Sweaty Edison

What do the West Point cadets who make it through their initial six week summer training–an intense, physically and emotionally grueling program known as “Beast Barracks”–and the finalists of the Scripps National Spelling Bee have in common? According to University of Pennsylvania Psychologist (and apparent John Wayne enthusiast) Angela Duckworth, the answer is “grit”.

“Grit” is the ability to persevere–in spite of adversity, failure, and distractions–over a long period of time to achieve your goals. Duckworth has run several studies [PDF] in various domains, attempting to isolate the personality characteristics that differentiate top performers from everyone else. What she has discovered is that those who persistently continue to work toward their goals–regardless of things like their IQ scores or “talent“–are the ones who end up as as high-achievers.

Many people spend their lives moving between many different activities: regularly changing hobbies, interests, and even careers. They may be enthusiastic about whatever they are doing early on, but as soon as they meet some difficulty (a series of failures, scheduling or logistical trouble, social or professional distractions), they give up and turn their attention toward something else. As a result, they are never able to achieve truly great things in their endeavors. Some of this should seem self-evident: without sustained passion and perseverance, one will not be able to put in the years and years of training necessary to develop top-level skills.

Some people, like the West Point cadets who drop out during that first summer, find their resolve quickly overcome when they meet difficulty beyond what they expected. Others, like the Spelling Bee finalists, continue to push forward, even if it means hours and hours of difficult and even tedious training. And, again, the distinction between the two has nothing to do with “intelligence” or “talent”.

Grit is, fundamentally, the ability to commit to a long-term goal. When someone is truly committed to their goals, they are able to press on, even when things get hard and even though it means they are unable to do other things. An important truth of excellence is that becoming great at something means not spending time doing a great deal of other things. It also means continuing to strive to be better, even when it seems impossible.

Below is a list of survey items Duckworth and her team put together to test for grit. Take a look and think about how true each sentence is for you.

  • I often set a goal but later choose to pursue a different one.
  • New ideas and new projects sometimes distract me from previous ones.
  • I become interested in new pursuits every few months.
  • My interests change from year to year.
  • I have been obsessed with a certain idea or project for a short time but later lost interest.
  • I have difficulty maintaining my focus on projects that take more than a few months to complete.
  • I have achieved a goal that took years of work.
  • I have overcome setbacks to conquer an important challenge. I finish whatever I begin.
  • Setbacks don’t discourage me.
  • I am a hard worker.
  • I am diligent.

If you want to achieve greatness–in fencing, in your career, in your life–the question is not whether or not you can. That is, in many ways, fundamentally meaningless. The question is whether or not you will. Success is, maybe more than anything, a matter of willingness.

Like Thomas Edison famously suggested, you can’t become a genius if you’re not willing to get a little sweaty.