Talent is Overrated: The Key to Success is Grit
Written by Heather Stewart
Not long ago, I watched a YouTube video featuring a little boy around the age of 4 trying to jump on top of a stool almost as tall as he was. He takes a breath, launches his tiny body through the air—and falls to the floor. He picks himself up and tries again. And again. And again. Each time he fails—and each time he gets back up, gathers himself and leaps as high as he can. Finally, he jumps—and nails it! He screams in triumph and you can feel the pride radiating off of him. It’s a powerful display of determination. That little boy is the epitome of mental toughness, or “grit.”
What makes someone successful? Why are some people able to accomplish great things? What drives a person to push through failure? It could be ability, genetics or intelligence. But maybe it could be something far more accessible.
According to psychologist Angela Duckworth, the single most determinant factor in a person’s success is grit. Not IQ, not natural talent, not even leadership potential. It’s your ability to keep going in the face of challenge. Duckworth defines grit as the “perseverance and passion for long-term goals.” The phrase “long-term” is key. As many successful people will tell you, behind their achievement is hours, months, even years of hard work.
No kidding. We’ve all heard that before. And yet, it really is that easy—and that hard. So, is that the secret? Just work at it? Well, no. At least, not quite.
While the definition sounds simple, in practice the concept of grit is far more complex. Duckworth discusses four areas that make up the umbrella of grit: passion, practice, purpose—and a fourth area we’ll talk about a little later on. The good news is these traits can all be improved upon. We can develop grit, but it does take time and focus.
Grit doesn’t just affect academics or athletics. Duckworth and her colleagues’ research shows that grit is essential to high performers across all fields, be it business, health, sports or education. In their observations, often it was the less talented—but deeply committed person—who delivered exceptional results.
Duckworth explains that mental toughness isn’t developed in the heat of the moment, but in those mundane tasks that fill our lives. It’s the building of a skill, the consistent and meticulous habits we create, the daily routine that keeps us moving forward. Becoming “gritty” requires those small, tedious steps that add up to excellence. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Being gritty isn’t just important for our careers, but for our everyday lives. It’s what we need to accomplish our goals, both personal and professional.
Passion: If you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life.
Find what you love to do. Are you passionate about art or cooking? Do you spend all your free time volunteering? Is there something endearing always in the back of your mind? Start there. Gritty people don’t give up, and they don’t give up because they love what they do. You can’t devote your life to something you feel lukewarm about. Get out there and start trying new things. Take a class or join a group and figure out what excites you. Once you’ve found something, Duckworth recommends finding a mentor or coach to help you take that passion and expand it into skill.
Practice: Practice makes perfect.
Or, rather, deliberate practice makes perfect. It’s intense and demanding, but necessary. In order to better yourself, you have to work on your weaknesses. Ask for advice and for constructive criticism, and really listen to what others may say. We all like to believe we’re fantastic, but gritty people understand there’s always room to improve. Always.
Purpose: Find your calling.
There are plenty of people who are hard working, but what really sets apart gritty people is the connection they find in their work. A study of 16,000 people found that gritty people strive to create a meaningful, other-centered life. Passion is unsustainable long-term without purpose. People with grit understand that their work and passion make a difference to the lives of others. If you change how you view your job, it can make a dramatic difference in your grittiness.
The last area Duckworth focuses on is hope. Yes, hope. Not the cross-my-fingers-and-wish kind of hope, but the kind of internal expectation that things will be better because you decide they will be. It’s based on the effort you make, the actions you take, to make a difference in the world.
Though it sounds a bit lofty, science backs this up. People without hope feel helpless and quit earlier. The hope that gritty people feel is less about emotions and more about motivation. It’s the driving force that lets you keep going in the face of failure—or the face of a three-foot box. Hope is the notion you will overcome the obstacles in front of you, whether they’re physical or psychological.
Author G. K. Nelson famously said: “Successful people are not gifted; they work hard, then succeed on purpose.” This sums up the idea of grit: You can be talented, smart and connected, but none of these things guarantee you will be successful.
Grit isn’t magic. It’s not gifted to a select few. You may stumble upon it in times of adversity. For some, it’s a mindset they develop over years of practice. Or, maybe, it’s an idea inspired by a stubborn little boy who refused to be defeated by a stool and the laws of gravity.
Heather lives in Jacksonville, FL, where she graduated with a degree in Converged Communication. She currently bartends to pay the bills, while looking for a new career in public relations. An avid sports fan, makeup hoarder, and mom of two, she survives on strong coffee and inappropriate humor. On days off you can find her dragging her kids on an adventure around town, checking out a new bar with friends, or simply wandering the aisles of Target.