Employers have long looked for the holy grail of predictors of exceptional future performers. What is that one thing that, if found in candidates, would assure success and a great addition to the team?
The long held perspective is that past performance is the best predictor of future performance, but what is the one thing that foretells exceptional performance?
Remarkable talent and intelligence, both IQ and more recently social or emotional intelligence, have been touted as the thing, not to mention one’s networks, upbringing, charisma, or the right schools.
As it turns out, it may have much more to do with one's passion for achieving long term objectives and the tenacity and perseverance for overcoming the obstacles that get in the way.
Grit has re-emerged in the zeitgeist in large part due to the work of University of Pennsylvania’s Angela Lee Duckworth. She was dogged by the question of what separated the exceptional performers from the others in her grade seven math class as a school teacher. She later pursued graduate studies and a PhD to study what differentiated outstanding performers from the rest. Her findings as published and then presented in a popular TED talk in 2013 discarded the notions of IQ and talent as the primary predictors and gave predominant standing to grit as the key to success in many diverse academic and professional settings. Duckworth’s 12 item grit scale measures the ability to overcome challenges and setbacks, explores the allure of distractions from objectives and the perseverance and tenacity to see substantial goals to the end. She is quite definitive on grit's makeup and its voracity as a predictor of success, she is less unequivocal about how to get grit. Others, however, have been more forthcoming on their recipe for developing grit.
Authors Linda Kaplan Thaler and Robin Koval in their September 2015 book “Grit to Great” use their highly successful rise in the New York Advertising arena as the backdrop to explain that “they weren’t considered brilliant, talented or destined for greatness”, how they “failed early and often” and how the very ordinary person can be extraordinary through “steadfast determination, stamina and resilience”.
They convincingly argue through any number of stories and studies that grit is available to all of us by working hard at it, by overcoming the fear of failure, by dealing with our preconceived notions about age and by adopting the flexibility of a bamboo tree.
“Grit to Great” is certainly not a manifesto for the proponents of work-life balance as the many examples demonstrate a consistently near obsessive quality in the dogged search of achievement. Incidentally, they take a healthy swipe at the failings of the self-esteem movement of the past generation as a drag on character and work ethic and point to the evidence that grit trumps the notion that we are special and can positively dream or shortcut our way to success.
Jim Lewis is an accomplished jazz musician, outstanding trumpet player and a gifted educator, currently a lecturer in the Jazz Studies department at the University of Toronto. While in a workshop I attended this summer chalked full of jazz musicians looking for the tips, tricks and advice to propel their musical abilities, Jim repeatedly said to us “you have to do the work”. He clearly knows a thing or two about the importance of grit in expanding our capabilities.
I firmly believe the allure of grit for employers beyond its part in predicting that people get things done has to do with its role in enabling people to increase their ability. Researchers and writers from Stanford University’s Carol Dweck to Malcom Gladwell have argued we are all able to increase our abilities in any field of endeavor through purposeful practice, thousands of hours of skill building and a quest for knowledge. There is compelling evidence that abilities know no bounds within our lifetime if we work at it diligently.
So when we witness outstanding performance in the workplace, the arts or in the quest for the greater good it’s not about being gifted, it’s about having a marathoner's mindset as opposed to a sprinter's. It’s the consistency of our interest and the perseverance of our effort that have grail like qualities. In short, grit is it.