Defining Success: The Meaning of Grit

It’s the first week of March. At the end of 2015 as you look back, what do you want to have attained or accomplished professionally? What’s your definition of success? What are you driven to achieve? What matters so deeply to you that you are willing to dedicate time, energy, and emotion to its fulfillment? How do you stay motivated and engaged in the months ahead so that at the end of the year you are celebrating and smiling?

A recent TED (technology, entertainment, design) RADIO program on success highlights insights from several high achievers including:

  • MacArthur Genius award winner Angela Duckworth (“Is Having Grit The Key?”)
  • The ever so intense Tony Robbins (“How Can Drive Make You a Success?”)
  • And Ron Gutman (“Can you Smile Your Way to Success?”) 

In every case, from slightly different points of view, the speakers all acknowledge internal motivation as a key to success, and they disarm the purported power external carrots have been said to have for changing our behavior from couch slouch to passionate producer.

In particular, I was fascinated by Angela Duckworth’s research on grit.

She defines grit as: “The disposition to pursue very long term goals with passion and perseverance.” Clearly requiring stamina. “Living life like it’s a marathon, not a sprint.” Some of her metrics include the questions:

  • I finish whatever I begin
  • Setbacks don’t discourage me
  • I am diligent

In her research, she found that grittier kids were more likely to graduate from school, even when matched on family income, test scores, or how safe they felt in the environment.

She found no positive correlation between natural ability and grit, contrary to our expectations.

She also found that “When kids read and learn about the brain and its growth in response to challenge, they are more likely to persevere when they fail because they don’t believe failure is a permanent situation.”

Her advice to us all – learn to be excellent in the things you choose to do. To focus in areas that matter to you.

In our leadership development work, we use the work style profile DiSC and are often asked, are most leaders “D” style?  Driven, results oriented, challenging, direct.

Our answer: ANY style can lead; they just look different when they do it.  

  • “D” styles are more direct, like to dominate the conversation, are defined by “drive” and focus on results. 
  • “S” styles on the other hand, are the relative opposite of a “D”. They take note of their environment and help create safety and stability for others, a particularly useful skill during dramatic times of change (merger/acquisition, economic unrest, etc.). They often appear to be more reserved than D’s and we could easily be misled to believe they do not have leadership qualities.

So, perhaps this is where grit comes in to play – independent of the natural profile of behavior that describes us as D, I, S or C.  I recently met an emerging leader at a professional services firm. She is a blended style, combining “S” and “I”. The “i” style enjoys collaboration, working with others to solve problems, figuring out how to influence change (versus demanding it, which can be more of a “D” trait).

This young woman has a lot of grit. She moved here on her own from India, leaving behind her parents and 2 younger siblings, to go to college in a field dominated by men. She later brought her younger brother over so that he could graduate from high school in the United States and attend university here. When the company she worked for was acquired by a larger firm, and no one gave her direction for the first year at the new company, she proactively sought project work by going to every director and asking how she could help. She built the reputation as a dedicated, focused, hardworking, passionate professional, building strong relationships with her clients, and looking for opportunities to become even more successful. Her focus this year is on public speaking and presentation skills, which do not come easily or naturally to her. I have no doubt that with her grit and determination, she will excel.

One day she will lead a team, and then a department and then a company. She has grit. She has what it takes to succeed as a leader.