Grit Your Teeth to Achieve Success?

Posted on April 8, 2013 by

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Are you the type of person who starts working on a project passionately only to abandon it weeks later when something else catches your attention?  Did you have trouble choosing your major in college or settling on a career path?  Do you struggle to stay motivated when you encounter boredom, challenges or setbacks on a project?

If you answered yes to any of these questions then according to Dr. Duckworth you probably have a low level of “grit” and will not achieve your full potential if you continue your flighty ways.

We define grit as perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Grit entails working strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity, and plateaus in progress. The gritty individual approaches achievement as a marathon; his or her advantage is stamina. Whereas disappointment or boredom signals to others that it is time to change trajectory and cut losses, the gritty individual stays the course. (Grit: Perseverance and Passion for Long-Term Goals)

In her TED talk Dr. Duckworth highlights her own career as an example of someone lacking grit which caused her to bounce from job to job.  Despite having built an impressive resume of education and work history she is hard on herself and compares herself to a speedboat going nowhere.

How Gritty Am I?

As I was watching her talk I couldn’t help but think about my own choices and experiences in relation to grit.  Over the last 15 years I have been able to stick with a number of commitments, jobs, and projects for about 3 to 5 years before I have grown bored and wanted to change direction:

  • Graduated from Johns Hopkins with a BS in Biomedical Engineering and a Minor in Business (4 years)
  • Designed, developed and launched a complex  medical device for Stryker (3.5 years)
  • Graduated from NYU Stern with an MBA while attending part-time (3 years)
  • Gutted and renovated a 3 bedroom/2bath 1940s Cape after work and on weekends (3 years)
  • Built a successful sales territory for Stryker and achieved multiple years of award winning growth (4 years)
  • Taught myself how to kiteboard at an Intermediate level (3 years)

All of these accomplishments had their fair share of boredom, setbacks, and challenges and I would be lying if I said I never thought about quitting each and every one of them.  Somehow I got through each of them and now I can look back on the accomplishments with pride.

So, I guess I have more grit than the guy who never got his degree because he kept changing majors and less than the guy who sticks with the same job for 30 years.  That makes me believe that like many psychological measures grit exists on a spectrum and each of us has a “set point;” a certain level of grit that determines how long we can stick with something before we get itchy for a change.

Grit and Professional Success

Dr. Duckworth focuses mostly on professional success in her paper and talk.  She argues that the people at top of their field are the ones that maintained focus and invested the most time in a specific domain.

Of course we know that correlation is not causation and since there is only a handful of positions at the top I think we could find more examples of people that have logged the time and are not at the top of their field than the inverse.

But, it is clear that in order to make progress in any endeavor you need to apply consistent effort.  The question that I really struggle with is how do you keep applying that effort indefinitely once it has become a drag or appears to be leading nowhere?

It is easy to say stick with it.  That the best in their field are the ones that showed up everyday for 30 years.  What I wonder is “how did they feel about showing up everyday?”  If they were happy and comfortable and satisfied by showing up everyday then is that really grit?

My Career Building Strategy

When I realized that my personal level of grit allowed me to focus for 3-5 years before wanting to move on I struggled with figuring out a career strategy.  The dominant model in my industry is to focus on one domain (engineering, marketing, etc) for your entire career.  As I grew bored after a couple years with my first job as an engineer I realized that I was going to need a different strategy than the status quo.

I am building a career that specializes in the design, manufacturing, marketing and sales of medical devices.  I worked for five years as an engineer on the design and marketing side, for five years as a sales rep on the front lines and now as a team leader on a team focusing on design and manufacturing.

The truth is that some of my peers at Stryker that stuck with engineering have passed me in rank.  They are now mid-level managers or higher.  You could argue that this is direct proof that I should have “stuck it out” and that would have lead to “success.”

I don’t think about it like that because I wouldn’t have been able to perform at a high level if I had stayed in that position.  I craved a new and different experience and to be back on a steep learning curve.  I value the perspective I gained, the knowledge I built, and the emotional intelligence skills I developed from working as a sales rep.  That experience has made me a stronger engineer and leader with a broader perspective on our business and industry.

Don’t Place Your Happiness In the Future

Dr. Duckworth is promoting the idea that in order to achieve success (and the happiness that this will bring) you need to overcome your feelings of boredom, frustration, or unhappiness and continue to push forward.

The idea of plugging away at a job that you hate just so that you can get the payoff down the line doesn’t make any sense to me.  In a world with so much opportunity and variety I don’t believe that anyone should accept unhappiness on a regular basis in their present life to achieve “success” 10, 20 or 30 years from now.

Finding the Middle Path between Passion and Mastery

There are two main memes on career building that are popular right now: “Follow Your Passion” and “Become a Master.”  Each camp has their heroes who they claim have paved the way for them and created a road map for success.

If you are a passion follower than you don’t need to be convinced that you shouldn’t stick with a job you hate.  Unfortunately you may be struggling to make progress in any of your endeavors because the “passion” is intermittent and causes you to shift directions often.

The mastery disciples love this idea of grit because it validates all the self-flagellation they perform on themselves.  Unfortunately they are probably in for a rude surprise when their plan doesn’t fall into place just right and they are left questioning all the sacrifices they made over the years.

I don’t claim to have the answer.  I am trying to find my own way and I find myself somewhere in the middle between the two ideas.  I don’t think you should worry about it too much though because there are an infinite number of ways to get from to here to there and no one knows the path that is right for you.


If you enjoyed this post you might also enjoy:
Why Do We Place Our Happiness in the Future?
I Don’t Know How To Do That
Stop Moving the Goalposts