True Grit

In my kettlebell class, which is one of the highlights of my week, the instructor told us that we’d be doing something a little different.  The idea was to repeat this particular lift with the goal of not being the first one to quit.  He said, “I know who I’m betting on.”  With that, we all knew he was speaking of Jess.  Both shorter and thinner than anyone else, she nevertheless is always the one to lift the most for her size and to do more than anyone.  She did win the game and did so again when we repeated it.

She was demonstrating an indomitable spirit, or what my former coach called intestinal fortitude.  That’s just Jess — she has grit.  The little incident came at a time when I’ve been thinking quite a bit about resilience and persistence.

For those of us who don’t consider ourselves among the most talented or smartest, the good news is that persistence plays a much bigger role in whether we are successful than practically any other factor.  Not much to me is more beautiful or inspiring than seeing someone fight against the odds and come out on top.  I think, for example, of the courage shown by England in the face of massive bombing from the Germans in World War II.  Against overwhelming odds, they carried on in the belief that their system of government was good and should remain.

But this isn’t just about the sort of feelings we derive from history and movies like “Rocky”.  There is actually quite a bit of psychological research to show that resilience is a key to accomplishment.

In one chapter from her work “Succeed“, a book I’d highly recommend for its research-based approach, author Heidi Grant Havorson, puts forth several tenants about the nature of persistence, which she refers to as “grit”.  It turns out that many studies substantiate the fact that a firm commitment to your goals and a willingness to work hard to achieve them is a greater factor in meeting them than any innate ability you may or may not have.  Some points put forth by Dr. Halvorson:

  • You are more likely to stick to it if you choose goals that are related to “getting better” rather than showing how good you are.  In other words, the commitment to work each day to improve is much more likely to result in success than a goal related to proving your worth to someone else.  Say to yourself, for example, “I’m going to learn about this today and every weekday by spending one hour studying from 6:00 to 7:00 P.M.” rather than, “I’ll put an emphasis on this the next six months and try to get an above average rating on my annual review.”
  • Similarly, your goals should be chosen by you, if possible, and you should internalize them, rather than having them chosen by someone else.
  • In general, if you believe your success in meeting goals hinges on a fixed ability, you’re much less likely to be successful, plain and simple.  Keep in mind that it’s not about what you are but what you are becoming.  In a study by Angela Duckworth, she says “Grit … demonstrated incremental predictive validity of success measures over and beyond IQ and conscientiousness. Collectively, these findings suggest that the achievement of difficult goals entails not only talent but also the sustained and focused application of talent over time.”
  • If you don’t meet a goal, don’t blame it on a lack of ability or on luck or fate or someone else.  Instead, commit to working harder.  In studies related to achievement gaps in math between U.S. and Asian children, the Asian children are much more likely to attribute any lack of success to not working as hard, rather than to any inherent abilities they might have.
  • Making a decision to walk away from a goal isn’t necessarily the same as quitting or giving up.  You may decide rationally that the goal isn’t worth the price.  For example, you may have wanted to get a law degree in evening college, but you come to the realization that you will miss much of your children’s lives if you do so.  On the other hand, if the goal is something worth having, then you will need to believe that working harder will get you to the place you want to be.

I have a friend who is spending much time preparing for an international piano competition in a couple of years.  When we talk about it, which is often because I find it so inspiring, he usually says something like “First, you have to accept yourself where you are, not where you think you should be.  Then, you just have to decide you’re going to put in the time.  Not many are willing to do that.”

What about you?  When you look back at your proudest achievements, I’ll bet they were for things that required you to be resilient and persist despite obstacles.  These were your moments of true grit.


  1. Jessica Thompson says:

    I really enjoyed this post. Thanks!


    1. Randy Mullis says:

      Thank you for reading, Jessica!


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