One great way to learn how to do something difficult is to ask those who've already achieved it. But another, less obvious but perhaps more rewarding approach, is to ask those who almost achieved it.
That's the premise behind a recent New York Times story asking female executives who came within touching distance of becoming CEOs what caused them to fall at the last hurdle. And it's also the idea behind interesting new research highlighted by Brad Stulberg for New York Magazine's Science of Us blog recently.
It's all about attitude.
Rather than quiz top performers on how they rose so high, the fascinating study takes a different approach. It rounds up two groups -- champions who complete at the highest levels of their sport and almost champions who looked promising as youth competitors but didn't end up going all the way. The researchers then tried to figure out the critical difference between these two groups.
And they think they found it, Stulberg reports. The difference between a super performer and an almost ran appears to come down to how they respond to setbacks. He writes:
The researchers found that super champions were characterized by an almost fanatical reaction to challenge. They viewed challenges in a positive light -- as opportunities to grow -- and overcame them thanks to a "never satisfied" attitude. This runs in contrast to almost champions, who blamed setbacks on external causes, became negative, and lost motivation. Although athletes in each group faced comparable challenges, the researchers write, their responses -- "what the athletes brought to the challenges" -- were quite distinct.
And isn't just the key difference between greats and almost greats in sports. "Individuals who have faced adversity and faltered in the past are more likely to show persistent effort and reach the top in the future. This is true in sports, but also in business," Stulberg points out later in his post.
That's both encouraging and discouraging news for those who hope to make it to the top. Strivers will be cheered to know that everyone -- even the best of the best -- face setbacks and struggles. Your challenges aren't a sign you're not going to make it. But in order to overcome these inevitable bumps in the road you're going to need a serious dose of grit. Wondering if you have that sort of resilience could be pretty discouraging.
Grit is a skill, not a gift.
You shouldn't fret though. The ability to bounce back from failure -- the essential component of success -- isn't something you either are or are not born with. "We can learn how to cultivate unwavering effort -- a 'never satisfied attitude' that gains strength from failure -- in ourselves and in others," Stulberg writes.
His post goes on to list several techniques, including following your interests so that you enjoy the process not just the result of your efforts, focusing on self-improvement rather than external comparisons, and seeking empowering mentorship. It's highly recommended if you're aiming for the top and looking to cultivate the resilience it will take to get there.