If you’ve been watching the 2018 Winter Olympics, you’ve likely seen a new iteration of Samsung’s, “Do What You Can’t” commercials. The one-minute ad spot showcases the trials and tribulations of success, from a baby walking to a little girl riding a bike. The ad perfectly accompanies the Olympics, an event where natural talent abounds, and practice makes perfect.
We decided to dig into the research trying to pinpoint what makes people successful, both Olympic athletes and those of us whose job doesn’t require careening down a snow-covered mountain. It turns out, there’s more to success than natural ability alone.
Talent and Grit
In her 2013 Ted Talk, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, Professor Angela Lee Duckworth recalls her experiences as a seventh-grade math teacher. In particular, Duckworth noted a peculiar trend of students with average IQ scores receiving better marks on math tests than those with larger IQs. But why?
This discovery led to the hypothesis that would shape the rest of Duckworth’s career as she became a psychologist and researcher at the University of Pennsylvania. In her theory, Duckworth asked, “What if doing well in life depends on much more than your ability to learn quickly and easily?”
Too often we attribute success to talent alone, and when we think of talented people, we think of those with a natural ability. In fact, Merriam-Webster defines talent as, “the natural endowments of a person.” Duckworth’s research shows that success can be achieved without exceptional natural ability thanks to perseverance, or as she says, grit.
Duckworth discovered that grit could be cultivated just like any other skill. In fact, she notes that many talented people do not follow through with their commitments and are less likely to pursue goals because their natural ability conditions them to believe they don’t need to try as hard.
In the Ted Talk, Duckworth defines grit as, “passion and perseverance for very long-term goals. Grit is having stamina. 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.”
Unlike talent, grit doesn’t appear out of thin air—it takes months and years to develop. Those focused in multiple areas can also spread their grit out too thin and can detract from expertise. Grit also needs to be approached holistically. Duckworth notes that it has to be part of a person’s core and inform everything they do.
Employees should strive for grit as it shows a commitment to the task at hand and a willingness to improve. Duckworth points out that company culture plays a large part in whether or not employees are willing to persevere and reflect on how they can approve. If an employee is part of a culture that reveres hard work over natural ability alone, employees are more likely to be engaged and willing to grow.
While having grit is a good thing, research on how and why grit works are still in progress. Duckworth cautions that using grit as an official marker of success or merit in areas like employment would be inappropriate and impossible to engage because grit varies from person to person.
In an interview with NPR’s Rachel Miller, Duckworth said,
“I think the very idea of character, of developing not just grit, but empathy and curiosity, emotional intelligence, the things that I want my own daughters to develop, the idea that we’re going to get there through rewards and punishments seems completely at odds with the idea of character itself.”
If this is true, it means that failure isn’t detrimental to success, but instead is an essential part of the formula. When we fail, we try again, and when we try again we’re more likely to learn from our past mistakes, do better and cultivate grit.
Duckworth’s research shows that success in life is not predestined by inherent ability. It’s a product of perseverance in the face of obstacles. Practicing grittiness takes time and effort, but it’s something we all can strive toward.