All Grit to Me

Isn’t it fascinating how the English language uses the same word to describe small loose particles of sand and, at the same time, strength of character?

Courage and resolve. Strength of character. Bravery. Pluck. Mettle. Backbone. Spirit. Moral Fiber. Fortitude. Toughness. Resolve. Tenacity. Determination. Endurance. Guts. Spunk. So many words for just one concept. So many manifestations of the same skill. Grit. Is it just of me or it getting unparalleled traction in the past few years?

I think it all began with Angela Lee Duckworth, an American Academic first to research the concept and dynamics of grit. Leaving a high-flying job in consulting, she took a job teaching math to seventh graders in a New York public school. She quickly realized that IQ wasn’t the only thing separating the successful students from those who struggled. Her 2013 TED talk, where she explains her theory of “grit” as a predictor of success, went viral. Her 2016 book titled “Grit: The Power of Passion & Perseverance” has stayed on The New York Times best seller list for more than 20 weeks, and Duckworth goes around as “the psychologist who has made ‘grit’ the reigning buzzword in education-policy circles”.

So what is Grit? Let’s have this question answered by Angela herself:

Grit is passion and perseverance for long-term goals. One way to think about grit is to consider what grit isn’t. Grit isn’t talent. Grit isn’t luck. Grit isn’t how intensely, for the moment, you want something. Instead, grit is about having what some researchers call an”ultimate concern”–a goal you care about so much that it organizes and gives meaning to almost everything you do. And grit is holding steadfast to that goal. Even when you fall down. Even when you screw up. Even when progress toward that goal is halting or slow. Talent and luck matter to success. But talent and luck are no guarantee of grit. And in the very long run, I think grit may matter as least as much, if not more.

So, to sum this up, Skill = Talent x Effort, whereas Achievement = Skill x Effort (aka Talent is how quickly your skills improve when you invest Effort, and Achievement is what happens when you take your acquired Skills and use them). Grit has, therefore, earned its place in the academic space, residing somewhere in the neighborhood of non-cognitive personality traits such as “perseverance”, “hardiness”, “resilience”, “ambition”, “need for achievement” and “conscientiousness”. But how much does Grit matter, really? Angela has us covered there as well:

Excellence sometimes seems like the result of natural talent. But no matter how gifted you are—no matter how easily you climb up the learning curve—you do need to do that climbing. There are no shortcuts. Grit predicts accomplishing challenging goals of personal significance. For example, grittier students are more likely to graduate from high school, and grittier cadets are more likely to complete their training at West Point. Notably, in most research studies, grit and measures of talent and IQ are unrelated, suggesting that talent puts no limits on the capacity for passion and perseverance.

Ok. We got it, Angela: Grit is here to stay, and it matters. It’s one of the skills upon which the personal and professional success of people relies. One of the traits that distinguish today’s from tomorrow’s leading personalities. The recommended strategy to cope in a rapidly changing world where technologies, tool and tactics that worked some years ago will no longer suffice to get us where we need to be. No wonder thought leaders like professor Dave Ulrich go ahead and post tips on instilling grit into your life and work.

Photo: Valeria Ushakova (Pexels)

Tips aside, encouraging Grit comes with a recipe of its own right from the maker:

  • Model it. If you love what you do, let others know. Wear your passion on your sleeve. When you fail, openly share your frustration but go out of your way to point out what you learned from the experience. Emphasize playing the long game—life is a marathon, not a sprint.
  • Celebrate it. When you see grit, draw attention to it: “Your work this past quarter has demonstrated enormous dedication. I know it wasn’t always easy.” Praise passion: “You’re so into this! That’s just awesome!”
  • Enable it. The paradox of grit is that the steely determination of individuals is made possible by the warmth and support of friends, families, teachers, and mentors. Don’t let people you love quit on a bad day.

From the first time I saw this recipe, it stayed with me. Today, it gets to summarize everyday life with our little one, and the main reason why I whiteness Motherhood as a rewarding and at the same time exhausting experience. There’s practically no pause whatsoever in modeling and enabling this kind of competence. The underlying consistency required, unless you deliberately add-in some self-care moments and make sure you get the support you need, could easily burn you out.

So I’m with Brené Brown when she said (in her Rising Strong book) that we shouldn’t sugar-coat Grit, however fashionable it may appear: the process and the pain involved in falling and deciding to rise again should not be underestimated. In a podcast from back in July, Angela Duckworth herself told Motherly co-founder Liz Tenety that:

One could argue that Motherhood requires more Grit than anything else, because it is such a stamina sport and the grind doesn’t always feel like it’s working!

I totally get that: it’s a Marathon, not a Sprint, Mom! As Duckworth explains, “Mothers model Grit every day by persevering in the face of challenging parenting moments, but we also instill grit in our children, even very young kids, when we encourage them not to give up. When we don’t do everything for our kids, they learn that they are capable, and we’re cultivating a growth mindset. When we let our kids struggle and persevere, we’re teaching them that the ability to get back up and overcome challenges is more important than talent; we’re teaching them Grit!” So here it is, coming out of the mouth of the subject matter expect: you are well acquainted with the concept, Momma. You are practically a natural at it! The world of Home is a world where Grit is practiced on a daily basis!

Given that the word has been out for quite a while now, one would have thought that the world of Work would have gotten the hint about Grit too: how we need those types of people to help organizations navigate in the face of change; the people who will follow the long and winding road that leads to sustainability; the people who don’t avoid the hard word or leave you and your team behind. Yet, I recently came across an interesting article arguing how, although Grit is famously acknowledged, we aren’t out there looking for it. It’s completely left out of our interviewing practices. It’s off-focus.

So here’s looking at you dear Recruiter or Hiring Manager. Get a…Grit, already! Get yourself informed about the concept, the value and the practicalities, and start asking interview questions such as:

  • “When you’ve been on extended projects, how do you maintain focus? How did the project turn out?”
  • “When was a time you faced a challenge and overcame a setback? What happened?”
  • “What goals have you recently set? How are they going?”

You’d be surprised to find that the best answers to those questions will come from the Mothers in your candidate list.

Getting all Gritty? You got this!


Featured Photo: Анна Рыжкова (Pexels)

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