Grit for the Ages

Several years ago, psychologist Angela Duckworth triggered national interest when she shared research findings on grit in a well-viewed TED talk. With the use of pointed survey questions that gauged a test subject’s likelihood of giving up in the face of distractions or other obstacles, Duckworth and her team tried to predict who in West Point’s entering class of freshman would make it through the rigorous pre-training period and who among National Spelling Bee contestants would advance to later rounds of the competition.

Duckworth discovered that the people who were successful were not those with the highest IQs or other competitive advantages; rather the people that pressed on through challenges to arrive at successful outcomes had something she defined as “grit.” Grit is the quality that makes a person stick with a task and follow through on long-term goals even when obstacles mount. Grit, in Duckworth’s words, is “perseverance and passion for long-term goals.”

Grit is Inversely Related to Talent

Even though it is tempting to attribute someone’s accomplishments to natural ability, what is really at work, Duckworth claims, is grit. Talented people frequently give up if they hit a “wall” enough times. Successful people, on the other hand, don’t give up easily. High achievers are not so much naturally skilled, Duckworth says, as they are conditioned to accept obstacles and hard work as a necessary part of working towards a goal. Our culture tends to romanticize the superstars of our times and gloss over the fact that countless hours of work went into the flawless performance that we ultimately see. An acclaimed soccer player didn’t learn how to score goals overnight. Thousands of hours of practice (and countless moments of frustration and despair) shaped the success we see today. Interestingly, Duckworth discovers that talent is inversely related to grit, a finding she emphasizes in her famous TED talk.

From the Lab to the Field: Grit at Work

Highlands looks for grit among new hires because grit is what it takes to build and grow a business. Today’s business climate is such that the unexpected is often the norm. The figurative “wrench” is almost certain to disrupt business on a daily basis. Cheers to the employee who catches the wrench and creates a win for the company regardless. A dogged, single-minded employee with plenty of grit is a blessed thing for a business.

How does grit come into play at work? Let’s suppose you have a deadline that is approaching for a new software release. Customers have been asking for an updated version for several weeks and many are grumbling that the release is long overdue. Within 48 hours of the projected release date, software testers discover a significant bug. What do you do at this point? Give up? Or do you regroup, figure out what needs to be done, and press gamely on? Employees with grit don’t skip a beat but roll up their sleeves and target the software bug with more gusto and passion than before. (i.e., “We will fix this bug and we will go the extra step to make sure it never happens again!”).

Similarly, let’s say the market is crowded with a particular product. The chances of developing a product to successfully compete with existing brands are slim; the players are seasoned warriors and won’t go down without a fight. Nevertheless, an opening in the field becomes apparent because existing products are deficient in one or more key features. A business with grit buckles down, develops a laser-like focus on the end game, and moves forward, prepared to do battle and take the product from conception to final shipment.

Encouraging a “Growth Mindset”

Duckworth focuses on a “growth mindset” as key to understanding the motivation of people with grit. A growth mindset means believing that failure can eventually become success or that the ability to learn can grow with enough effort and determination. With this attitude, failure is merely a step in the process of achieving mastery. With a “can-do” approach among employees at Highlands Infotech, obstacles become a launching point for innovation and “failure” becomes the new catchphrase for opportunity.

The word grit (and everything that it represents) resonates now with people more than ever because it is the fighting word of champions, underdogs and any business that works hard to be competitive. Grit means your fortune can change. Grit means positive outcomes are on the horizon with enough effort and determination.