What's the most important ingredient for success in life? Talent helps, of course, as do intelligence and happy circumstances. But according to recent, much discussed research by University of Pennsylvania psychologist Angela Duckworth and others, when it comes to accomplishing great things, one factor reigns supreme--grit.

"Success in the real world depends on sustained performance, on being able to work hard at practice," Wired explained in a writeup of Duckworth's research (here's her TED talk). "Factors like grit are often the most predictive variables of real world performance," the article goes on to say. "Our most important talent is having a talent for working hard."

Which is fine and dandy if you're single-minded and persistent by nature, but what if you feel you lack something in the grit department? Can anything be done to increase your mental toughness?

That's a question a whole host of researchers and educators are hard at work on, according to a recent in-depth BBC article by Emma Young that looks into the various programs now being developed to help young people exercise and enhance their grit. The fascinating piece delves into the neuroscience of grit and looks at a range of interventions, including efforts to aid depression sufferers and help pupils in lower Manhattan recover after 9-11 via treatments developed by Oxford psychologists.

10 Must-Haves for Greater Grit

Among the fascinating takeaways that entrepreneurs might put to use are the findings of Dennis Charney of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City and Steven Southwick of the Yale School of Medicine. Their work involves speaking with people--including U.S. special forces soldiers and Pakistani earthquake victims--who coped well with a variety of incredibly stressful life experiences. The pair identified 10 factors that allow the most resilient among us to keep going despite incredibly trying times. They are:

  • Facing fear
  • Having a moral compass
  • Drawing on faith
  • Using social support
  • Having good role models
  • Being physically fit
  • Making sure your brain is challenged
  • Having "cognitive and emotional flexibility"
  • Having "meaning, purpose, and growth" in life
  • "Realistic" optimism.

Some of these are clearly actionable--now you have one more reason to hit the gym--but others are harder to pin down. How does one get more cognitive and emotional flexibility, for instance?

Is Mindfulness the Route to More Grit?

Turns out, many of the scientists at work on this question have converged on the same answer, according to the BBC piece. It's something you've heard of before, but probably never imagined played such a role in cultivating grit--mindfulness. "Many of the factors [Charney] mentions are internal strengths that can be cultivated through mindfulness," explains Linda Lantieri, a former school principal who has developed a program used in U.S. schools to help students develop grit.

The program includes tools like "deep breathing exercises designed to improve conscious awareness of the body and how to calm it down." Martin Seligman, sometimes called "the father of positive psychology," has created another program based on promoting conscious awareness of participants' thoughts and an ability to challenge those that are inaccurate by considering alternatives--e.g., "That popular girl just ignored me in the corridor because she didn't see me, not because she hates my guts."

Grit, it seems, is something you really can work on developing. And it doesn't take boot camp or surviving a natural disaster to get started building mental toughness. It may be as simple as starting a mindfulness practice, which is something just about any entrepreneur can consider doing right now (it's easier than you think).

Published on: Sep 26, 2014
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