bit.
You can always substantially change how intelligent you are.
If you found yourself nodding affirmatively to the first two statements but shaking your head in disagreement with the last two, then Carol would say you have more of a fixed mindset. If you had the opposite reaction, then Carol would say you tend toward a growth mindset.
When you keep searching for ways to change your situation for the better, you stand a chance of finding them. When you stop searching, assuming they can’t be found, you guarantee they won’t.
Or as Henry Ford is often quoted as saying, “Whether you think you can, or think you can’t—you’re right.”
If you’re a pessimist, you might say, I screw up everything. Or: I’m a loser. These explanations are all permanent; there’s not much you can do to change them. They’re also pervasive; they’re likely to influence lots of life situations, not just your job performance. Permanent and pervasive explanations for adversity turn minor complications into major catastrophes. They make it seem logical to give up. If, on the other hand, you’re an optimist, you might say, I mismanaged my time. Or: I didn’t work efficiently because of distractions. These explanations are all temporary and specific; their “fixability” motivates you to start clearing them away as problems.
Optimists, Marty soon discovered, are just as likely to encounter bad events as pessimists. Where they diverge is in their explanations: optimists habitually search for temporary and specific causes of their suffering, whereas pessimists assume permanent and pervasive causes are to blame.
[...] suffering without control reliably produces symptoms of clinical depression, including changes in appetite and physical activity, sleep problems, and poor concentration.
Let me wind back the clock to 1964. Two first-year psychology doctoral students named Marty Seligman and Steve Maier are in a windowless laboratory, watching a caged dog receive electric shocks to its back paws. The shocks come randomly and without warning. If the dog does nothing, the shock lasts five seconds, but if the dog pushes its nose against a panel at the front of the cage, the shock ends early. In a separate cage, another dog is receiving the same shocks at exactly the same intervals, but there’s no panel to push on. In other words, both dogs get the exact same dosage of shock at the exact same times, but only the first dog is in control of how long each shock lasts. After sixty-four shocks, both dogs go back to their home cages, and new dogs are brought in for the same procedure.
The next day, one by one, all the dogs are placed in a different cage called a shuttle box. In the middle, there’s a low wall, just high enough that the dogs can leap the barrier if they try. A high-pitched tone plays, heralding an impending shock, which comes through the floor of the half of the shuttle box where the dog is standing. Nearly all the dogs who had control over the shocks the previous day learn to leap the barrier. They hear the tone and jump over the wall to safety. In contrast, two-thirds of the dogs who had no control over the shocks the previous day just lie down whimpering, passively waiting for the punishments to stop.
This seminal experiment proved for the first time that it isn’t suffering that leads to hopelessness. It’s suffering you think you can’t control.
What is hope?
One kind of hope is the expectation that tomorrow will be better than today. It’s the kind of hope that has us yearning for sunnier weather, or a smoother path ahead. It comes without the burden of responsibility. The onus is on the universe to make things better.
Grit depends on a different kind of hope. It rests on the expectation that our own efforts can improve our future. I have a feeling tomorrow will be better is different from I resolve to make tomorrow better. The hope that gritty people have has nothing to do with luck and everything to do with getting up again.
“Gradually, I became more and more aware that I was very good at going into new environments and helping people realize they’re capable of more than they know. I was discovering that this was my thing. And I started to realize that if I could help people—individuals—do that, then I could help teams. If I could help teams, I could help companies. If I could help companies, I could help brands. If I could help brands, I could help communities and countries.”
The person discovers a problem in the world that needs solving. This discovery can come in many ways. Sometimes from personal loss or adversity. Sometimes from learning about the loss and adversity confronting others.
But seeing that someone needs our help isn’t enough, Bill hastened to add. Purpose requires a second revelation: “I personally can make a difference.” This conviction, this intention to take action, he says, is why it’s so important to have observed a role model enact purpose in their own life. “You have to believe that your efforts will not be in vain.”
“Most people think self-oriented and other-oriented motivations are opposite ends of a continuum,” says my colleague and Wharton professor Adam Grant. “Yet, I’ve consistently found that they’re completely independent. You can have neither, and you can have both.” In other words, you can want to be a top dog and, at the same time, be driven to help others.
