Talent or hard work? What does it take to achieve our potential? Are those who are more talented destined to be more successful or is the answer a little more complicated? In her book, ‘Grit: Why passion and resilience are the secrets to success’, author Angela Duckworth contends that although talent is important, it’s actually a distraction from what really matters. Our ability to achieve our potential, she explains, is less dependent on talent and more reliant on our level of what she calls grit.
The book in a nutshell
In the book, the author outlines research which reveals two qualities that high achievers exhibit at an extremely high level. First, they are the epitome of perseverance and are driven to keep getting better through hard work and resilience. Second, they have direction, a deep level of clarity about what it is they want. This, their ultimate goal, acts as a north star as they navigate through life and keeps them going even when things get challenging. That goal becomes their passion. These two attributes when combined are called grit, a passion and perseverance for long-term goals. Grit, the research shows, is a major determining factor in what we achieve during our lifetime.
Talent is no guarantee of success
We love the idea of a ‘natural’, someone who was born with a gift, an innate ability to do something that they are excelling at right before our eyes. Yet, simply having talent doesn’t guarantee that we will achieve excellence, it depends on how we apply it.
Effort matters more than talent
Outstanding performance is a combination of several small skills and activities learned and cemented into a habit. Done consistently and correctly over time it leads to excellence. As the author puts it: ‘Talent is how quickly your skills improve when you invest effort. Achievement is what happens when you take your acquired skills and use them.’
Talent will affect how quickly we improve in a skill but so too does effort. Simply put, with effort a talent becomes skill, but effort also makes that skill productive. Without effort, our talent is merely untapped potential, what we could have done but didn’t. Effort, in effect, counts twice as much as talent.
Consistency is essential
The reality is many of us fail to see things through and we give up quickly when challenges come. High achievers, however, are able to show consistency of effort over a long period. They don’t just work hard now and then, but put in the effort day after day. That consistency leads to excellence.
Work on something that matters to you
Grit requires that we have the same top-level goal over a long period. That goal is something we’ve become so passionate about that most of our actions and lower level goals serve it in some way. As the author puts it: ‘It’s doing what you love, but not just falling in love— staying in love.’ Having a high-level goal which we care about focuses our minds and keeps us on track and motivated when the tough times come.
Grit can grow
Although grit is influenced by genes, like other aspects of our psychology, it is not fixed and can also be affected by our experiences. In the author’s words: ‘One story says that our grit changes as a function of the cultural era in which we grow up. The other story says that we get grittier as we get older.’ Both are probably true. The research reveals that the grittiest people display four distinct psychological characteristics:
- Interest – Gritty people have cultivated a passion but it usually started with an interest that was triggered by their interactions with the outside world. Passion grew from that initial discovery and developed over a lifetime of deepening. This doesn’t mean that gritty people enjoy every aspect of what they do but they are willing to put up with what they don’t because of what it contributes to the whole. The grittiest people, at their core, love what they do.
- Practice – Gritty people have a persistent desire to improve no matter how great they already are and therefore practice with perseverance. They do this consistently but also use deliberate practice methods to focus on and improve their weak areas. With deliberate practice they set a stretch target that focuses on a particular aspect of their overall performance and work on this area to improve it. As the author describes it, they devote themselves to a focused, full-hearted, challenge-exceeding-skill practice that leads to mastery.
- Purpose – The idea of purpose is that what we do matters to others and for gritty people it is a powerful source of motivation. The deepest passions, therefore, are not just based on a developed and deepened interest but also on a deep sense of purpose. Although for some purpose arrives early, for many it comes after years of disciplined practice. For gritty people, their work matters to them and to others.
- Hope – Hope in gritty people is underpinned by the expectation that their own efforts can improve their future. It’s not based on luck but a determination to keep going even when things are challenging and when doubts arise. When gritty people get knocked down they get up and keep going. They view setbacks through a lens of optimism and it fuels them on. A gritty person is essentially an optimist.
We all have limits. That could be our talent or the opportunities available to us. But how many of those limits are simply creations of our minds that we convince ourselves are true. If we never allow ourselves to try something, fail at it but keep going. If we keep changing direction or give up when things get tough, how can we ever discover what we’re truly capable of achieving? Could we have excellence within us if we only gave ourselves the opportunity to find out?
I love this quote from the book:
‘Greatness is doable. Greatness is many, many individual feats, and each of them is doable.”
It eliminates all the excuses we have for relaxing into mediocrity and obeying the status quo. It puts the responsibility back on us for learning, growing and becoming the best we can be. It reminds us that we are all capable of excellence and have a better chance of doing that by becoming grittier.
We can all learn to explore and discover our interests. We can all acquire and build the discipline required to develop our interests into passions over time. We can all cultivate a sense of purpose that will lend our passions even more significance. We can all learn to hope.
Grit is a worthy path to success, so don’t get distracted by talent. Focus on developing passion and perseverance, and this book will show you how.