Dolly Parton once said, "Above everything else I've done, I've always said I have more guts than talent."

I suspect Dr. Angela Duckworth might well endorse Dolly's intuition that guts trumps talent.

I was doing some routine work at my desk last Tuesday and was listening with half an ear to the Brian Lehrer morning show on the local PBS radio station here in New York. He was interviewing Duckworth, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania and a MacArthur "Genius" Grant winner. Duckworth has just written a book called Grit:  The Power of Passion and Perseverance.  I got fascinated listening to her and, when Lehrer mentioned she was speaking and signing books in person that very night at Chappaqua Public Library, I immediately made a reservation and trundled up there.  Well worth it.

Duckworth's essential thesis is that the key differentiator for achieving success in business and in life is simply something she calls "grit."  She defines grit as a combination of "passion and perseverance for achieving long-term goals."  For Duckworth, it is the real key to why some people succeed and others don't. Passion she defines as falling in love with something and staying in love. Per perseverance, she says, "Grit is living life like it's a marathon, not a sprint."  (By way of illustration, she had Will Shortz, the puzzle master for the New York Times and NPR stand up from the audience.  She cited him personally as a perfect example of grit [impassioned perseverance]---who against all odds and discouragement, made a great success for himself in a field most folks would find just plain silly.  He actually is the only person in the world to hold a degree in enigmatology, the study of puzzles.  Shortz said, "If you are tired of puzzles, you are tired of life!"  Passion, indeed.)

Her book is rich with case studies that are counterintuitive to popular assumptions about success.  She reports a study she did early on about army cadets at West Point.  (As a great admirer of modern military management and leadership, I was particularly interested in this.)  West Point accepts about 1,200 of the over 14,000 applicants they receive each year, but 20% drop out before graduation.  A great many of the dropouts occur in the first two weeks during a process called "Beast Barracks" which seems to be (intentionally) hell on earth.

West Point rates its plebes on what is called a Whole Candidate Score, which is basically a measurement of innate abilities. It turns out those who ranked highest on the Whole Candidate Score were not the ones who best survived "Beast" (as "Beast Barracks is called at the Academy.)  Duckworth developed instead what she calls a "Grit Scale" which grades the plebes on statements like, "I finish what I begin" or "New ideas and projects sometimes distract me from previous ones."  Those who score highest on grit survive Beast Barracks best---and are the ones most likely to excel at West Point.

Duckworth came by her initial intuitions working as a middle-school math teacher in NYC. She noticed that her math "stars" were not her brightest students but simply the most determined.  This observation inspired her to get her Ph. D. in psychology and to begin her ongoing research on grit.

Much like Malcolm Gladwell's, Dr. Duckworth's research often surprises.  She challenges preconceptions about how far our talent and innate potential really carry us. For example, she cites a study of Ivy League undergraduates which shows that the smarter the students were, as measured by SATs, the less gritty they were. Her case studies of gritty people include Jamie Dimon of Chase Bank, Pete Carroll of the Seattle Seahawks, Steve Young of the San Francisco 49ers, Jeff Bezos of Amazon, and many more known and less known.

Grit  is certainly a useful read for any entrepreneur. Its research seems convincing.  However, a lot of what Duckworth talks about is preternaturally baked in to most successful small business founders already. They might find themselves (like my daughter) saying, "Well, duh."  If I have a personal quibble with Grit it is that I would have liked to have heard a bit more about how grit can create meaning, happiness, and morality, as well as success. It is perhaps a bit spiritually thin.

If one wants to winnow down Duckworth's message it is much like the guy in New York who asks how he gets to Carnegie Hall. The answer being, of course, "Practice.  Practice.  Practice."

Not profound, but usefully true. Dr. Duckworth's conclusions are somewhat similar to Malcolm Gladwell's in Outliers.  Note Gladwell's "10,000 hour rule"  for the achievement of mastery. 

Writer John Ortberg puts the essence of grit pretty succinctly.  He says, "Over time, grit is what separates fruitful lives from aimlessness."  Angela Duckworth would certainly agree.

Published on: May 9, 2016
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