Adam’s research demonstrates that leaders and employees who keep both personal and prosocial interests in mind do better in the long run than those who are 100 percent selfishly motivated.
[...] it’s not that some kinds of occupations are necessarily jobs and others are careers and still others are callings. Instead, what matters is whether the person doing the work believes that laying down the next brick is just something that has to be done, or instead something that will lead to further personal success, or, finally, work that connects the individual to something far greater than the self.
All of us, Terkel concluded, are looking for “daily meaning as well as daily bread . . . for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.”
[...] a recent survey of 982 zookeepers—who belong to a profession in which 80 percent of workers have college degrees and yet on average earn a salary of $25,000—found that those who identified their work as a calling (“Working with animals feels like my calling in life”) also expressed a deep sense of purpose (“The work that I do makes the world a better place”). Zookeepers with a calling were also more willing to sacrifice unpaid time, after hours, to care for sick animals. And it was zookeepers with a calling who expressed a sense of moral duty (“I have a moral obligation to give my animals the best possible care”).
Consider the parable of the bricklayers:
Three bricklayers are asked: “What are you doing?”
The first says, “I am laying bricks.”
The second says, “I am building a church.”
And the third says, “I am building the house of God.”
The first bricklayer has a job. The second has a career. The third has a calling.
On one hand, human beings seek pleasure because, by and large, the things that bring us pleasure are those that increase our chances of survival. If our ancestors hadn’t craved food and sex, for example, they wouldn’t have lived very long or had many offspring. To some extent, all of us are, as Freud put it, driven by the “pleasure principle.”
On the other hand, human beings have evolved to seek meaning and purpose. In the most profound way, we’re social creatures. Why? Because the drive to connect with and serve others also promotes survival. How? Because people who cooperate are more likely to survive than loners. Society depends on stable interpersonal relationships, and society in so many ways keeps us fed, shelters us from the elements, and protects us from enemies. The desire to connect is as basic a human need as our appetite for pleasure.
Whether you can make deliberate practice as ecstatic as flow, I don’t know, but I do think you can try saying to yourself, and to others, “That was hard! It was great!”
Elena and Deborah ask teachers to model emotion-free mistake making. They actually instruct teachers to commit an error on purpose and then let students see them say, with a smile, “Oh, gosh, I thought there were five blocks in this pile! Let me count again! One . . . two . . . three . . . four . . . five . . . six! There are six blocks! Great! I learned I need to touch each block as I count!”
Elena Bodrova and Deborah Leong, psychologists who’ve devoted their careers to studying how children learn, agree that learning from mistakes is something babies and toddlers don’t mind at all. Watch a baby struggle to sit up, or a toddler learn to walk: you’ll see one error after another, failure after failure, a lot of challenge exceeding skill, a lot of concentration, a lot of feedback, a lot of learning. Emotionally? Well, they’re too young to ask, but very young children don’t seem tortured while they’re trying to do things they can’t yet do.
And then . . . something changes. According to Elena and Deborah, around the time children enter kindergarten, they begin to notice that their mistakes inspire certain reactions in grown-ups. What do we do? We frown. Our cheeks flush a bit. We rush over to our little ones to point out that they’ve done something wrong. And what’s the lesson we’re teaching? Embarrassment. Fear. Shame. Coach Bruce Gemmell says that’s exactly what happens to many of his swimmers: “Between coaches and parents and friends and the media, they’ve learned that failing is bad, so they protect themselves and won’t stick their neck out and give their best effort.”
[...] think about the fact that infants and toddlers spend most of their time trying to do things they can’t, again and again—and yet they don’t seem especially embarrassed or anxious. No pain, no gain is a rule that doesn’t seem to apply to the preschool set.
[...] figure out when and where you’re most comfortable doing deliberate practice. Once you’ve made your selection, do deliberate practice then and there every day. Why? Because routines are a godsend when it comes to doing something hard. A mountain of research studies, including a few of my own, show that when you have a habit of practicing at the same time and in the same place every day, you hardly have to think about getting started. You just do.
