Is True Grit the Most Important Factor to Success?

If you attribute your success to tenacity, you just may have been gritty enough to make it. But how essential is grit to achieving your goals?
April 21, 2014

Do you have what it takes to succeed? While there are a number of factors that determine success, grit may be among the most important, according to Angela Duckworth, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.


Angela Duckworth


But grit, an attribute most people think of as positive, is apparently controversial these days: The argument is playing out in the nation’s schools as educators embrace the concept that teaching children to be gritty isn't only possible but preferable to worrying about their IQs.

Duckworth, who’s been studying grit for more than a decade, says her research shows grit is actually a better predictor of success than IQ or other measures. But what is grit and why does it matter? As Duckworth defines it, “Grit is the tendency to sustain interest in and effort toward very long-term goals. [It] equips individuals to pursue especially challenging aims over years and even decades.”

Sounds like grit, as Martha Stewart would say, is a good thing—especially for entrepreneurs. As we all well know, launching and growing a successful enterprise isn't a simple task. Business owners need to steadfastly focus and persist as they pursue their goals, and being gritty sounds like it would come in handy.

The Dark Side of Grit

So what’s the downside? In an extensive report on grit on NPR, Alfie Kohn, an education writer and the author of The Myth of the Spoiled Child, says, “Grit as a goal seems to be multiply flawed and very disturbing." For starters, he continues, “the benefits of failure are vastly overstated.”


Alfie Kohn, an education writer and the author of The Myth of the Spoiled Child


While he’s specifically addressing education, substitute the word entrepreneurs for kids, and Kohn’s perspective is reason to give us some pause. “The assumption that kids [entrepreneurs] will pick themselves up and try even harder next time, darn it, that's just wishful thinking,” Kohn says.

But is it? Isn’t being persistent part of being gritty? Duckworth thinks so. In an interview with Educational Leadership, she says being “gritty is to be resilient in the face of failure or adversity.”

But in an essay in The Washington Post, Kohn counters that argument. “Persistence,” he says, “can actually backfire and distract from more important goals. Gritty people sometimes exhibit what psychologists call ‘nonproductive persistence,’ [meaning] they try, try again, though the result may be either unremitting failure or a costly success. Even if you don’t crash and burn by staying the course, you may not fare nearly as well as if you had stopped, reassessed and tried something else.”

That's good advice for an all-too familiar occurrence: Most of us know entrepreneurs who’ve been there, done that—who didn’t know when to quit, who kept pursuing bad ideas, hoping that persistence alone would morph them into successful businesses.

But, Duckworth argues in her interview with Educational Leadership, being resilient is “not the only trait you need to be gritty.” She explains that on the scale they developed to measure grit, half the questions address “responding resiliently to situations of failure and adversity” and half are about having “focused passions” for the long haul. 

“That doesn't have anything to do with failure and adversity. It means that you choose to do a particular thing in life and choose to give up a lot of other things in order to do it," Duckworth explains. "And you stick with those interests and goals over the long term. So grit isn't just having resilience in the face of failure, but also [about] having deep commitments that you remain loyal to over many years.”

Duckworth believes you need to be passionate as well as persistent in order to succeed. She tells NPR, “I don't think people can become truly gritty and great at things they don't love.” The parallels between teaching kids to be gritty and advising entrepreneurs is eerily similar. Duckworth says, “When we try to develop grit in kids, we also need to find and help them cultivate their passions. That's as much a part of the equation as the hard work and the persistence.”


Angela Duckworth


The concept of grit, Duckworth says, “is very American idea in some ways—really pursuing something against all odds.” And in line with that, there apparently has to be a payoff. One of Duckworth’s mentors, Stanford University professor Carol Dweck, tells NPR we need to have a “‘growth mindset’—the belief that success comes from effort—and not a ‘fixed mindset’—the notion that people succeed because they are born with a ‘gift’ of intelligence or talent.”

On the educational front, according to NPR's Tovia Smith, that means getting kids comfortable with struggle so they see it as a normal part of learning. On the entrepreneurial front, it means not only getting comfortable with the prospect of failure but of instilling that sense of comfort in our staff as well. Instead of rewarding employees only when they do well, praise them for their focus and determination as well.

In her interview with Educational Leadership, Duckworth says one of the most surprising discoveries of her research is that “grit and talent either aren't related at all or are actually inversely related.” She explains, “If you're good at things, one would think you would invest more time in them.” But apparently that’s now the case. Instead, Duckworth says, “The people who are, for lack of a better word, ‘ambitious,’ who have no limit to how much they want to understand, learn or succeed—those are the people who are both talented and gritty … The most successful people in life are both talented and gritty.”

Grit Is Not Enough

So while grit is an essential component in entrepreneurial success, it’s obviously not the only factor. In addition to having the ability to be singularly focused, you also need to be aware enough to know when it’s time to shift that focus because it’s not working, or it’s not enough. And that ability to be flexible, to “turn on a dime,” has always been one of the qualities of most successful entrepreneurs.

So do you have grit? Take the test from the University of Pennsylvania, and find out. (I scored a 4.25 out of 5, putting me in the 90 to 99th percentile for being gritty.) If you don’t register on the grit scale, you might be able to learn how to be gritty: Duckworth tells NPR she “hopes” people can be taught to be gritty, though there’s not “enough evidence to know with certainty that we can do so.”

My guess is if you’re an entrepreneur, you’re plenty gritty. After all, as kids, we were shown how to be gritty by The Little Engine That Could, which taught us the best entrepreneurial mantra ever: “I think I can, I think I can.” That's the message of true grit.

Read more articles on leadership.

Photos: Getty Images, Angela Duckworth, Alfie Kohn