Grit is about passion and perseverance and this is how to cultivate them
When I was growing up, I envied the kids who discovered their true passions early on and dedicated themselves to those. Whether it was playing an instrument, selecting a favorite school subject, or volunteering at their local hospital, I felt like they really had their stuff together.
In the meantime, I tried to find myself through numerous activities from ballet, jazz and gymnastics to drawing, piano and karate. Every time, I would to quickly realize that I didn’t care much for the experience nor the effort involved and move on to the next option.
One activity I did stick with was a three-year-long after-school advanced mathematics program - not because I enjoyed it but because I really wanted to skip math in my last two years of high school.
Clearly, I messed up the numbers on my time investment-return calculation. Nevertheless, that period taught me a few things about working hard towards a goal I had set for myself.
Building perseverance through tough challenges served me well during my undergraduate studies in computer science but I always felt like something was missing: the passion for it. I could never become a great computer scientist without it. I ended up switching my direction right after graduation. I have always wondered what would have happened had I spent more time exploring majors and picked something I had a greater passion for.
In my work with leadership development, I often encounter high-achieving individuals who followed all the right steps to become successful but feel stuck because they aren’t satisfied with their jobs and are unsure as to what to do next.
McKinsey consultant-turned-teacher-turned-psychologist, Angela Duckworth, spent a decade researching high achievers across different fields such as sports, arts and business and found that grit - a combination of passion and perseverance for a singularly important goal— was a key factor in their success, much more so than inherent talent.
The more interesting aspect of her research is that grit can be cultivated.
In her book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, Duckworth outlines four factors that lend themselves to enhancing grit: interest, practice, purpose, and hope.
Of course, it’s hard to have passion for something you are not interested in but how does one develop a passion? Don't you hate those people who talk about how you should "just" follow your passion and things will work out for you? [read here about why it's bad advice anyways]
Oftentimes, passions don’t just show up on their own at a miraculous life moment nor are stumbled upon in early childhood. They require discovery, followed by development and then a lifetime of deepening.
Actively exploring new domains is a start. Falling in love with a vocation or a subject area demands that we spend the effort on understanding what it’s all about and developing certain expertise. Many people give up before reaching this level.
Interests also are enhanced when we have a support group of teachers, mentors, and peers who provide positive feedback on our initial successes and guidance on how to deepen our knowledge.
Moving from talent to skill to achievement requires deliberate practice. Athletes, chess players and writers are a great example of achievers who constantly analyze their outcomes and work meticulously for years on end to refine their strategies and styles. The same approach can be applied to many other skills, such as public speaking, investing, selling and programming.
Duckworth found that it’s hard to sustain a lifetime interest without having the conviction that one’s work matters. So many individuals feel burned out because they don’t see the impact of their work on their organizations or the society at large.
Finding something that interests you but is also connected to the well-being of others (colleagues, family members, clients, community) or to a bigger picture mission is an important driver of interest and practice. Purpose is another thing that you could craft just like you would do with interests.
At the core of grit is the expectation that our efforts can improve our future. Duckworth brings up the concept of learned optimism: “Optimists,[...] 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.”
Human beings are extremely skilled at inventing explanations for our reality. Some of these are helpful but others are destructive. If you want to develop your grit further, practice (if needed, with the help of a therapist) reframing setbacks and failures as temporary and figuring out how to treat situations as “fixable” versus permanent.
Grit is a useful read for understanding one’s past choices and for developing a compass for evaluating future career steps: Do I really care about this new field I would like to venture into? Do I have the discipline to put the time and effort to get really good at it? How can I explore further to get better answers to the above questions?
Moreover, Grit provides tools for better mentoring younger generations to develop the skills that will help them achieve more and live more fulfilling lives.
Curious about your own grit level? Take the grit test here.
This article was originally published in my column in Forbes Careers.