Other than getting yourself a terrific coach, mentor, or teacher, how can you get the most out of deliberate practice and—because you’ve earned it—experience more flow?
First, know the science.
Each of the basic requirements of deliberate practice is unremarkable:
• A clearly defined stretch goal
• Full concentration and effort
• Immediate and informative feedback
• Repetition with reflection and refinement
I looked to see how grittier competitors experienced deliberate practice. Compared to their less passionate, less persevering competitors, grittier spellers not only logged more hours of deliberate practice, they rated it as both more enjoyable and more effortful. That’s right. Grittier kids reported working harder than other kids when doing deliberate practice but, at the same time, said they enjoyed it more than other kids, too.
[...] the primary motivation for doing effortful deliberate practice is to improve your skill. You’re concentrating one hundred percent, and you’ve deliberately set the level of challenge to exceed your current level of skill.
[...] you don’t have to be doing deliberate practice and experiencing flow at the same time. And, in fact, I think that for most experts, they rarely go together.
Gritty people do more deliberate practice and experience more flow. There’s no contradiction here, for two reasons. First, deliberate practice is a behavior, and flow is an experience.
[...] grittier spellers practiced more than less gritty spellers. But the most important finding was that the type of practice mattered tremendously. Deliberate practice predicted advancing to further rounds in final competition far better than any other kind of preparation.
If you’re a surgeon, consider what Atul Gawande has said: “People often assume that you have to have great hands to become a surgeon, but it’s not true.” What’s most important, Gawande said, is “practicing this one difficult thing day and night for years on end.”
[Benjamin] Franklin’s witty aphorisms make it hard to believe he wasn’t a “natural” writer from the very start. But perhaps we should let Franklin himself have the last word on the matter: There are no gains without pains.
Even the most complex and creative of human abilities can be broken down into its component skills, each of which can be practiced, practiced, practiced.
As soon as possible, experts hungrily seek feedback on how they did. Necessarily, much of that feedback is negative. This means that experts are more interested in what they did wrong—so they can fix it—than what they did right. The active processing of this feedback is as essential as its immediacy.
[...] with undivided attention and great effort, experts strive to reach their stretch goal. Interestingly, many choose to do so while nobody’s watching. Basketball great Kevin Durant has said, “I probably spend 70 percent of my time by myself, working on my game, just trying to fine-tune every single piece of my game.” Likewise, the amount of time musicians devote to practicing alone is a much better predictor of how quickly they develop than time spent practicing with other musicians.
[...] in her interviews with “mega successful” people, journalist Hester Lacey has noticed that all of them demonstrate a striking desire to excel beyond their already remarkable level of expertise: “An actor might say, ‘I may never play a role perfectly, but I want to do it as well as I possibly can. And in every role, I want to bring something new. I want to develop.’ A writer might say, ‘I want every book I do to be better than the last.’
“It’s a persistent desire to do better,” Hester explained. “It’s the opposite of being complacent. But it’s a positive state of mind, not a negative one. It’s not looking backward with dissatisfaction. It’s looking forward and wanting to grow.”
Kaizen is Japanese for resisting the plateau of arrested development. Its literal translation is: “continuous improvement.”
[...] some people get twenty years of experience, while others get one year of experience . . . twenty times in a row.
“The old in the new is what claims the attention,” said William James. “The old with a slightly new turn.”
Begin with the answers you’re surest of and build from there. However ill-defined your interests, there are some things you know you’d hate doing for a living, and some things that seem more promising than others. That’s a start.
Don’t be afraid to guess. Like it or not, there’s a certain amount of trial and error inherent in the process of interest discovery. Unlike the answers to crossword puzzles, there isn’t just one thing you can do that might develop into a passion. There are many. You don’t have to find the “right” one, or even the “best” one—just a direction that feels good. It can also be difficult to know if something will be a good fit until you try it for a while.
Don’t be afraid to erase an answer that isn’t working out. At some point, you may choose to write your top-level goal in indelible ink, but until you know for sure, work in pencil.
