What does it take to be a champion? Grit

blog-image_2015-08-18Persistence is the vehicle you arrive in.” – Bill Bradley

‘When you win, win big’ should be the motto of PGA Championship winner Jason Day who beat the world’s number one ranked golfer Jordan Spieth by three strokes at the Sheboygan, Wisconsin tournament. Considered an also-ran, Day played in 20 majors and finished in the top 10 in more than half of them. At Whistling Straits he posted the lowest score in major history to win the top trophy in professional golf with a 20 under par.

What separates a Jason Day from the pack, even when the pack comprises the world’s best? Grit. Grit is food for thought among outliers, people who have the capacity to sustain hard labor and persevere in the face of adversity. Zeal, tenacity and passion are the key hallmarks that define a gritty mindset. Together these qualities carry more weight than born talent, according to Property Innovation Summit speaker, author, and University of Pennsylvania professor Dr. Angela Lee Duckworth.

Angela began her presentation by sharing results of a Stanford study involving 300 geniuses. The report’s conclusion? That achievement is a byproduct of talent and effort. However in her view, “talent is overrated because that alone is not a protector against hardship.” People sometimes don’t know where their talent resides. Doggedness is more valuable. The TED speaker believes that grit, or applying a sustained amount of steady effort over a period of time, is “unfortunately undervalued, under-reported and unrecognized” in our culture. There is great fallacy perpetrated by the media in the so-called “overnight success.”

A 2013 MacArthur Fellow, Angela studies non-IQ competencies, including self-control and grit, which she believes are the keys to a successful life in work. Prior to her career in research she was a McKinsey management consultant and a public school math teacher.

Angela emphasized “deliberate practice” as being most effective to developing grit. She interviewed celebrities and sports professionals like Bill Bradley and Kevin Durant. Bradley is a Hall of Fame player, a Rhodes scholar and former three-term Democratic U.S. Senator from New Jersey. A person known for his pithy quotes, it was Bradley who said, “Persistence is the vehicle you arrive in.” In her interviews Angela was told repeatedly by these sports legends the same words that our own parents are fond of telling us — practice makes perfect.

“The path to learning is repetition because it takes a long time to get better at things,” she said. And the secret to learning is receiving plenty of feedback on your actions, and how your behavior has consequences.

In her presentation Angela emphasized “deliberate practice” as being most effective in developing a mindset for pushing grit. She shared four features of this deliberate practice as:

  1. Picking a stretch goal. Simply assigning yourself easy tasks or a check-off list is not goal-oriented enough to qualify as a stretch goal.
  2. Concentrating 100 percent on the task at hand. People who delight in multi-tasking are doing themselves a disservice. The human brain was not built to juggle many things at once very well.
  3. Receiving immediate feedback on one’s performance. Everyone needs a pat on the back and constructive criticism. Here Angela cited the actress Julie Andrews who credited her success to repetitive Broadway performances where audience feedback provided an instant barometer.
  4. Proactively repeating the task until achieving fluency.

The last point is best illustrated by the essayist Malcolm Gladwell. In his book Outliers: The Story of Success, he cites several stories on how mastery is achieved. The difference between good and great, between a highly decorated concert pianist and the norm, is the musician who first achieves the landmark of practicing for 10,000 hours. For Gladwell, it takes 10,000 hours to master anything, regardless of what the activity is.

Angela’s studies took her to West Point Academy where the cadets are judged according to three GPAs based on military, physical and educational achievements. She qualified grit as being the strongest predictor in determining those cadets who would survive “beast barracks” and graduate in four years.

One evidence of grit is found in those people who plan and adhere to multi-year commitments. An example of this would be a student who joins the school’s newsletter committee as a freshman and with enough grit, becomes the editor in her senior year.

For organizations, grit is “resilience, sharing a sense of purpose and not being detoured by challenges.” Projects are pushed forward until finished. Workgroups should follow the gritty example as shown by the 2014 Super Bowl champions the Seattle Seahawks. They had something to prove and proved it. Angela credited their head coach Pete Carroll as someone who gives a lot of encouragement and positive feedback to players. “Good coaches are great psychologists.” She is also very fond of the actor Will Smith, who she quoted as saying, “I will never be out-worked on a treadmill. When I say I’m going to run three miles, I do five.” In Angela Lee Duckworth’s eyes, Will Smith epitomizes grit.

Some additional take-aways on grit shared by the professor included:

  • Keep working on things you can’t do well
  • Focus on objectivity and mindfulness
  • Build a network of mentors
  • Train your weaknesses.
  • Develop a gritty mindset of growth, change, and development
  • Lose the tendency to over-indulge in ‘grass is greener’ thinking

Whatever path you take in life and at whatever stage you are in your career, we could all benefit from practicing more grit and implementing its lessons.

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