Grit. It’s a topic that you’ve probably heard people talking about, but what exactly is it? How important is it, and how can you harness grit in achieving your life’s goals? To answer this, I wanted to share some insights I have gained, along with my personal journey and a practical framework I have developed for the purpose of cultivating grit.
In July this year, I graduated from the Kauffman Fellows Program, a two-year educational, networking, and leadership development program designed for innovation investors. During this program we had the opportunity to meet with many highly accomplished venture capitalists, who personally shared their experiences and insights across all facets of entrepreneurship. One such venture capitalist was Albert Wagner, a Partner at Union Square VC who raised a specific insight into the importance of grit in entrepreneurship, which he defined as the ability to pursue a higher-level goal with sustained interest for a long period of time.
Grit in entrepreneurship is the ability to pursue a higher-level goal with sustained interest for a long period of time
While many of us understand the value of hard work, it is only recently that deeper research into quantifying the importance of sustained hard work has been undertaken. The leading authority on grit is Angela Duckworth, an American academic and author whose famous TED talk started the conversation about the relationship between grit and success (you can watch her talk here).
Angela observed that at the West Point Military Academy, traditional measures of aptitude, intelligence and fitness failed to accurately predict which cadets would pass the Academy’s “beast barracks” program, a particularly gruelling program that cadets had to pass in order to be inducted into the prestigious school. But, consider this — despite the highly selective process to get into West Point (only 8% of the 14,000 applicants are admitted) — one in five will drop out during beast barracks.
To understand this trend, Angela developed a test to measure the level of “grit” each of the cadets had upon starting the program. The results of her test were statistically significant in predicting whether a candidate would pass and become a cadet, proving both her hypothesis and the integrity of her test. Since then, this same test has been used across several other types of groups including students in education, sales teams in companies, and even couples in marriage. In each study, Angela confidently demonstrated a correlation between success and a higher level of grit.
Talent, without hard work, equates to unmet potential
It may seem intuitive to us that hard work would correspond to greater success, however this is rarely reflected in our current societal attitude. We frequently remark at how talented or gifted successful people are — “He’s naturally a genius … It’s in her genes, and so forth.” Some high achievers also refer to their own success as being a product of luck. While there is no doubt talent plays a role, the reality is that talent without hard work simply equates to unmet potential.
It is through our human nature that we like to think success comes from fortune or good genes. Holding this belief allows us to take away the burden of hard work from ourselves. Take for example, the world’s greatest athletes. These athletes exhibit physical attributes advantageous for their sport. However, it is only those athletes who train the hardest who will reach the pinnacle of their discipline.
My personal story
My personal story about cultivating and exhibiting grit began when I was young. At primary school, my grades (and my time spent doing my homework) were unremarkable and mediocre at best. However, one day, in the dining room at my boarding school when I was 10, I asked my tutor about the names listed on wooden boards on the wall. He replied that they were the students who were admitted to Oxford and Cambridge. Without knowing much about either of those universities I responded that I would also like to go to Oxford or Cambridge.
His reply straightforwardly indicated that I wasn’t smart enough and that only the brightest students were accepted, therefore I should not aim for it. This rebuke, which left me in tears, created a strong urge to study like never before. Every evening, I could be found in the classrooms doing extra work to climb the class rankings. I worked so hard that in my school report my tutor advised my parents, “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy!”
The hard work paid off and through a scholarship exam I was admitted to a well-known secondary school. I continued studying hard and resolved to attempt more GCSE subjects than anyone in my year. At GCSE, I achieved 12 straight A grades (6 of which were starred A’s). This continued through to my A levels where I achieved 4 A’s and was admitted into Cambridge the following year. My goal, which I had set for myself at 10, was achieved not due to my IQ or innate academic talent, but through deliberate preparation and working towards a long term objective for 8 years.
An attribute that can be cultivated with the right ingredients and environment
Since then, understanding and valuing the importance of grit has many implications for me in my work and life. As a father, I’m finding ways to nurture grit in my children. As an amateur triathlete, I’m constantly looking to cultivate grit in my training. As a venture capitalist, we look for founders who demonstrate grit. Fortunately, what I increasingly realise is that grit is not something that you have or do not have. It is an attribute that can be cultivated with the right ingredients and environment.
In the case of our children, it requires active management in how we communicate and motivate them. Among parents, it is not unusual to hear comments about how clever children are. For example, “He’s so smart, he can already read at 3.” Unfortunately, what this type of communication breeds can be counterproductive. It instils the notion that they can do something because they are smart. With this label, they begin to avoid tasks that do not come easily as it would contest their intelligence. Studies therefore suggest now that it is therefore better to praise hard work and persistence, for example, “he’s worked really hard to be able to read at 3.”
As an amateur triathlete, I’ve had to develop grit to keep at a rigorous training schedule. I start with a higher level goal: that I want to be fit into my 80’s and that I also want to compete in an Ironman with my kids one day (which is at least 20 years away).
This is coupled with a long-held belief that being physically fit is a key part of my present and long term well-being. Ironman, a long-distance triathlon, is a particular sport that I have developed a passion for that has lasted long past I completed a full Ironman in 2013. I’ve found that it’s not only the physical side of the sport that attracts me but the stories about people who have battled against the odds to finish.
Watching, learning and listening to these stories as I train, have filled me with motivation and energy for my own training. I started properly training in 2013 and have been continued a regular regimen to this day, adopting it as a way of life and part of my daily routine like eating and sleeping. Over time, I’ve improved my times now qualifying as an “All World Athlete” in the top 5% of my Age Group for 70.3 races and invested in my triathlon knowledge having just recently passed my Ironman coach certification. I’ve been fortunate to find people around me who share this interest, including my wife and my brothers who support me to invest the time into improving in this sport and sustaining my motivation even when it dims.
Pole, Purpose, Passion, Persistence, and People
These experiences and learnings have culminated into a personal philosophy, and to put this into practice, I developed my own framework to better understand it – I call it the 5 P’s: Pole, Purpose, Passion, Persistence and People. These P’s are what I consider to be the key attributes most important in cultivating grit.
First, you need to identify a Pole: an overarching destination or goal that you are in pursuit of. To get there, it’s necessary to understand the “why” behind your goal — hence the Purpose. Once you’ve rationalized the goal, there also needs to be intrinsic enjoyment from the activity and therefore developing your Passion is next. The pursuit of any long term goal also comes with great challenges, so developing Persistence through routine and mental resilience is critical. Lastly, in any mission, success comes easier when the right People are involved.
This framework is the very tool I have used to help me develop a high level of grit in everything that I do. I hope that this can also serve as a tool for others as a first step in cultivating grit and harnessing it to achieve your life’s goals.
This article was first published on e27 on September 11, 2018.
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