Ever watch the Olympics? Ever listen to the commentators say things, in real time, like “Oh! That triple lutz was just a little short!” “That push-off was perfectly timed”? You sit there and wonder how these commentators can perceive such microscopic differences in the performance of one athlete versus another without watching the video playback in slow motion. I need that video playback. I am insensitive to those nuances. But an expert has the accumulated knowledge and skill to see what I, a beginner, cannot.
Paul is a leading authority on the emotion of interest. He began our conversation by pointing out that babies know just about zilch when they’re born. Unlike other animals, which have strong instincts to act in certain ways, babies need to learn almost everything from experience. If babies didn’t have a strong drive for novelty, they wouldn’t learn as much, and that would make it less likely they’d survive. “So, interest—the desire to learn new things, to explore the world, to seek novelty, to be on the lookout for change and variety—it’s a basic drive.”
“I’m always learning,” Will Shortz told me. “I’m always stretching my brain in a new way, trying to find a new clue for a word, search out a new theme. I read once—a writer said that if you’re bored with writing, that means you’re bored with life. I think the same is true of puzzles. If you’re bored with puzzles, you’re bored with life, because they’re so diverse.”
Pretty much every grit paragon I’ve talked to, including my own dad, says the same thing. And in examining one large-scale study after another, I find that the grittier an individual is, the fewer career changes they’re likely to make.
Jackie remembers that when Jeff decided to build an infinity cube, essentially a motorized set of mirrors that reflect one another’s images back and forth ad infinitum, she was sitting on the sidewalk with a friend. “Jeff comes up to us and is telling us all the science behind it, and I listen and nod my head and ask a question every once in a while. After he walked away, my friend asked if I understood everything. And I said, ‘It’s not important that I understand everything. It’s important that I listen.’ ”
By high school, Jeff had turned the family garage into a laboratory for inventing and experimentation. One day, Jackie got a call from Jeff’s high school saying he was skipping classes after lunch. When he got home, she asked him where he’d been going in the afternoons. Jeff told her he’d found a local professor who was letting him experiment with airplane wings and friction and drag, and—“Okay,” Jackie said. “I got it. Now, let’s see if we can negotiate a legal way to do that.”
In college, Jeff majored in computer science and electrical engineering, and after graduating, applied his programming skills to the management of investment funds. Several years later, Jeff built an Internet bookstore named after the longest river in the world: Amazon.com. (He also registered the URL www.relentless.com; type it into your browser and see where it takes you. . . . )
[...] experts and beginners have different motivational needs. At the start of an endeavor, we need encouragement and freedom to figure out what we enjoy. We need small wins. We need applause. Yes, we can handle a tincture of criticism and corrective feedback. Yes, we need to practice. But not too much and not too soon. Rush a beginner and you’ll bludgeon their budding interest. It’s very, very hard to get that back once you do.
So, parents, parents-to-be, and non-parents of all ages, I have a message for you: Before hard work comes play. Before those who’ve yet to fix on a passion are ready to spend hours a day diligently honing skills, they must goof around, triggering and retriggering interest. Of course, developing an interest requires time and energy, and yes, some discipline and sacrifice. But at this earliest stage, novices aren’t obsessed with getting better. They’re not thinking years and years into the future. They don’t know what their top-level, life-orienting goal will be. More than anything else, they’re having fun.
In other words, even the most accomplished of experts start out as unserious beginners.
[...] our early interests are fragile, vaguely defined, and in need of energetic, years-long cultivation and refinement.
[...] read the acknowledgments of Il Viaggio Di Vetri. It runs to two pages with the names of people who made his journey possible, including this note: “Mom and Dad, you’ve always let me find my own way and helped guide me through it. You’ll never know how much I appreciate it. I’ll always need you.”
[...] interests are not discovered through introspection. Instead, interests are triggered by interactions with the outside world. The process of interest discovery can be messy, serendipitous, and inefficient. This is because you can’t really predict with certainty what will capture your attention and what won’t. You can’t simply will yourself to like things, either. As Jeff Bezos has observed, “One of the huge mistakes people make is that they try to force an interest on themselves.” Without experimenting, you can’t figure out which interests will stick, and which won’t.
