I met Melissa in the freshman dorms. She hardly ever studied and when she did, it wasn’t for long. She still earned A’s. In disbelief, I asked Melissa how she did it. She said something like, “I know I should apply myself, but it’s just like high school. It doesn’t take a lot to get good grades, so why bother studying?” The initial realization that someone could do well in school without much labor baffled me. After Melissa’s disclosure, several other peers shared similar comments. It turned out a fair number of students had the ability to make good grades without a lot of effort. I wasn’t one of them.
Why did I have to work so hard? I attended every class, took copious notes, read every chapter, and made flashcards. I remember my English class, junior year of high school. I was earning B’s on all my papers despite significant time and energy. So I decided that if I were going to get a B anyway, I’d put in a B level of effort. On the very next essay I received a D. The only way for me to succeed, I realized, was to bring my best effort every time. To reach my goals, I had to use what’s now referred to as “grit.”
Perhaps you can relate to my experience. Perhaps you’ve realized you’re not naturally gifted in some of the important areas of your life, and it’s been your grit—your sustained effort over time and willingness to overcome setbacks—that’s gotten you where you are. Perhaps when you look at your peers, you realize a few of them are actually, truly brilliant. They seem to achieve impressive goals without breaking a sweat. And you might feel that twinge of envy, as I did with Melissa.
But grit is just as important—if not more important—than natural ability. Although many great accomplishments have been made by the Albert Einsteins of the world, just as many have been made by “average” people through sheer determination. I appreciate the current effort by those who are encouraging grit in children. This trend should help many more of our kids succeed. And it should also alleviate some of the negative feelings that can come along with relying on grit, feelings like envy and shame. When I realized how much harder I had to work than some of the students I knew, I initially felt bad about my abilities.
Our culture seems to favor natural ability over concentrated effort. As Brené Brown explains in Daring Greatly, we are encouraged to do everything well (from work to appearance to parenting) but not show how much fortitude it took. The actress who “doesn’t have to do anything” to be slender is more impressive than the actress who must exercise hours a day and avoid two of the four food groups. TV shows might feature “child prodigies” but not “average children who worked really hard.” The brilliant individual seems to be more admired than the tenacious one.
With all of the recent press and publications on grit, I’m hopeful this bias can change. For most of us, the ability to sustain our effort and keep going despite challenges is essential to creating the kind of life we want. In my book, Commit to Win (to be released in May this year) I discuss evidence that shows above-average grit scores predict higher grade point averages, higher education levels, and fewer career changes. I discuss how grit appears to work as well or better than having an inborn gift, like a high IQ. It may not matter if you can slam-dunk a basketball like Michael Jordan (John Stockton is proof of that—look him up).
What matters for most of us is that at some point we learn a life-changing lesson: Grit is king. It can take you to many of the places that innate strengths can’t. It’s okay if you have to struggle to achieve your goals and there’s no shame in not being naturally gifted. If you really want something, stick with it; and celebrate what your perseverance is able to accomplish.
Note: The data on grit comes from Duckworth, A. L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M. D., & Kelly, D. R. (2007). Grit: Perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(6), 1087–1101.
Heidi Reeder, Ph.D. is the author of COMMIT TO WIN (2014, Hudson Street Press/Penguin), available now at Amazon.com and wherever books are sold.