Monday, January 6, 2014

The Importance of Grit

As we enter a new year, filled with challenges, uncertainty, and untold opportunity, this seems a perfect time to share this essay on the idea of “Grit.” No, I do not plan to share my sweet wife Jennie’s wonderful cheese grits recipe (though a possibility for a future essay,) nor do I want to debate the respective performances of John Wayne versus Jeff Bridges playing the wonderful role as Rooster Cogburn. No, as we refocus our efforts after a wonderful holiday break, it is time to be challenged and inspired but the work of Professor Angela Duckworth and her work on the importance of “Grit.”

Professor Duckworth gave a “TED Talk” in April of 2013 and the video of that talk was passed along to me just a few months ago. The link to that video and to a Wall Street Journal online article follows.

She shares the story that after starting her career as a management consultant, she moved to teach Junior High Math in the New York City schools. In that experience, she discovered that her students’ performance in class was not directly correlated to their IQ or their level of talent, but seemed to be dependent on significantly different factors. She realized that the students who demonstrated higher levels of “passion”, “perseverance”, and “stamina” (this combination of traits she coins as “Grit”) were the ones succeeding in her classroom, rather than those with high IQ scores.

After experiencing this phenomenon, she went back to grad school, where she studied psychology, and studied various groups/organizations on this same topic of “Grit vs. Talent/IQ” as a predictor of success. She studied more high school students, participants in the National Spelling Bee, West Point Cadets, Rookie Teachers, Corporate sales people and kept finding the same results. Those individuals who had the stamina to persevere, those who had the passion for their future goals, were the one succeeding. She shares that those who “live life like a marathon versus a sprint … and who stick with their future goals,” in shorthand those with “Grit,” were the individuals succeeding in the widely varying environments. Professor Duckworth closes her talk by raising a question, wondering whether “Grit” can be taught, and whether “Grittiness” is students and children can be encouraged and enhanced over time.

To say the least this topic has resonated with me, and correlates directly to my experiences over my almost 30 year career in business. Over that span I have had the chance to work for four public Fortune 500 companies and a private equity owned private company, literally working closely with thousands of executives, and my experiences lead me to believe that the most successful individuals in their roles, and across those company environments, have not necessarily been those with the highest IQ. Just as Professor Duckworth suggests, those typically most successful over the long haul are those individuals with a strong passion for the long term goal, those with perseverance and stamina to overcome setbacks and challenges, otherwise those with “Grit.” Now I am not going to suggest that organizational “saviness” and high levels of technical competence aren’t important drivers. In my experience they certainly are critical, just not sufficient to describe the drivers of successful individuals.
While Professor Duckworth continues her research into whether “gritiness” can be taught, I have a few ideas, or tips, on how to help to encourage and enhance it in our organizations and teams.

Manage Your Own Expectations
We need to always remember the truth that business, as in life, runs in cycles. Think about the most successful companies; at one point of time they faced obstacles and major challenges. Think of Apple Computers, certainly a major success story over the past few decades. While the successes are staggering, don’t forget about the Apple Newton, the Apple Lisa, the hockey puck mouse, or the number of other failures and setbacks that they faced AND overcame. The thing to remember is that there WILL be setbacks and issues; do not be surprised by them, expect them. The truly great organizations, teams, and individuals don’t let challenges stop them in their tracks. They identify the issues at hand and work hard and often overcome them deftly. The reality that when things are great, they may not stay great, and that when things are tough, they equally will not stay that way is often hard to remember.

Slow things down and keep breathing
Especially in moments of crisis and difficult challenge, it is easy to let the intensity of the moment accelerate the situation, often leading to less than optimal decisions and outcomes; when things get wild, work hard to actually “slow” the tempo down. Take a few extra breaths; concentrate on the immediate issues at hand that HAVE to be decided immediately, putting all others on a schedule to be handled at later times. Unlike to adage of “ripping off the band aid quickly,” I remember “Aunt Lorraine’s Law” (see previous essay by said name) and actually work to decompose the issues/challenges/problems into smaller, more handle able, “bite sized” pieces.

Keep your Feet moving through the hole
It’s rare for me to use a football reference but it is so apropos in this circumstance. When a running back, “hit’s” the hole in the line, a great coaching tip is for him to “keep his feet moving through the hole” even after he has hit a defender. By the runner keeping his momentum, he may have the chance to break free from a tackle to make significant progress. It’s the same idea in business; never let a challenge/ issue stop you dead in your tracks. Keep moving, keep thinking, keep problem solving, keep innovating and you never know what breakout success you may achieve.

As I mentioned above, this idea of “Grit” vs. talent as a driver of success has resonated with me and as a father and a leader, I have been thinking about connections all across my personal landscape. Whever you stand, think about this idea of “grit,” and possibly try out one of my ideas that may be helpful to enhance your “grittiness” in times of challenge.

Happy New Year 2014!

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