The Road to Happiness is Paved with Grit

We must encounter frustration and failure to enjoy success.

Wait… what? It seems  counterintuitive – both in the education world as well as the business world – to find both happiness and success through failure.  In the classroom, we work hard so that kids have the knowledge and skills to get the right answers. And the sum of all those right answers delivers good grades, a better college, and ultimately, a more successful life.

In the business world, mistakes can be costly – both to the organization and to the individual. There is enormous pressure to deliver the best products, strategies, and solutions.  No one wants to be credited with “the idea that tanked.” We earn respect through our victories, not our failures.  What is the old saying…

“Carve your successes in stone and write your failures in the sand.”

Our attitude towards failure is essential to success in the real world.  Failure happens all the time, and the only immunization is eliminating all challenges and risks from your daily diet – which is about as far from the tenets of innovation and creativity as one can get.

Those that don’t know how to effectively embrace and respond to failure are more likely to stay in the safe zone where mediocrity abounds.  Maybe they’ve chosen this path out of boredom, lack of vision.  Or maybe they lack grit.  Within any group of people – artists, musicians, athletes, students, doctors, you name the field – with similar levels of talent, IQ, and preparation, the single biggest predictor of who will become rockstars and who won’t is their level of grit.

Angela Duckworth introduced the concept of grit in a 2013 TED talk as the “key to success.”  She went on to win a Genius Grant from the MacArthur Fellowship, and her first book, Grit, examines the scientifically-based concept that success hinges on the level of one’s grittiness.

But, beyond success, our level of grittiness also has a direct correlation with our level of happiness and personal satisfaction.  If you want to be happy, you have to get gritty.  Consider these four traits that have a direct impact on both success and happiness.

Resilience

Resilience is defined as the capacity to recover quickly from difficulty.  But life is often messy and complex, and there is no single solution that applies across the board.  This means planning, preparing, and working toward your vision, but also continually embracing failure and experimentation when the orange cones of life present disruptions.

In his book, Resilience, Why Things Bounce Back, Andrew Zolli explains that resilience comes from a combination of optimism, creativity, and confidence that enables us to overcome the inevitable yet unknown obstacles along the way. It is this mindset to evaluate situations and persevere through challenges so that we have some control over our own destiny and can continually learn from both positive and negative experiences.

When we view setbacks as opportunities to learn, we can bounce back smarter and stronger, and those disappointments actually enable us to bounce back with greater determination and a new perspective.

“In an increasingly complex world, we can’t avoid shocks – we can only build better shock absorbers.”

Courage

A Google search on “fear of failure” will produce over 150 million hits.  It’s number 15 on the top 100 phobias list listed as atychiphobia.  It’s also one of the greatest barriers to success. People afflicted with severe atychiphobia consider the possibility of failure so intense that they often undermine their own efforts so that they no longer take any risks.  At a more mainstream level, those who are afraid to fail also suffer from chronic depression, general unhappiness and poor self-esteem.

We’re taught at a very young age that the goal is to get the right answer.  And even though intellectually we know that we can learn much more from our mistakes, no one wants to be wrong.  Failure and disappointment come as a package deal and disappointment doesn’t feel good.

Courage and grit are a package deal, too.  It takes courage to overcome the fear of failing and sometimes the greatest enlightenment comes from defeat.  Gritty people aren’t afraid to fail, rather they embrace mistakes and recognize that it often takes mistakes to achieve progress. They find rewards in recognizing the root of their failures and turning them into successes.   It takes grit to be courageous, but courage fuels grit.  Perhaps Thomas Edison was on to something when he said,

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

Excellence

Gritty people are on a quest for excellence rather than perfection.  We tend to use the words excellent and perfect synonymously.  But as it turns out there is a big difference.  Perfection focuses on the endgame with little patience for the process. Perfectionists view any outcome less than perfect as failure, and many times that perfection is simply their own perception of the ideal.  They strive for impossible goals with a relentless pursuit of an illusory prize.

As with the fear of failure, perfectionists often suffer from chronic unhappiness, clinical depression and low self-esteem as they constantly chase the rabbit.  Moreover, perfectionists are often described as obsessive, anxious, rigid, and unyeilding. These aren’t descriptors of successful, happy people.

The quest for excellence is motivating and far more forgiving than perfection. Excellence is an attitude that emphasizes progress, and progress implies the process of continual improvement. Tony Schwartz refers to this as the “growth conflict.”  Paraphrased, we strive for excellence as we continue to learn, grow, and change while also learning how to accept our own limitations and imperfections.  The distinction between perfection and excellence is important.  Michael J. Fox once said,

“I am careful not to confuse excellence with perfection. Excellence I can reach for; perfection is God’s business.”

Passion

Perhaps the most essential ingredient of grit is passion, and you can’t talk about passion without talking about purpose. Passion enables us to develop stamina and tenacity toward a greater purpose. It’s this symbiosis that enables us to create meaning from chaos, find value in our efforts, and cultivate happiness, personal satisfaction, and the sense that what we do really matters.

People who genuinely love what they do are motivated by their passion and a greater purpose.  They tend to be more satisfied with their work and more healthier psychologically and emotionally. Conversely, people who are unsatisfied at work are more likely to be dissatisfied with their nonprofessional relationships and experience distress in other areas of their lives.

Consider some of the people in today’s society that epitomize success – Steve Jobs, Michael Jordan, Oprah, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, fill in the blank – they have an unrelenting passion for a greater purpose.  They love what they do and they do what they love. Malcolm Gladwell identifies this as the most important factor for success.  He says,

“Nothing happens without desire and passion. Without it, nothing else falls in place. It’s very hard to find someone who’s successful and dislikes what they do.”

Grit may be the difference between those who go for the gold and those who just show up.  Grit may also be the defining factor in how happy we are in the process.  As a student in the classroom or a student in the classroom of life, most of us want to enjoy the rich rewards of success.  Perhaps one of the best gifts we can give ourselves is the gift of grit.

Dr. Melissa Hughes is the founder and principal of The Andrick Group. Our mission is to engage, inspire, and educate people to increase their capacity for learning and creativity. We do this by providing tailored, dynamic workshops that help organizations improve their work by understanding how the brain works and applying that to achieve greater productivity, professional growth, and personal satisfaction.

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