Grit

September 12, 2009

In the summer of 1995 I was preparing to take one of the biggest risks of my life.  I was six months into a new and excellent job with a telecommunications company in Spokane, but I had already decided to quit my job and go back to school full time for at least the next four years to work on getting a Ph.D. in management from Oklahoma State University in Stillwater.

In June of that summer, a few weeks before I was going to give my notice at work, I was traveling on business in Oklahoma City and decided to drive up to Stillwater one afternoon to see if I could meet some of the faculty in the program. There was only one guy in the entire department in his office that day.  After introducing myself, the first thing he said to me was “I recommended we not accept you into this program because your GMAT scores were not very high.” What a blow.

I started the program that fall with the attitude that I would probably be the least intelligent person in any class I found myself in.  There was nothing I could do about that.  But I entered every class with the attitude that no one in the room was going to work harder than me. Four years later I was one of the only ones left from my original cohort of students – the rest had quit or transferred to a less rigorous program.

My success can probably be partially explained by grit. Grit is:

Perseverance and passion for long term goals.  Grit entails working strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity, and plateaus in progress.  The gritty individual approaches achievement as a marathon; his or her advantage is stamina.  Whereas disappointment or boredom signals to others that it is time to change trajectory and cut losses, the gritty individual stays the course.  (Duckworth, Peterson, Matthews and Kelly, 2006)

General mental ability, or IQ, is one of the best predictors of achievement.  Grit is not related to IQ, and studies have shown it can be an important predictor of performance beyond IQ.

Want to leverage grit in your workplace? Instead of searching for extraordinary people to do the job, partner with your folks to design jobs that ordinary, gritty people can excel at.

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Comments (14)

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  1. As always, this is right on the mark. I’ve hired people who allegedly did not have the highest grades in college or a prestigious degree or an MBA because of their inner fire and grit. I never made a bad choice when I saw grit in their temperament.

    Thanks, Bret!

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Thanks for the comment, Alain. I agree that this would be valuable to look for. How did you know grit when you saw it? Thanks! Bret

  2. Mike Rogers says:

    Thanks Bret for a post I can really relate to. In general I have never done very well on standardized tests. In fact, my scores to get accepted into my Master’s Degree at Utah State University were very low. They were right at the cut off and the program was fairly competitive. However, grit is a great word to describe me.

    I had one more quarter of classes to take to get my BS. I had already completed all my required courses and noticed I could take up to 16 units of graduate classes. So I went to some of the students in the graduate program and asked them what the toughest courses and instructors were in that program, and I signed up for everyone of them. I also made sure I took one of those courses with the dean of the department. I was able to get A’s in all of them. Then I paid a visit to the dean and let him know that though my test scores would probably factor into me not being accepted into the program, my grades should. Then I showed him how I had taken 16 units from the program and aced them all. I told him, I can do this work. They accepted me in to the program, and I went on to graduate with a 3.8 GPA.

    I now run a successful team and leadership development company and owe a lot of that success to the same thing, grit! I may not be the smartest guy, but I am one of the hardest workers. Thanks.

    Mike Rogers

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Mike that is an awesome example! Where do you think you got that grit? Had you always had it? Did you learn it somewhee or from someone? I put a LOT more weight on effort than I do intelligence. Thanks! Bret

    Mike Rogers Reply:

    I’m not sure where I got the grit. Maybe the work ethic my father taught me? Maybe my fear of not getting what I really want? Maybe just really wanting it bad? But I agree with you, grit is more important to me as well. And maybe there is an intelligence in grit as well.

    I did pretty well in college, but I attribute more to knowing how to play the game than what others define as intelligence. But maybe knowing how to play the game is intelligence?

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Gardner does have a theory of multiple intelligences, but I don’t think something like Grit would be considered one of them. Grit is something in the individual that should affect task performance in addition to any type of intelligence. Thanks, Mike! Bret

  3. Catherine says:

    Bret,

    Thanks for yet another thought-provoking post. I agree that having grit is a key ingredient for being successful.

