A host of psychologists, business consultants, athletic coaches, and parents have asked the same question: What is the secret to success?
If we could just get a clear answer to this question—and apply it to everything we do—
people, businesses, sports teams, and our children would all be successful.
Sounds like a bit of a pipe dream, doesn’t it? Even so, this fundamental question has driven the efforts of an extraordinary number of researchers over the years. They have examined the relationship between success and talent, intellect, social connections, genetics, education, birthplace, and a variety of other factors. Best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers even suggests a person’s birthdate is a strong causal factor in some endeavors.
While most of these studies have some basis in fact, perhaps the strongest and most thorough research on success has been published this year in a new book by Angela Duckworth: Grit, The Power of Passion and Perseverance.
Angela’s research explores high achievers in business, sports, the military, and even the finalists in the National Spelling Bee. In searching for common ground in successful people, her findings are both simple and compelling.
In virtually every endeavor, Duckworth found that those who enjoyed high levels of success in their pursuits had two common characteristics: (1) an intense focus on a specific goal, and (2) an extraordinary determination that drives daily commitment to a rigorous pathway to success.
In other words, they have a passion for a personal vision of the future and perseverance toward those ends. Other factors may have some effect, but passion and perseverance, which Angela defines as grit, are the keys to success.
The question, then, is do you have grit?
Duckworth suggests several questions that help determine grittiness:
- Do new ideas and projects sometimes distract you from previous ones?
- Do you set goals only to later choose different ones?
- Do you have difficulty maintaining your focus on projects that take more than a few months to complete?
- Do your interests change from year to year?
- Have you been obsessed with an idea or project for a short time, but later lost interest?
Shifting interests tend to imply a lack of consistent and continuous passion for a given goal.
- Do setbacks easily discourage you?
- Do you give up easily?
- Are you a hard worker?
- Do you always finish whatever you begin?
- Are you diligent?
- Have you overcome setbacks to conquer an important challenge?
Initial enthusiasm for a goal or project is fairly common; enduring effort is not.
An honest assessment of one’s grittiness can be either validating or discouraging in one’s quest for success. That said, one of Duckworth’s most important insights is that grit is an acquired trait, not a genetic one. Being born into a family of high achievers certainly can be valuable, but this is a function of the behaviors that are taught in such homes, not a superior gene pool.
Duckworth’s research has also shown that grit is often learned outside the home “at the elbow of a wise ballet instructor, football coach, or violin teacher.” As these mentors help their apprentices discover both their passion and the fruits of consistent, diligent effort, grittiness emerges and high achievement follows.
These insights should be encouraging to leaders in all fields of endeavor. We can, indeed, foster grit in our organizations! Recognizing that both passion and perseverance must be taught, we must:
- Set a compelling vision that defines “organizational passion” and engage those who readily share that passion.
- Articulate mid-level strategies and projects with their attendant desired outcomes.
- Define weekly and daily essential actions that will lead to desired outcomes.
- Define sustaining actions that will support projects, strategies, and essential actions. This includes continuously evangelizing the organization’s vision, thus sustaining the passion of team members.
Leaders who have done these things can further facilitate a culture of passion and perseverance by adopting “The 5 Disciplines of the Multipliers” as set forth by Liz Wiseman, author of the best-seller, Multipliers:
- Attract talented people and use them at their highest point of contribution
- Create an intense environment that requires people’s best thinking and work
- Define opportunities that cause people to stretch
- Drive sound decisions through rigorous debate
- Give other people ownership for results and invest in their success
These leadership disciplines provide support while keeping expectations high. They teach and reward perseverance.
Leaders who follow the principles in the books Grit and Multipliers increase the likelihood of fostering grit and success in their organizations. I highly recommend both of these outstanding books!
Richard Tyson is the founder, principal owner and president of CEObuilder, which provides forums for consulting and coaching to executives in small businesses.