Guess what – genius is overrated. At least it is according to psychologist Angela Duckworth. She studied the psychology of success and came to this conclusion: to do really well in life, you need more than talent – you need grit.

So, if talent and intelligence are equal, why do some individuals accomplish more than others? This was the question Duckworth answered in her book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.

What exactly is grit?

While studying psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, Duckworth created the ‘grit scale.’ Duckworth defines grit as, “a combination of passion and perseverance for a singularly important goal.”

It is a commitment to finish what you start. A desire to improve and succeed. An ability to survive setbacks. A mindset to do repeated, sometimes boring or unpleasant, tasks.

The grit scale predicted who would do well in many different situations, such as contestants in spelling tests, schoolchildren’s exam results, sales reps reaching targets – even predicting who would survive the physical and mental challenges of elite army training.

Grit means looking forward

“Grit is having stamina,” says Duckworth. “Grit is sticking with your future, day in, day out, not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years, and working really hard to make that future a reality. Grit is living life like it’s a marathon, not a sprint.”

However, it is more than perseverance. Grit is interest, passion and a continuing engagement with your pursuit. It is also hope, because gritty people are optimistic about the future – and their ability to improve.

Gritty people do not see the world through rose-tinted glasses. They feel as much pain as anyone else, and setbacks still discourage them. The difference is that they maintain hope and resilience, especially when there are setbacks.

As Duckworth explains:“We have to be willing to fail, to be wrong, and to start over again with lessons learned.”

How do you develop grit?

Find your passion: “We might envy those who love what they do for a living, we shouldn’t assume that they started from a different place than the rest of us,” says Duckworth. “Chances are they took quite some time figuring out exactly what they wanted to do with their lives.”

Practice perseverance: “Once you’ve fostered an interest, then, and only then, can you do the kind of difficult and sometimes frustrating tasks that truly make you better,” says Duckworth. She recommends practising like an expert by breaking down your goals into tiny, doable steps.

Find purpose: Grit involves combining passion with purpose. Duckworth interviewed people at the top of their fields and found they described their work as having purpose, combined with a desire to help others.

Develop resilience and hope: This doesn’t mean thinking, “tomorrow is going to be wonderful.” It means looking at what you can do to make a difference today. Ask yourself: “What can I do here today make things better tomorrow?”

The limitations of grit

Gale Lucas, of USC Institute for Creative Technologies, published a paper in the Journal of Research in Personality looking at whether participants could stop being ‘gritty’ when failure seemed imminent. She found that the grittiest individuals got stuck trying to solve unsolvable problems, passing up the opportunity to progress and win more money.

 “Right now, there’s an effort to push everyone to have more grit,” she says. “There’s no reason not to make people grittier, but it’s important to know when to quit and re-evaluate, rather than blindly push through.”

Developing grit in children

Duckworth has a message for parents – grit is much more than just encouraging kids to ‘try harder’ or not give up, she says. It’s about helping kids find their passion, but with a word of warning.

“I tell parents that nobody works doggedly on something they don’t find intrinsically interesting,” explains Duckworth. “Before those who’ve yet to fix on a passion are ready to spend hours a day diligently honing skills, they must goof around, triggering and retriggering interest.”

While being encouraging during the early years is important, so is developing autonomy in children. Studies show that overbearing parents and teachers erode children’s internal motivation.

Kids whose parents allow them to make their own choices about what they like are more likely to develop interests later that they identify as a passion. “In other words, even the most accomplished of experts start out as un-serious beginners,” Duckworth concludes.

If you are looking for other ways to improve your happiness at work, check out our other advice articles on how to achieve a better working life.

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