How to cultivate the right kind of grit

By Women's Agenda

September 15, 2016

Associate Professor Angela Duckworth from the University of Pennsylvania has found the most successful people in any field rarely succumb to thoughts of giving up.

Instead, when it comes to mastering new behaviours, they have a ferocious determination that plays out in two ways: they’re unusually resilient and hardworking, and they know in a very deep way what they want. Their combination of passion and perseverance is what makes them high achievers. In a word, they have grit.

By approaching the journey to mastery as a marathon, rather than a sprint, people with grit work consistently toward challenges and maintain their interest and effort over years despite failures, setbacks and plateaus in their progress. And while most of us take disappointment or boredom as signals that it’s time to change our approach or cut our losses, people with grit read these as signs to stick with it and truly show up.

The problem with talent

Unfortunately, we tend to carry a naturalness bias that’s a hidden prejudice against those who’ve achieved what they have because they worked for it, and a hidden preference for those whom we think arrived at their place in life because they’re naturally talented. As the German philosopher, Nietzsche noted: “No one can see in the work of the artist how it has become. That is its advantage, for wherever one can see the act of becoming one grows somewhat cool . . . for if we think of genius as something magical, we are not obliged to compare ourselves and find ourselves lacking.”

We’re drawn to stories of overnight success, and conveniently ignore all the years of unrecognised, unappreciated, hard work. We get distracted by talent and create stories that hold us back from achieving what we want most. But as Duckworth explains, this naturalness bias robs each of us of the opportunity to pivot from “ is this all I can do?” to “Who knows what I can do?”

This is not to say that talent doesn’t matter. It does. But your talent is simply the promise of what’s possible, not the guarantee. For example, in one study of competitive swimmers, researchers found that the very best performances were not a matter of extraordinary talent, but the consequence of dozens of very ordinary skills or activities, that had been carefully drilled into habits and then synthesized into a whole. They concluded that the only thing that made these performances extraordinary was the fact that the swimmers were able to consistently and correctly complete these actions all together.

Duckworth suggests talent matters because it shapes how fast our skills improve when we invest effort. But in order to achieve great things we have to take these skills and use them. For example, while my co-author of the book Lead Like A Woman, Megan Dalla-Camina, is a gifted writer, it’s the hours of effort every week that she puts into honing her craft that has evolved her skill from writing beautiful prose to capturing the kind of words that make you want to stand up and shout “hell yeah!” And while in the past a handful of Megan’s friends had been fortunate enough to read what she wrote, it’s been the extraordinary effort she’s poured into her writing in recent years that has resulted in best-selling books and a dedicated audience around the world.

Effort builds your skills. And effort is what makes these skills productive. Meaning that effort is the key when it comes to turning your potential, into your reality.

Know what to be gritty about

Being gritty doesn’t mean never giving up. It means using your passion to guide and prioritize your efforts so you know when to persist and when to start looking for viable alternatives. Most importantly grit is about holding the same top-level goal for a very long time. Duckworth suggests one way to understand this is to envision a goal hierarchy that might look something like this:

Top Level Goal: Your purpose and guiding compass

Mid Level Goals: Pathways to achieve top level goal

Low Level Goals: The daily activities that move you forward

At the top of your goal hierarchy would be your purpose – it’s your why. It’s the compass that guides you on the long and winding road to where you ultimately want to be. It’s the end, in and of itself.

Next, come your mid-level goals (of which there could be several layers) that explain how this top-level goal will be achieved. These are the projects or areas of focus that are moving you forward.

Finally, at the bottom are your low-level goals that detail what you’re doing to make the mid-level and top-level goals possible. These are your most concrete and specific goals. The tasks you have on short-term to-do. They are the means to the end.

Duckworth suggests that rather than a coherent goal structure, most of us struggle to be gritty because we have a bunch of mid-level goals that don’t correspond to any unifying top-level goal or have competing goal hierarchies that aren’t in any way connected to each other. Of course, to some extent goal conflict is a natural part of busy and full lives, for example motherhood versus career, so the idea that we would only have one top-level goal may be extreme for many of us. However, she argues that being gritty is much easier when we pare down our long lists of mid-level and low-level work goals according to how they serve just one top-level professional goal.

She also notes that giving up on lower level goals is not only forgivable but also sometimes absolutely necessary. When a lower-level goal can be swapped for another that is more feasible, efficient or fun, then by all means do so. But like most traits, Duckworth suggests the real benefits of grit lie somewhere in between the extremes of having too little and too much. After all, most of us can think of times where we stuck with an idea, job, or romantic partner longer than we should have. As best-selling author, Caroline Adams Miller cautions, stupid grit can see us obstinately pursuing long-term goals that present more negatives than positives because circumstances have changed. It’s important to be mindful of the situation you’re in and the outcomes you’re hoping to achieve when it comes to being gritty.

This article was first published by Women’s Agenda.

To download the first two chapters of Lead Like A Woman: Your essential guide to true confidence, career clarity, vibrant wellbeing and leadership success by Megan Dalla-Camina and Michelle McQuaid for free visit

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