Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Live from FEI 2013: Angela Duckworth on the Relationship Between Grit and Success

(Author's Introduction: Encountering things in a different context brings new perspective, and it was fascinating to view a colleague's research from the standpoint of an FEI talk rather than the confluence of the many research articles on the subject.  Angela Lee Duckworth has spent years developing the construct of grit, and there is far more to say about it than a keynote speech could possibly cover [or even two TED talks, for that matter].)

The secret to success is a sort of holy grail for business thinkers and researchers alike.  The number of books published on the subject is astounding, and even more astounding is the number of die-hard admirers and detractors that each school of thought retains.  There are those who say that success is a function of talent, while others claim that it's all about  perseverance.  Some cite intelligence, while still others look for luck.  Obviously, it's all of these, but which factor is the most important, sine qua non of success?

We have no idea.

But, we do have some insight into the answer thanks to more than a decade of research by Angela Lee Duckworth, and that insight is called grit.

Consider this: how many people do you know that are intelligent, lucky, talented, and even perseverant, but are not successful?  Odds are, you can name a bunch, and these people have not achieved success despite having the supposed "main ingredients."  For a contrast, put those items aside and think about people you know who have maintained a sustained interest in an area, willingly worked their rear-ends off, unflinchingly stared down adversity, and showed great zeal for what they do despite any challenge or setback that arose.  It is likely that most, if not all, of the people you are currently thinking about are successful.  This latter set of people is the group with the grit.  They may also have talent, luck, et cetera, and the combination of high talent and high effort is a very good recipe for success, but it is the grit that makes the difference.[1]

Why Grit Is So Important

Research[2] by Anders Ericsson has shown that, across many domains, it takes about ten years of deliberate practice before someone can be world class at anything[3].  But, it's not just the ten years, otherwise everyone would be of "world class" caliber!  Rather, it's that the ten years are spent in deliberate practice, which has four aspects[3]:

Deliberate Practice
-Very specific, narrow goal for improvement.
-Challenge must exceed skill
-Relatively immediate and specific feedback
-Repetition

Given the intensity of deliberate practice, most experts put in only 3-4 hours a day, and note that those hours are going to feel inordinately long and not very gratifying.  It is done in solitude, it is not fun, and it is not easy, but people with lots of grit can make it through anyway.

The Impact of Grit

Grit has been shown to affect whether people stick it out through adversity or end up folding.  For example, in a study at West Point[1], grittier cadets were more likely to survive the pre-West Point boot camp (a.k.a., Beast Camp), and grit even out-predicted talent as to whether cadets would stay.  In fact, people who scored higher on grit were so involved with what they are doing that they could imagine doing anything else.

Of course, there are several other factors that have shown to relate to success, including happiness[4] and an optimistic explanatory style[5], but grit is decidedly one of the major keys to being successful.

With this in mind, the corporate world is likely to jump straight into selecting candidates for grit, but Duckworth adds a word of caution to this, because grittiness does not show up in an interview.  Her preliminary research on resumes suggests that people can look for multi-year projects that reflect a clear progression over time (in younger candidates that may not have a lengthy work portfolio, look for long-time hobbies).[6]

A Future for Grit

Even with the research on grit, expertise, explanatory style, and subjective well-being, we are a long way from understanding success[7].  Yet, we do know that success is going to take zeal, effort, and a willingness to strive in the face of adversity in the long-term.  As one of my future posts will discuss: To be successful, don't quit; show grit![8]




Orin's Asides

1) Duckworth, et al. (2007)
2) For a good summary, take a look at Ericsson's Harvard Business Review article.
3) Ericsson et al. (1993)
4) By happiness, we mean "subjective well-being."  Ed Diener is the main researcher on this topic, and he has a helpful FAQ on the subject.
5) In short, optimistic explanatory style is believing that setbacks are temporary and related to situational factors rather than believing that oneself is a failure.  See M.E.P. Seligman's book for more.
6) In addition to Duckworth's research being preliminary, it is important to note that gritty people could have plenty of holes in their resumes.  Especially in an economic downturn, where companies are short-sightedly cutting costs and letting go of more-expensive people, there may be many gritty people who are on the wrong end of such personnel management errors.  Additionally, recessions cause companies to be focused more on quick wins and buckling down, which may inhibit growth opportunities and the time needed for a talented person to grow into a position (see my post on hiring), which in turn affects tenure and resumes.
7) To say nothing of its Maslovian counterpart, self-actualization.
8) Get your grit score here.


Orin C. Davis is a positive psychology researcher and organizational consultant who focuses on enabling people to do and be their best.  His consulting work focuses on maximizing human capital and making workplaces great places to work, and his research focuses on self-actualization, flow, creativity, hypnosis, and mentoring. Dr. Davis is the principal investigator of the Quality of Life Laboratory and the Chief Science Officer of Self Spark. (@DrOrinDavis)

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