We all admire people who have grit, who keep on persisting and achieve great things.
Many of the people who we recognise as fathers and mothers of innovation are often described as individuals who just believed in an idea and persisted.
In essence, they had “grit”.
So the question that everyone seems to be asking, especially from Angela Duckworth, is: what is ‘grit’ and how can I have more of it?
In her book “Grit: why passion and resilience are the secrets to success” Angela debunks a long list of myths around what grit is, how gritty people act, and how we can all invest effectively in increasing our grit.
Here is a crash course on grit, and ideas how to build your own grit ecosystem.
True grit emerges over time
A common misconception that many of us have been buying into is what we call talent.
We often see highly skilled people and assume that natural talent is something that one is either born with or isn’t.
That you either have the greatness in you or you just don’t.
These ideas are beautifully debunked in Angela’s book where she clearly shows how passion + perseverance actually result in greatness.
Buying into this common myth of natural talent actually is our way of buying out of hard work:
if we accept that some people are just naturally talented, that means we won’t succeed if we are not some of those lucky ones.
It gives us the perfect excuse why we don’t need to practice more and why we can walk away and stop persisting.
But true grit is about keeping practice going even when one doesn’t feel very talented because “a high level of performance is, in fact, an accretion of mundane acts” (p. 38).
For example, building expertise often takes at least over a decade.
This is very much in line with what for example Dorie Clark writes about: becoming a successful writer or a brand is not about how fast you can rise but how much effort and work you put in that process.
Building brands is a long-term commitment, with lots of little steps to be taken.
Even finding one’s passion is a long fragile process as Angela notes:
“passions don’t come to us at once, as epiphanies, without the need to develop them… our early interests are fragile, vaguely defined, and in need of energetic years-long cultivation and refinement” (p. 106).
Giving ourselves permission to actually develop our ideas of what we are passionate about and what interests us is a long process in other words, and one where we keep connecting the dots to build our own ideas.
But it is not enough just to clock the hours and work more and more to enable success.
Grit is very much about two things: deliberate practice (practicing effectively and with purpose) and flow (effortless performance in a moment in time).
Why imagination and being gritty are linked
The role of imagination and its links to being gritty and successful is fairly well-established by now.
In the book Alter Ego, Todd Herman for example reveals the secrets how many superstars in music, sports, and you name it, prepare themselves by imagining them being someone else with super powers and particular characteristics. (see here for how alter egos could be used in peer review).
These stars prepare themselves for a challenge or game by stepping into an alter ego that is their own creation of what a powerful individual in that moment is and should be.
In the book, Angela ties this with imagining an outcome that drives one to practice:
“When I practiced piano, I pictured myself in front of an audience. I imagined them clapping” (p. 26).
By imagining an outcome, she could push herself harder and harder to practice and ultimately to gain confidence and experience to really excel in music.
There is a neuroscience basis for this that most of us are not aware of.
Norman Doidge explains aspects of this in his book The Brain that Changes Itself where a chapter on imagination shows how many experiments have shown how simply imagining doing an exercise actually increases the individual’s capacity to do so:
“One reason we can change our brains simply by imagining is that, from a neuroscientific point of view, imagining an act and doing it are not as different as they sound… Brain scans show that in action and imagination many of the same parts of the brain are activated. That is why visualising can improve performance” (p. 203-204).
Countless experiments have now shown how people can, simply by imagining and thinking of performing an act, learn the same skill and at times even faster than those who actually only do it in practice.
So, being gritty is also about being able to harness imagination in ways that others are not necessarily accustomed to.
Yet, it seems to me at least that the role of imagination is still discounted from being a massive enabler in fuelling one’s passion and persistence in knowing that they can and will succeed.
Is grit really more a collective enabler than an individual trait?
Although the book is very much focused on individual’s stories, it is rare that any individual can succeed without a supportive network.
As Angela notes in her book, grittiest people often have a network of supporters who especially in the early days encourage the individual to keep trying.
Although we often are more interested in the idea of a great individual, I do believe firmly that grit is enabled by others in an individual.
For example, I would not be able to do the work that I do, and persist in having a career as a single parent if I did not have the support of my family, friends and my institution:
someone picking up my son from daycare when I have a late speaking engagement; meetings being scheduled at a time when I can attend; travel support for his costs to accompany me; my family looking after him.
There are countless times when I know that I am able to keep persisting on my purpose and passion because my support network allows me to do so.
But the book has made me wonder about different kinds and forms of grit:
Of course the individual does the work but most of us especially in scientific fields often collaborate with others and support each other in persisting on a particular idea (idea grit), are supported by our institutions to keep researching a particular topic (institutional grit), and have a social network that enables us to keep going (communal grit).
All of those factors enable an individual to be, become and remain gritty in life’s situations because no path is a straight line and our lives are full of surprises.
Can we measure collective grit as part of climate adaptation?
While the grit scale that Angela has developed is focused on the individual, it could have broader utility that is directly applicable for climate change adaptation.
As we often talk about the localness of adaptation, perhaps it could be used to measure collective grit or resilience at a community scale.
If we assume that grit is the outcome of being persistent and having passion, we could measure it on a community scale e.g. how gritty a community is about adapting to climate change (or not adapting in some cases).
To what extent can we say that a community that persists in the face of increasing climate change impacts, and is passionate in its aims to do so, is superior to one that picks up and leaves?
From someone working on such concepts as adaptation limits (to what extent can we even adapt to e.g. heatwaves, increases in flooding), is being gritty about not leaving until the ultimate limit is being surpassed, or is being gritty about leaving before those limits occur?
Although this is getting into specifics, the way we frame and define an issue matters greatly because those choices (e.g. what is a resilient or gritty community) drive also our assumptions how and for what purposes should we target and invest for example climate finance.
Creating your own grit ecosystem
The book is full of key insights into how people can become more gritty.
What in particular stands out to me is that we all have a choice in what we decide to believe we are capable of, and also how we manage relationships on our lives.
Our grit ecosystem is as much about our own beliefs about our abilities, our purpose and passion, and about the role that is played by our social network.
Finding mentors and coaches and developing long-standing trusting relationships with key people in whatever field you work in is key because our brains are social beings and most innovations and successes happen when we engage, talk and think together.
Ask and use feedback to improve, and keep a track record of what you are learning, how much you are putting effort in practicing, that you can use to measure more exact performance over time.
And trust your brain and imagination that you have what it takes to go forward.