Barry thinks that what prevents a lot of young people from developing a serious career interest is unrealistic expectations. “It’s really the same problem a lot of young people have finding a romantic partner,” he said. “They want somebody who’s really attractive and smart and kind and empathetic and thoughtful and funny. Try telling a twenty-one-year-old that you can’t find a person who is absolutely the best in every way. They don’t listen. They’re holding out for perfection.”
I asked Hester what she’s learned from talking to more than two hundred “mega successful” people, as she described them during our conversation.
“One thing that comes up time and time again is: ‘I love what I do.’ People couch it differently. Quite often, they say just that: ‘I love what I do.’ But they also say things like ‘I’m so lucky, I get up every morning looking forward to work, I can’t wait to get into the studio, I can’t wait to get on with the next project.’ These people are doing things not because they have to or because it’s financially lucrative. . . .”
The four psychological assets of interest, practice, purpose, and hope are not You have it or you don’t commodities. You can learn to discover, develop, and deepen your interests. You can acquire the habit of discipline. You can cultivate a sense of purpose and meaning. And you can teach yourself to hope.
You can grow your grit from the inside out.
Taken together, the data I’ve collected on grit and age are consistent with two different stories. One story says that our grit changes as a function of the cultural era in which we grow up. The other story says that we get grittier as we get older. Both could be true, and I have a suspicion that both are, at least to an extent. Either way, this snapshot reveals that grit is not entirely fixed. Like every aspect of your psychological character, grit is more plastic than you might think.
“It was amazing,” Noe remembered. “Quite literally, it was the most immediate behavior change I’ve ever seen her make.” Suddenly, his daughter was setting two alarms to make sure she was on time, or early, to a job where being late was simply not tolerated. As a headmaster tasked with shepherding young people along toward maturity, Noe considers his power to do so somewhat limited. “If you’re a business, you don’t care whether a kid thinks they’re special. What you care about is ‘Can you deliver? If you can’t deliver, hey, we don’t have any use for you.’ ”
Lectures don’t have half the effect of consequences.
I’ll never forget picking Lucy up that afternoon. She smiled at me proudly and announced she’d used the potty. And then, in so many words, she told me she was done with diapers. And she was. Potty training happened in a single moment in time. How? Because when a child lines up for the potty with all the other children and sees that she’s expected to take her turn, she does exactly that. She learns to do what she needs to do.
I hasten to add that there isn’t just one gene that explains the heritability of grit. On the contrary, dozens of research studies have shown that almost all human traits are polygenic, meaning that traits are influenced by more than one gene. Many more, in fact.
Two indicators could easily be rephrased as passion items for the Grit Scale.
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.
Tendency not to abandon tasks from mere changeability. Not seeking something fresh because of novelty. Not “looking for a change.”
And the other two could easily be rewritten as perseverance items for the Grit Scale.
Degree of strength of will or perseverance. Quiet determination to stick to a course once decided upon.
Tendency not to abandon tasks in the face of obstacles. Perseverance, tenacity, doggedness.
In her summary comments, Cox concluded that “high but not the highest intelligence, combined with the greatest degree of persistence, will achieve greater eminence than the highest degree of intelligence with somewhat less persistence.”
Indeed, giving up on lower-level goals is not only forgivable, it’s sometimes absolutely necessary. You should give up when one lower-level goal can be swapped for another that is more feasible. It also makes sense to switch your path when a different lower-level goal—a different means to the same end—is just more efficient, or more fun, or for whatever reason makes more sense than your original plan.
On any long journey, detours are to be expected.
However, the higher-level the goal, the more it makes sense to be stubborn. Personally, I try not to get too hung up on a particular rejected grant application, academic paper, or failed experiment. The pain of those failures is real, but I don’t dwell on them for long before moving on. In contrast, I don’t give up as easily on mid-level goals, and frankly, I can’t imagine anything that would change my ultimate aim, my life philosophy, as Pete might say. My compass, once I found all the parts and put it together, keeps pointing me in the same direction, week after month after year.
In his role as editor and mentor, Bob advises aspiring cartoonists to submit their drawings in batches of ten, “because in cartooning, as in life, nine out of ten things never work out.”
