“It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.” – Albert Einstein, physicist, 1879-1955
The question of individual success has long fascinated philosophers and life thinkers. From Confucius, the 6th century BC Chinese philosopher, who once wrote, “The nature of man is always the same; it is their habits that separate them”, to the 4th century BC ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle – “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit” – one can find various musings throughout the centuries on humanity’s capacity to accomplish great and marvelous things.
Yet, even with centuries of life wisdom at our disposal, and a repertoire of more recent research that shed light on human behavior, it seems that man’s quest to understand the underlying factors of man’s success may never cease, as evidenced by Angela Duckworth’s 2016 book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.
Duckworth, a 2013 MacArthur Fellow and professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, where she earned her PhD, along with a BA in neurobiology from Harvard and MSc in neuroscience from Oxford – thus, a highly accomplished individual – postulates that what really drives success is not talent, intelligence or even a particular skillset, but instead a combination of passion and long-term perseverance she defines as “grit.”
“To be gritty is to resist complacency”, she writes (p. 91). “To be gritty is to keep putting one foot in front of the other. To be gritty is to hold fast to an interesting and purposeful goal. To be gritty is to invest, day after week after year, in a challenging practice. To be gritty is to fall down seven times, and rise eight” (p. 275).
But, grit is not something you either have or don’t, she argues. It is mutable; you can learn to be gritty and can grow in your gritty-ness through “deliberate practice” and “effortful training.” She writes, “…grit grows as we figure out our life philosophy, learn to dust ourselves off after rejection and disappointment, and learn to tell the difference between low-level goals that should be abandoned quickly and higher-level goals that demand more tenacity.” In other words, she writes, “as much as talent counts, effort counts twice” (p. 86; p. 34).
In fact, it is ultimately our effort – in tackling the minutiae tasks of life and deliberately cultivating daily habits – that makes greatness attainable for anyone. She writes, “…the most dazzling human achievements are, in fact, the aggregate of countless individual elements, each of which is, in a sense, ordinary.”
Duckworth’s claims are bolstered by evidence-backed research, conducted by herself and prominent social scientists, in a variety of settings – from understanding why some cadets at West Point drop out in the first few days of training to how young finalists in the National Spelling Bee become extraordinary spellers. She interviews high achievers, including J.P. Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, and Super Bowl XXIX’s MVP Steve Young, along with lesser known, but equally “gritty” individuals, including New Yorker cartoon editor Bob Mankoff and Cinnabon President Kate Cole. Such highly successful individuals, she concludes, “had a kind of ferocious determination that played out in two ways. First, these exemplars were unusually resilient and hardworking. Second they knew in very, very deep way what they wanted. They not only had determination, they had direction” (p. 8).
Perseverance, tenacity, resiliency, hard work, focus, consistency, practice and determination are hardly new concepts. In this sense, Duckworth’s book is not necessarily revolutionary. It is, however, important for the ancient wisdom she resurrects and that is so seemingly absent from our technology-driven existence. A reading of her book, listed as one of the top 16 business books to read for 2016 by Forbes, is like a boot camp for the mind, a spring cleaning of the cobwebs of one's old ways, a readying of one's spirit for the hard work it takes to establish better habits that lead to more meaningful, productive and successful living.
As Duckworth aptly notes, an obsession with talent, intelligence or particular skills distract us from this simple truth: that “what we accomplish in the marathon of life depends tremendously on our grit – our passion and perseverance for long-term goals” (p. 269).
No one – certainly not Confucius, Aristotle or the many other leading thinkers below – could argue with that.
“Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not: nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.” – Calvin Coolidge, 30th U.S. President, 1872-1933
“Our vanity, our self-love, promotes the cult of the genius. For if we think of genius as something magical, we are not obliged to compare ourselves and find ourselves lacking…To call someone ‘divine’ means: ‘here there is no need to compete.’” – Friedrich Nietzsche, German philosopher, 1844-1900 (taken from p. 39 of Duckworth’s book)
“Do not talk about giftedness, inborn talents! One can name great men of all kinds who were very little gifted. They acquired greatness, became ‘geniuses’ (as we put it)…They all possessed that seriousness of the efficient workman which first learns to construct the parts properly before it ventures to fashion a great whole; they allowed themselves time for it, because they took more pleasure in making the little, secondary things well than in the effect of a dazzling whole.” – Friedrich Nietzsche, German philosopher, 1844-1900 (taken from p. 40 of Duckworth’s book)
“Courage and perseverance have a magical talisman, before which difficulties disappear and obstacles vanish into air.” – John Quincy Adams, 6th U.S. President, 1767-1848
“Practice yourself for heaven’s sake, in little things; and thence proceed to greater.” – Epictetus, Greek philosopher, 55-135 AD
“Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.” – Thomas Edison, Inventor, 1847-1931
“Failure is only the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.” – Henry Ford, Industrialist, 1863-1947
“The man who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones.”
– Confucius, Chinese philosopher, 551-470 BC
“He conquers who endures.” – Persius, Roman poet, 34-62 AD
“Never, never, never give up.” – Winston Churchill, British Prime Minister (1874-1965)