This is a confession that I probably don’t need to make. But here goes. Drum roll… I’m an overachiever. Shocking…well, not so much. I’ve actually done some soul-searching over the years to figure out what makes me tick and why I’ve made the choices from a very early age to push myself – from excelling in school or extracurricular activities as a kid – to being a crazy ultra-endurance athlete and mindful business owner as an adult.
I share this because for me, I always knew that it wasn’t talent or smarts that made me different. So I was a little perplexed why more people weren’t like me. Turns out, most people don’t think the way I do. Nor do they necessarily aspire to be like me, because… why would they…especially if they don’t think the way I do.
The bottom-line is that I’ve developed a fascination for understanding personal achievement and what motivates people. I’m an avid student of the art and science of peak performance and I love to feed my brain (as one friend tells me, I’ve got a ‘hungry brain’) when it comes to discerning why some people excel and others shortchange themselves and never live up to their potential. In fact, I’ve devoted much of my adult life learning about the psychology of achievement and helping clients develop and tap into their own strengths and gifts.
You’ve likely heard Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 Hour Rule. In his book, Outliers, Gladwell notes that great achievement in any pursuit is the result of spending 10,000 hours or more in active engagement and practice to gain mastery and expertise. He highlights the Beatles and Bill Gates, along with stars in the Canadian Hockey League as testaments to his theory. Of course, I’m simplifying. Gladwell presents a provocative tale of human potential that is also influenced by a host of other circumstances.
Of course, there is the counter-argument that less time practicing and more time practicing perfectly can shorten the learning and mastery curve. Or that perhaps some people are more gifted, intelligent or talented so they may require less than the magical 10,000 hour threshold. And what about those other factors and circumstances like when you were born, how you were raised and what opportunities were uniquely aligned with your journey. Others retort that it’s all about flow. Fascinating stuff.
But what is it that makes someone focus 10,000 hours in a given pursuit in the first place? And is that enough? What drives one person to high achievement who has the same circumstances and opportunities as another person who, in turn, falls short of their potential? How do you give yourself an achievement advantage? According to some research in the area, it comes down to grit.
So what is grit? Angela Duckworth, author of the book, Grit, has a compelling explanation:
In sum, no matter the domain, the highly successful had a kind of ferocious determination that played out in two ways. First, these exemplars were unusually resilient and hardworking. Second, they knew in a very, very deep way what it was they wanted. They not only had determination, they had direction.
It was this combination of passion and perseverance that made high achievers special. In a word, they had grit.
The evidence is pretty strong. People with more grit are more successful in their pursuits. So that begs the question, “What can you do to cultivate more grit?” Let’s start with a few don’ts. These are the some of the things that are commonly done that actually inhibit your full-blown grittiness.
Don’t… hop around from one pursuit to another. That’s not to say that you can’t have multiple interests and passions, but if you want to realize your fullest potential, you need to have passion and perseverance that is focused. I know what some of you are thinking as you read this… “But…but…I have so many interests and passions. That’s just the way I am.” My advice would be to separate high-level goals and purpose from your low-level goals and ancillary interests. You can have some low-level goals and interests that are not aligned with your primary purpose or high-level goals; but you can’t let your low-level goals derail you. To be gritty, your primary focus must remain steady, as should your devotion to making progress through concerted effort on what is most important to you.
Don’t… get in your own way. Some people have a tendency to find excuses for why they can’t do something or to always think that they’re not lucky enough. Or perhaps, they think that something is too hard. It’s often that they have had bad experiences which have crushed them in the past. They give up, they lose their fight and they lose their belief in themselves. They shrink their expectations so they won’t be disappointed, and they maintain the status quo instead of pursuing their passion or their dreams. Regardless of what is holding them back, the result is a diminished life.
Don’t… live a life unexamined. I was having a conversation today with a coaching client. From my perspective, he was holding himself back because of fear. He’s challenged by getting in his own way (see above), but related to that challenge is not knowing or fully embracing what he wants. To have more grit (i.e. to be more successful), you have to know what you want. You have to create your own vision, your own purpose and your own passion. That’s not done without some excavation work; you have to dig down below the surface and figure out what’s really important to you (not to anyone else). Digging deeper can be painful; sometimes we have to face our own demons and the choices that we’ve made in the past – the good, the bad and the ugly.
In the end, however, that work is what’s going to make us whole. And we will never be our best and grittiest selves without our own deeper reflection and examination to arrive at our purpose. So what would make you wake up in the morning feeling alive and on the right path with your life? In the case of my client, he has created one compartmentalized area of his life where he feels confident and on the right path: but is that enough in the long run? I think not. Our lives need to be fully integrated to realize our truest potential. To move forward, we have to let go of the past and we have to let go of those things, people and circumstances that no longer serve us on our journey forward. That can seem overwhelming, too hard or just downright scary.
Now, let’s look at a few things you can do to increase your Grit Quotient.
Do… focus on deliberate practice. To master anything, we need to practice; and I’m not referring to simply going through the motions. I’m also not referring to working to exhaustion if it’s not high quality practice which is also thoughtful and purposeful. Duckworth articulates deliberate practice as practice that starts with a clearly defined stretch goal, requires full concentration and effort, provides immediate and informative feedback along with creating space for repetition, reflection and refinement. This is hard work and is usually done in solitary pursuit of our dreams. Interestingly, whether it’s kids studying for the National Spelling Bee or an Olympic swimmer with her eyes on the gold, research indicates that people with more grit not only do more deliberate practice, they enjoy the hard work more than their less gritty competitors.
Do… find a community. While deliberate practice is best done in a focused solitary pursuit, it’s still invaluable to find a community that can support, encourage and raise you up. Equally important, it’s invaluable to find others who are where you want to be and learn from and be inspired by them. For example, if you want to improve your tennis game, you get a coach or find someone who is better than you to play with.
You don’t improve by being the smartest, fastest or strongest in the room. You improve yourself by surrounding yourself with others who are smarter, faster or stronger. And if you have the responsibility and privilege to be a parent, mentor or coach; one way you can instill grittiness is by being grittier yourself. In other words, lead by example. Whether it’s with my business clients or the triathletes that I coach, I make sure that I do what I expect of my clients. In fact, I generally do more so that they can see that the hard and focused work has its rewards and that digging deeper can be learned, perfected and…enjoyed!
Do… make progress. Whether it’s massive action or baby steps, move in the direction with consistent effort. It’s interesting when you study the psychology of personal achievement that many people think it’s all about talent. As explained by Duckworth, “Talent is how quickly your skills improve when you invest effort. Achievement is what happens when you take your acquired skills and use them.” In other words, effort is the critical factor and I would add, purposeful effort is even more critical. One thing that is clear, people with more grit are more successful than those with less grit. And those who are the grittiest have a stick-to-it-ness that keeps them focused on making progress in a singular direction for the long haul. All the more reason to create your own vision, define your own purpose and passion and march steadily to becoming the best you can be.