On Grit.

On Grit.

Angela Duckworth is the Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, where she studies grit and self-control. In her book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, Professor Duckworth defines grit as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals.”

“In their work with The United States Military Academy at West Point, Duckworth and her team of psychologists have worked for years to understand who will make it through the rigorous training and who will drop out. For weeks on end, new recruits are asked, on an hourly basis, to do things they can’t yet do. Most cadets are tired, lonely, frustrated and ready to quit. 

What’s interesting is that those who rise to the occasion and make it through the intense training are not the ones who have the most talent. Many drop out who have all the ability in the world. When presented with challenges that exceeded their current skills, what they lacked was a never give up attitude.”

Duckworth translated what she learned working with West Point into all areas of life in studying high achievers, from bankers and business leaders to artists, athletes, medicine, law, journalism and academia. What her research has found is illuminating.

She admits, in nearly every example of high-achieving success stories, there is a combination of luck and talent. But, it goes deeper than that. The subjects of her study were driven to improve. “When the average person would be satisfied, the top of any field or profession is not. They are their own harshest critics.”

Angela Duckworth – Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance

My family doesn’t like this about me. I’ve often said if you could print out my inner thoughts in a bubble that hovered above my head, I’d either be committed or arrested. As harsh and demanding as I can be on my employees, vendors and business partners and (at times) clients, they all tolerate it, not only because I allow others to ride on my coattails, so to speak, and benefit from my success, but also because they know I’m quite literally 100 times harder on myself.

Listen, none of this is flowery, warm or fuzzy, but it’s the truth and it’s high-time, if no one else in your life has allowed you to acknowledge it, that I give you the space to do so here, in a safe place where you understand that you’re not the only one who thinks this way:

  • I have no realistic expectation that I’ll ever catch up to my own ambitions. In my eyes, I’m never good enough and that’s OK. I’m satisfied being unsatisfied.
  • I’m chasing something of unparalleled interest and importance to me and it’s the chasing that’s actually more gratifying than the capture. Everyone around me has had to get OK with that. 

It’s the same with top writers, athletes, business leaders and academics. Everyone in orbit around them is aware of this and they’ve made their peace with it. I know my peers, ex-employees and contemporaries dislike me for this, but that has more to say about them than it does about me. 

They call me a workaholic or say that I’m too driven. Let them say what they want. I do not care. When Walt was building Disneyland and had already spent half the money with nothing more than mounds of dirt to show for it, he wondered aloud to the lead engineer, with tears in his eyes, if building the park’s railroad and four different “lands” might turn out to be his biggest mistake yet. That harsh self-criticism and determination to see things through led Disney to build an apartment for his family inside the park, so he could eat, sleep and work on-site without leaving. Years ago, when I met the founder-turned-billionaire of Chobani yogurt, he said he did the same thing; slept on a cot in his office for the first handful of months when he didn’t really know what to do other than continue the chase.

If you look at the research and examine your own heart, your most successful endeavors happen when you’re ferociously determined and working your hardest; when you know in a very deep way what you want and that you’re not only passionate about what you’re chasing but absolutely determined to capture it. Like adding top-quality racing fuel to a high-performance engine, it helps if you’re doing all of this in service of your higher sense of purpose.

Listen. I know you have grit or you wouldn’t be reading this update. You’d be mentally wandering about, worrying about this pandemic and economic shutdown. You’d be one of the majority in our profession, who are great when things are going well but fall apart when things aren’t.

But you’re not like the majority. You won’t turn away from or reject the grit inside you. You’ll embrace it. Let this be your fuel to navigate the best path forward.

Worked at Burleson Orthodontics. Attended University of Missouri–Kansas City. Lives in Kansas City, Missouri.