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Can you develop grit in yourself and others?

Liz Guthridge Posted by Liz Guthridge, Managing Director, Connect Consulting Group.

Liz Guthridge is a coach, consultant and facilitator who helps leaders turn their blue-sky ideas into greener-pasture actions. She uses applied neuroscience, behavior design and mindful communications. 


Can you develop grit in yourself and others?

The late, great Mohammed Ali had grit.

Grit is the combination of passion and perseverance that defines high achievers, according to University of Pennsylvania Professor and author Angela Duckworth.

Highly successful gritty individuals ─ in all fields, including business ─ rely on both their determination and direction, Duckworth says.

For example, the former world boxing champion and activist (peace, human rights and Parkinson’s syndrome) had the reputation of being the hardest working and most principled man in sports. (He also was considered one of the most boastful. But as Ali once said, “It’s not bragging if you can back it up.”)

Are you born with grit, or can you teach it to yourself? And can you teach others to develop it?

In her new best-selling book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, Duckworth writes about how you can acquire grit.

You can teach yourself to grow grit from the inside out, and you can help others grow grit from the outside in.

Before you take these steps though, it’s helpful to know the background about grit and why it matters so much for success.

Many of us get distracted by talent. We think those born with great skills, such as being quick on our feet or with our tongue as Ali, have a head start advantage to attain success. Talent can help but it’s not a magic bullet.

Effort, especially practiced and applied in a disciplined manner, can be even more important than skills. This is true for grit as it is for leadership.

Also important are your beliefs. If you think you can exert some control over your situation, you’re on your way to growing grit.  Having hope and being more optimistic than pessimistic are indicators that you believe your situation can and will get better. In other words, you avoid what psychologists called “learned helpless.”  

Duckworth learned these lessons after leaving a management consultant job to teach seventh graders math and science in the New York public school system. She observed that the students who worked harder than others, kept studying, and bounced back from adversity, got the better grades. These grades in turn opened up doors and options for them for new experiences that led to more successes.

Her teaching experience left her with a burning question: “Why do some people work so much harder and longer than others?”

No slouch herself, Duckworth went back to school. She earned a PhD in psychology at the University of Pennsylvania where she now teaches. (She’s also a 2013 MacArthur fellow and founder and scientific director of the Character Lab.)

In her most recent studies and her research, Duckworth has confirmed that having a growth mindset ─ that is believing that you and others can change for the better ─ helps grow and promote grit, especially perseverance.

Duckworth has built on Stanford Professor Carol Dweck’s ground-breaking work on mindset (fixed and growth) that shows that a growth mindset has a positive impact in multiple aspects of your life, as in school, well-being and relationships.

In the work environment, individuals and organizations with growth mindsets adapt better to change, take more risks, are inspired to be more creative and trust each other more. (For more about this, see the blog post Why you don’t want to be #1.)

When you’re more concerned about learning, including learning from your mistakes, rather than protecting what you’ve already achieved, you challenge yourself to keep trying. You also are more likely to bounce back from any roadblocks you bump into.

As for the other element of grit, Duckworth has found that that passion is more about endurance than enthusiasm or intensity. In other words, gritty individuals steadily hold onto their goals over time. Think Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Oprah Winfrey.

And if you’re concerned that you aren’t passionate enough, don’t worry. In this insightful New York Times article, No Passion? Don’t Panic, Duckworth suggests moving toward what interests you, thinking about how you can best serve others, and continuing to learn skills you can apply.

In her book, Duckworth writes more about growing grit in students than employees, which makes sense considering she’s now a professor and parent of two teenagers.

However, if you’re an organizational leader, you certainly can grow grit in others as well as yourself. The steps you need to take are similar to encouraging a growth mindset, as included in the blog post Why you don’t want to be #1.

And even better, you’ll get gritty if you surround yourself with gritty people who enjoy being gritty. They’ll encourage and support each other as well as you, which will help build a gritty culture that will attract even more grit.

Grit isn’t everything, which Duckworth acknowledges, but it certainly makes life inside and outside of organizations rewarding.

Are you ready to see how you rate on Duckworth’s Grit Scale?