A few months ago, I struck up a conversation with my seat mate on a plane. He was the CEO of a midsize manufacturing company. The standard small talk (“Are you coming or going…business or pleasure… what do you do?”) led to him sharing a personal story about his first rejection letter – a letter that still hangs on the wall of his office today.
“That was back in the day when you actually got a letter that said, ‘We don’t want you.’ It wasn’t the only rejection I got. Things didn’t come easy to me and I screwed up a lot. But, I’m proud of how hard I’ve worked and the mistakes I’ve learned from to get where I am today. Every failure pushed me harder to get what I wanted in life. I want my people to know that if they’re not failing once in awhile, they aren’t pushing themselves. That letter on the wall is a good reminder.”
Wait… what? Many people would expect to win the lottery before they heard their boss embrace failure that way. In today’s 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.
Research conducted over the last decade or so has really put that old adage to bed and led us to drill down into our beliefs about success. How would you answer the following questions:
Which is more important to success: effort or talent?
Which quality is more likely to get you hired: perseverance or intelligence?
Surveys show that most people would say that effort outranks talent and perseverance is more valuable than intelligence. The logic is that, at some point, we are going to be faced with something we can’t do or don’t know, and hard work will get us through. But when you’re in the hiring seat, it’s different. Would you hire a “striver” who works really hard as your new marketing strategist, or would you take the guy with the 145 IQ? Who would you hire as your personal financial advisor?
Likewise, from the applicant’s seat, it’s easier to claim persistence is more important than talent and ability – but for someone else. Be honest. Vulnerability is sexy; it’s also very scary. Most of us are much more comfortable sharing our accomplishments than our struggles.
“You make it look so easy!” is much more attractive than, “You look like you’re working really hard to get that done…do you think you can pull this off?” The former elicits a sense of confidence while the latter oozes doubt about your ability to do the job.
We want the world to see us as talented and intelligent and capable, not a hard worker who learns a lot from a lot of mistakes. Human bias is a complex, deep-seated force that shapes our attitudes and behavior.
“If people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery, it would not seem so wonderful at all.” – Michelangelo
So, what is the “it” factor for success? As it turns out, it’s more about the “grit” factor. How gritty are you? Can you train yourself to get grittier? The answers to those two questions may be the keys to your success.
In 2004, the United States Military Academy at West Point discovered the grit factor when they embarked upon a comprehensive research initiative to accurately predict which cadets would make it through the grueling first phase (also known as “Beast Barracks”) and which would pack up and go home. They conducted an exhaustive comparison of IQ, SAT and ACT scores, high-school rank, physical fitness, “leadership potential,” and any other measure of aptitude they could grind through a statistical analysis formula. Military psychologists even tried to discover subconscious similarities by showing the cadets flash cards of random images to determine the “it” factor among those who successfully made it through the program.
After all of the number crunching, the epiphanous moment came when they included one additional test to their battery, the Grit Test developed by Angela Duckworth. Of the 1,218 new cadets, the 71 who quit did as well as their peers on every single testexcept the Grit Test. A cadet’s level of grittiness would predict with statistical significance who would complete the program and who would bail.
At a time when the products of yesterday’s helicopter parents have now become today’s Millennial workforce (complete with a long, somewhat unfair, list of negative characteristics), Duckworth’s research has even greater significance. Companies don’t have unlimited resources to train people who aren’t going to stick around. And yet, if they don’t spend the resources to train them, what happens when they stay? Hiring the right people is important. Hiring people who will contribute to the organization’s success is critical.
After a wealth of research about how grit impacts educational and career success, the bottom line is this: Frustration and failure are essential to success.
Actually, it’s not the frustration and failure, but rather our attitude toward them that is essential to success. Those who aren’t able to effectively embrace and respond to failure are more likely to stay in the safety zone where mediocrity abounds. Learning how to embrace failure takes grit, but that grit is what pushes us to realize our full potential. Moreover, beyond success, our level of grittiness also has a direct correlation to our level of happiness and personal satisfaction. Consider these four gritty traits that have a direct impact on both success and happiness.
Resilience, nurtured through a combination of optimism, creativity, and confidence, is defined as the capacity to recover quickly from difficulty. Life is often messy and complex, and there is no single solution that applies across the board. This means you must plan, prepare, and work toward your vision, but also continually embrace failure and experimentation when the inevitable orange cones of life present an unplanned detour. When we view these obstacles as opportunities to learn, we can bounce back smarter and stronger,
As Andrew Zolli and Ann Marie Healy point out in their book, Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back, “There are no finish lines and no silver bullets. Resilience must be continually refreshed.” Resilience is the defining factor between those who thrive in difficult or changing times and those who fall apart.
The key with resilience is that we aren’t born with a fixed amount of it. Think of it like a muscle. You can build resilience, practice to keep it strong, and then use it when you need it.
A Google search for “fear of failure” will produce over 150 million hits. It’s number 15 on the top 100 phobias list—atychiphobia. People who suffer from the clinical diagnosis of atychiphobia suffer from an irrational fear of failure that is so powerful that they are unable to do anything in which there is even the slightest chance of failure. While that seems extreme, a recent survey found that fear of failure plagued 31% of the respondents — a larger percentage than those who feared spiders (30%), or the paranormal (15%).
It’s also one of the greatest barriers to success. Even though we all know we can learn from our mistakes, no one wants to fail. Failure and disappointment come as a package deal, and neither feels good.
Courage and grit are a package deal, too. It takes courage to overcome the fear of failure. 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 make progress. If you’re not failing once in awhile, you’ll never be as good as you could be.
People often use the words excellent and perfect synonymously. As it turns out, there is a huge difference. Perfection focuses on destination rather than the journey. Perfectionists view any outcome less than perfect as failure. Many times that perfection is simply their perception of the ideal. They strive for impossible goals and often suffer from chronic unhappiness, clinical depression, and low self-esteem as they constantly chase that elusory prize. Moreover, perfectionists are often described as obsessive, anxious, rigid, and unyielding.
The quest for excellence is motivating and far more forgiving than perfection. Excellence is an attitude that emphasizes progress. Progress implies the process of continual improvement. Tony Schwartz, well-known author and founder of The Energy Project, refers to this as the “growth conflict.” Schwartz maintains that we strive for excellence as we continue to learn, grow, and change while also learning how to accept our own limitations and imperfections.
Perhaps the most essential attribute of gritty people is passion. Passion enables us to develop stamina and tenacity toward a greater purpose. It’s this symbiosis that creates meaning from chaos, finds value in effort, and cultivates happiness, personal satisfaction, and the sense that what we do really matters. People who genuinely love their work are motivated by their passion and a greater purpose. They tend to be more satisfied and healthier both psychologically and emotionally. Conversely, people who are unsatisfied with their work are more likely to be dissatisfied with their personal relationships and experience distress in other areas of their lives.
“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.” -Malcolm Gladwell
Grit may be the deciding factor between those who just show up and those who get the gold. Beyond that, grit determines how happy they are along the way. Success is not just measured by income or the title on a business card. Those who enjoy a rich, rewarding life understand that the road to happiness is paved with grit. So, if you want to be successful and happy, learn how to smile at adversity, embrace failure, and realize that hard work and resilience are the greatest predictors of success.
If you’re interested in knowing just how gritty you are, Angela Duckworth has created a quick grit test which you can take here.
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Dr. Melissa Hughes is the founder and principal of The Andrick Group. Our mission is to engage, inspire, and educate people who are looking for ways to more effectively teach and learn. We deliver tailored, dynamic workshops to help organizations improve their work by learning about learning and thinking about thinking.