I first learned about grit many years ago when I competed at our district’s annual music contest as a fifth grader. I played the clarinet and was going to perform a solo. The day of my performance arrived, and I sat at the front of a room filled with people. The judge cued me to start, and I blew into my clarinet. Nothing but air. I tried again, and this time, an awful honking sound emerged. After what seemed like forever, the judge stopped my performance. My face was bright red as I realized that my reed had cracked, and I didn’t have a spare. He told me I could come back later in the day and try again, if I wished. What I wanted to do was sprint out of the building, never to be seen again.
In less dramatic fashion, my dad and my band director helped me get new reeds, and they both encouraged me to return to the scene of the crime and try again, which I did. This time, the room was empty, except for my parents. I played my piece flawlessly and ended up with a first place medal. More importantly, the judge shook my hand and told me how proud he was of me for having the courage to return and play again.
My parents gave me a great gift that day. They let me sit with and process the embarrassment and other emotions I was feeling. Then they encouraged me to try again. They didn’t threaten to sue the school or berate the judge. They let me learn from my failure, and that gave me the confidence to know that I could move on from other failures, a confidence I have needed throughout my life.
Succeeding at music contest was an important goal of mine, and I had practiced for hours and was excited to play. Years later, I learned that this trait had a name—grit. Grit is having both the passion and the perseverance to achieve a goal, and grit often predicts who achieves the highest levels of success in school and at work.
Gritty students tend to outperform their less gritty peers, and grit scores are associated with higher GPAs (Duckworth et al., 2007). In one study, grit was a more accurate predictor of whether an incoming cadet would finish his or her first summer of basic training at West Point; more so, in fact, than self-control, academic GPA, Military Performance Score, and West Point’s own Whole Candidate Score, (Duckworth et al., 2007). Grit also predicted those students who would advance into the later rounds of the Scripps National Spelling Bee (Duckworth et al., 2007).
More recently, grit has been shown to predict the success of women lawyers in the country’s largest law firms (Hogan, 2013). This is a big finding in the legal profession because for years, men and women have been entering law schools and law firms as first year associates in roughly equal numbers, yet the number of women making it to the highest levels of partnership has remained static—and really low. As of 2013, the number of female equity partners was about 17 percent. What’s also troubling is that the percentages of women equity partners and women associates in the typical law firm have actually declined slightly in the past two years (Scharf, Liebenberg, & Amalfe, 2014). Encouraged by Hogan’s research, the American Bar Association Commission on Women in the Profession created the Grit Project to educate women lawyers about the science behind grit.
While research shows that grit is a significant predictor of success in different domains, the research shows very little at this point about how a person can develop grit. Here are a few theories:
Make it OK to fail. Whether you’re talking about a kid in school or an accomplished professional at work, failure has to be promoted as something to learn from, not an opportunity to shame or blame. When students get an “A” or a trophy for simply showing up, they are robbed of the ability to learn how to adjust and deal with failure. They miss the chance to develop their own “clarinet story,” as I did.
Develop a growth mindset. People with growth mindsets feel that ability can be developed through hard work and learning, and see failure as an inevitable result of trying new things. As a result, people with a growth mindset try new challenges, take good risks, and use effort as a path to mastering something. In order to foster a growth mindset in others, be mindful of how you praise your students, children, and employees. Praise effort and process (“You tried so hard at that puzzle”) rather than smarts (“I’m so happy that you got an A”). In addition, ask for feedback when a project doesn’t go your way. Feedback is a critical component of developing a growth mindset (Dweck, 2006).
Talk about grit. Talk to your kids and employees about what grit is and how it leverages success. Share examples from your own life about times when you have been gritty. Emphasize that failure is going to happen during pursuit of tough, long-term goals and discuss what Plan B (or even Plan C) looks like.
The recipe for success is about much more than smarts. Grit is a powerful trait to cultivate in those you lead and teach and is worth focusing on as early as possible in your career.
Paula Davis-Laack, JD, MAPP, is the Founder and CEO of the Davis Laack Stress & Resilience Institute, a practice devoted to helping busy professionals prevent burnout and build resilience. Paula is the author of the e-book, 10 Things Happy People Do Differently.
Paula has been a featured expert in and on the Steve Harvey TV show, US News & World Report, SELF, Working Mother, and Women’s Health magazines and speaks regularly about burnout prevention, stress, and resilience. Paula is available for speaking engagements, training workshops, and media commentary. To learn more, contact Paula at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit her website at www.pauladavislaack.com.
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.
Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset. New York: Ballantine Books.
Hogan, M.L. (2013). Non-cognitive traits that impact female success in big law. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Pennsylvania.
Scharf, S.A., Liebenberg, R., & Amalfe, C. (Feburary, 2014). Report of the Eighth Annual NAWL National Survey on the Retention and Promotion of Women in Law Firms.