True grit

Can your personality determine your success?

We all know of them. The genius who flits from one unfinished project to another. The naturally talented individual who lets their gift go by the wayside. We also know of those of mediocre intelligence and average ability who achieve things that their more genetically blessed peers could only dream of.

So, what makes some people achieve greatness while others fail to reach their potential? Circumstances? Perhaps. Charm? Yes. Good looks? Almost certainly. But recently, one predictor of success has begun to emerge as more important than all others: grit.

Professor Angela Duckworth initiated the research into grit after her experience of teaching maths to seventh graders: she discovered that success wasn’t necessarily related to IQ, but depended on the motivation to learn.

She looked into which military cadets make it through training; which children get furthest in the National Spelling Bee; which Ivy League students achieve the highest GPA; which newly-qualified teachers last the academic year; which salespeople keep their jobs and earn most money… in all of these situations, it’s the grittiest individuals – not necessarily the most intelligent or talented – who are most likely to succeed.

We know what grit looks like: maintaining motivation over many years, picking yourself up from setbacks, making sacrifices for the sake of a long-term goal. We know it’s not tied to intelligence. What’s less clear is where grit comes from and whether it’s innate or can be learned. Some scientists speculate that ‘grit’ is part of conscientiousness: a 2016 meta-analysis found that the two are highly correlated, while a recent study of over 2,000 sets of 16-year-old twins found that grit didn’t predict grades over and above conscientiousness.

Regardless of whether it’s a facet of personality or a separate trait, there are huge advantages to businesses in having a grittier workforce. Testing for grit as part of the interview process is one tactic. Can you teach people to be grittier? So far, the jury is out.

People who derive happiness from engagement or meaning tend to be grittier than people who seek immediate pleasure, but changing people’s internal motivations is no mean feat. We do know that gritty people:

  • Give optimistic explanations for events
  • Focus on what they can control
  • Draw on whoever they need for support

These are all behaviours that managers can help their people develop. According to Duckworth, encouraging a ‘growth mindset’ is also a promising way to increase grittiness. “When kids learn about the brain and how it grows in response to challenge, they’re much more likely to persevere when they fail because they don’t believe that failure is a permanent position,” she says.

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