    I was interested in your comment relating to strengths-based leadership. I think the danger of any assessment (Strengths Finders, MBTI, DISC, etc) is people get hung up on the label and begin to attribute skills, behaviors, abilities as predetermined. For me, the value of strengths-based leadership is the insight it provides into myself and how the biggest bang for my personal development investment will be in my area of strengths. I cannot use knowledge of my strengths as an excuse to not work on my weaknesses. However, working on my weaknesses will always be damage control. As I often tell students, I’d love to be great with numbers, but it will always be hard for me. My job is to make sure this weakness does not prevent me from being successful.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Catherine, I really appreciate you visiting my site and taking the time to comment! I agree with you that labels are a big downside of these assessments. I love the MBTI – I am an INTP – and that knowledge has helped me understand myself and how I work with others. The big problem I have with the strengths stuff is I think it can seduce leaders to commit the fundamental attribution error. The biggest problems in organizations are not people problems but system problems. I think all this strengh based stuff is a smoke screen that makes us sound like we are doing something useful as we continue to ignore the real roots of dysfuntion.
    Thanks!! Bret

    Catherine Reply:

    Well, I agree that many programs are used as an excuse to not address systematic issues. Everyone is looking for that quick fix versus searching for a root cause. I think there is value in strengths finders if it’s used appropriately. It’s not a substitution for good management and leadership practices.

    I love MBTI also. I’m an ENFP. I appreciate the big picture view, but at times the internal mind chaos in my – a look there’s a bird – is hard to control.

    Keep challenging us with your thought-provoking posts!

    Catherine

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Catherine, you hit the nail on the head with your comment about everyone looking for a quick fix. There is no instant pudding. Funny example of your ENFP. I like to tell folks I am just meandering through life. If I had a to-do-list, I don’t know where I put it. Thanks! Bret

  4. Mike Moroze says:

    Bret,

    Excellent post (as usual)! I’ve been reflecting on this since I read it and realized most of the success I’ve had came via perseverance more than anything else. In addition, topics such as Seth Godin’s “The Dip”, and Hierarchy of success (Attitude, Approach, Goals, Strategy, Tactics, Execution. See- http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2009/09/the-hierarchy-of-success.html), relate to this theme as well. Your question to Mike Rogers is a great one and causes me to wonder if perseverance is a trait, a learned behavior, or a combination of both. If “learnable”, it would be great to figure out how to impart that. How many “success stories” are due to “Grit” – Michael Jordan, David Beckham, Bill Gates, Mother Teresa… and so on…
    Then, too, I wonder if there is such a thing as “organizational grit” – those companies that didn’t have the “Best Product” but pushed through to become a success – VHS vs Betamax might be a classic example… (of course this is probably more like “leadership Grit”).

    Very thought provoking…thanks again.
    Mike

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Mike, great question about if grit can be an organizational trait. Right now grit is treated as a trait, but I won’t be surprised if others come along and explore it as a state. As a state, grit might be something we see organization’s take on from time to time. Very thought provoking – thanks! Bret

    Mike Moroze Reply:

    Thought I’d Google the issue a bit and came across this excellent summary of the research in the Boston Globe/Boston.com. Leads to the observation that, *perhaps*, grit may be acquired – by being given the correct reinforcement on effort rather than “intelligence”.

    If that’s the case (big IF), then it would lead me to believe that if you hire “gritty” folks (something that seems measurable), you may be able to provide a corporate culture that is more likely to produce “organizational grit” with the proper reinforcement. (Hmmm… a lot of things come down to “the proper reinforcement” – which, to me, is a positive thing because it implies change is possible.) Thought you might want to share the link: http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2009/08/02/the_truth_about_grit/ .

    Thanks again,
    Mike

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Thanks for the link, Mike! The research on Grit is really very preliminary in general and almost non-existent in the management literature. Will be interesting to watch and see how and if the research to support and expand this concept develops. Thanks!