If you listen to NPR's "How I Built This" podcast about successful entrepreneurs, you'll notice one commonality. While some company founders were Ivy Leaguers and others were drop-outs from no-name colleges, almost all attribute one factor to their success: grit.

Also known as perseverance or the ability to "stick to it," grit has recently received a moment in the spotlight thanks to Angela Duckworth's Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. Perhaps this appreciation is a backlash to all the hype over technology. Many of us assume that being a successful entrepreneur in 2017 means having a mastery of data science or foreseeing changes in media consumption that others miss. That may be the case, but much like 100 years ago, the successful entrepreneur is the person who sticks to her vision far beyond the point when any reasonable person would quit.

Why? As a lifelong entrepreneur, some may say persistence is my middle name. To a large degree, that's true. The other half of it, though, is the grit I cultivated along my life journey. Though some of us may be born grittier and more optimistic than others, I believe that grit, to some degree, is a characteristic that can be cultivated. It's a quality that comes through life experience - in particular from adversity. The more trouble and resistance you experience in life, the more opportunity you have to cultivate grit. Here's how:

  1. Leave your comfort zone. Deliberate practice is based on the idea that you should be constantly pushed to a level just a bit above your current capabilities. If you're trying to get better at table tennis, for instance you need to practice by fielding hundreds of shots that are a bit faster and harder to reach than what you're used to. Grit works the same way. Forcing yourself into situations that are outside of your comfort zone will prompt you to build up your ability to handle adversity and let you know where you fall short. A good example of this is Warren Buffett. Buffett was once terrified of public speaking, but took a Dale Carnegie course when he was young. Then, he took a job as a professor specifically to force himself to speak before crowds.
  2. Develop a daily discipline. Grit is the art of forcing yourself to stick to things when you really don't want to. A daily discipline allows you to cultivate this quality every day. This can be anything, but one foolproof method is to make it a daily physical challenge. Running a few miles a day is especially good since it forces you to leave the house when it's dark or too cold or too hot or too early. Sure, it's easier to stay in bed and rest but forcing yourself to do something you might not want to do every day cultivates grit.
  3. Change your mindset. How we react to anything and everything that happens to us in life defines our life. Let's say you spend weeks responding to an RFP and spend hours honing your pitch only to find that you lose the business. You can have two reactions: 1) Assume that the game is rigged and avoid making a similar mistake again. 2) Try to figure out why you lost and see if there's anything you can learn from the experience. The first reaction is based on a fixed mindset while the second is evidence of a growth mindset. A growth mindset, the foundation of grit, assumes that every loss is working toward a larger goal and that every setback is a learning experience.
  4. Know when to quit. Here's a paradox: Grit means never quitting, but smart entrepreneurs need to know when to quit. Often grit becomes unproductive when its focus is too narrow. If you're hell-bent on increasing sales at all costs, for instance, you may be oblivious to the fact that the market is going in a different direction. That's why entrepreneurs need to step back every so often and look at the big picture. Often this means pivoting. Of course, you can overdo that as well. As Marc Andreessen lamented in a recent interview, "We do see companies that, literally, every time we meet them, they've pivoted. Every time they're off to something new and it's like watching a rabbit go through a maze or something." One pivot is acceptable for any company but constant pivots signal greater issues with the fundamental thesis and the team.

The takeaway is that life presents itself as a series of problems to be solved. The hard ones - like building a company - require an unusual amount of perseverance that can only be developed by intelligently reacting to life's many setbacks. That's a very optimistic way of looking at life, but then again, I don't know any pessimists who start successful companies. Unlocking the grit that's latent within you just may unlock your destiny.

Published on: Sep 14, 2017
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