One of the mottos of the Green Berets is: “Improvise, adapt, overcome.”
The low-level goal with the angry-looking X through it has been blocked. It’s a rejection slip, a setback, a dead end, a failure. The gritty person will be disappointed, or even heartbroken, but not for long.
Soon enough, the gritty person identifies a new low-level goal—draws another cartoon, for example—that serves the same purpose.
When you have to divide your actions among a number of very different high-level career goals, you’re extremely conflicted. You need one internal compass—not two, three, four, or five.
[...] this “life philosophy,” as Pete Carroll might put it, is so interesting and important that it organizes a great deal of your waking activity. In very gritty people, most mid-level and low-level goals are, in some way or another, related to that ultimate goal.
Grit is about holding the same top-level goal for a very long time.
If in the course of asking yourself these “Why?” questions your answer is simply “Just because!” then you know you’ve gotten to the top of a goal hierarchy. The top-level goal is not a means to any other end. It is, instead, an end in itself. Some psychologists like to call this an “ultimate concern.” Myself, I think of this top-level goal as a compass that gives direction and meaning to all the goals below it.
[...] envision goals in a hierarchy.
At the bottom of this hierarchy are our most concrete and specific goals—the tasks we have on our short-term to-do list: I want to get out the door today by eight a.m. I want to call my business partner back. I want to finish writing the email I started yesterday. These low-level goals exist merely as means to ends. We want to accomplish them only because they get us something else we want. In contrast, the higher the goal in this hierarchy, the more abstract, general, and important it is. The higher the goal, the more it’s an end in itself, and the less it’s merely a means to an end.
[...] though a team has to do a million things well, figuring out the overarching vision is of utmost importance.
Everything becomes a bit clearer when you understand the level of the goal Pete is asking about. He’s not asking about what you want to get done today, specifically, or even this year. He’s asking what you’re trying to get out of life. In grit terms, he’s asking about your passion.
Pete’s philosophy is: Do things better than they have ever been done before.
“And here’s the really important thing. Grit is about working on something you care about so much that you’re willing to stay loyal to it.”
“It’s doing what you love. I get that.”
“Right, it’s doing what you love, but not just falling in love—staying in love.”
Without effort, your talent is nothing more than your unmet potential. Without effort, your skill is nothing more than what you could have done but didn’t. With effort, talent becomes skill and, at the very same time, effort makes skill productive.
“With everything perfect,” Nietzsche wrote, “we do not ask how it came to be.” Instead, “we rejoice in the present fact as though it came out of the ground by magic.”
It seems that when anyone accomplishes a feat worth writing about, we rush to anoint that individual as extraordinarily “talented.”
If we overemphasize talent, we underemphasize everything else.
What we say we care about may not correspond with what—deep down—we actually believe to be more valuable. It’s a little like saying we don’t care at all about physical attractiveness in a romantic partner and then, when it comes to actually choosing whom to date, picking the cute guy over the nice one.
The “naturalness bias” is a hidden prejudice against those who’ve achieved what they have because they worked for it, and a hidden preference for those whom we think arrived at their place in life because they’re naturally talented. We may not admit to others this bias for naturals; we may not even admit it to ourselves. But the bias is evident in the choices we make.
The separation of grit and talent emerged again in a separate study I ran on Ivy League undergraduates. There, SAT scores and grit were, in fact, inversely correlated. Students in that select sample who had higher SAT scores were, on average, just slightly less gritty than their peers. Putting together this finding with the other data I’d collected, I came to a fundamental insight that would guide my future work: Our potential is one thing. What we do with it is quite another.
In sum, no matter the domain, 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.
I would say, “Dad, you say I’m no genius. I won’t argue with that. You know plenty of people who are smarter than I am.” I can imagine his head nodding in sober agreement.
“But let me tell you something. I’m going to grow up to love my work as much as you love yours. I won’t just have a job; I’ll have a calling. I’ll challenge myself every day. When I get knocked down, I’ll get back up. I may not be the smartest person in the room, but I’ll strive to be the grittiest.”
And if he was still listening: “In the long run, Dad, grit may matter more than talent.”