The New Variable That Might Be Just as Important as Intelligence
We all have accomplishments in our lives that we are particularly proud of - moments that helped to define and shape us as individuals. But why do we feel proud of those accomplishments? More likely than not, it isn’t because they were things that came easy for us, and each accomplishment probably didn’t happen all in one day. For me, some of my proudest accomplishments occur when I am rock climbing. Sure, some people naturally have more strength, or flexibility, or a longer reach, or better gear than I do, but that’s not what makes a good climber. Rock climbing is about being consistent and persevering despite setbacks and an ever-looming fear of failure. Unless they were super-human, nobody in the world would be able to climb 5.15, the toughest level climb there is, without dedicating a lot of blood, sweat, and tears towards their long-term goal while somehow maintaining stamina and an interest in the sport for an extended period of time. But what is it that sets the truly exceptional apart from the rest?
Time and time again, intelligence has been shown to be the best predictor of achievement and long-term success. Some of the achievements associated with levels of intelligence include higher GPA’s, better employment outcomes and performance, higher income, and even our occupational choices. However, when researchers analyzed the effect of intelligence alone on these outcomes, they found that intelligence only accounts for about a third of the likelihood of these outcomes occurring (Duckworth, Peterson, Matthews, & Kelly, 2007). Intelligence alone is not enough to make a person successful in the long run. Terman and Oden (1947) posed the question of why some people, despite being highly intelligent, just aren’t as successful as their less intelligently gifted counterparts.
In her recently published book titled Grit: The Power and Passion of Perseverance, Duckworth (2016) explores this question. What does it take to be successful in the long run? Through her research Duckworth noticed a trend - it doesn’t just matter how smart, talented, or strong you are, but how hard you work for it over a sustained period of time. This discovery allowed her to coin the term “grit.” Grit is a relatively new term in the field of positive psychology that has been explored quite a bit by psychologists in recent years. Duckworth defines grit as a personality trait in which one perseveres, all the while maintaining interest, towards a long-term goal (Suzuki, Tamesue, Asahi, & Ishikawa, 2015).
Grit is a personality trait that is shared by every one of the most prominent leaders in the world (Duckworth et al., 2007). The gritty individual takes challenges head on instead of turning back and looking for a new path. And even when those challenges have been faced and conquered, they keep going and pushing the boundaries even further. You’ve probably heard Gladwell’s (2008) mantra that it takes 10,000 hours of dedicated and daily practice to become an expert at almost anything. As nice as it would be to have a magic number for exactly how long it will take to be an expert at any given thing, the 10,000-hour rule is misleading. It isn’t only the number of hours spent practicing that makes the difference, it’s the quality of the practice during those hours that counts. Despite the confusion, the 10,000-hour rule still highlights the points that Duckworth (2016) has been making: the level of commitment and quality of effort exerted by gritty individuals is what eventually pushes these people past their innately talented peers and into the upper echelons of their fields. But doesn’t intelligence count for something? After all, isn’t that what the data has consistently shown?
It isn’t that being smart is better than being gritty, or that being gritty is better than being smart. Those factors alone are not enough to account for success. They must be used in conjunction with one another. According to Duckworth et al. (2007), “achievement is the product of talent and effort, the latter a function of the intensity, direction, and duration of one’s exertions toward a goal” (p. 1098).
So what can you do to foster grit? According to Duckworth (2016), there are a few steps that you can take in order to become a grittier person:
1. What fascinates you? Think back to your childhood. Was there a particular activity that you enjoyed doing? Interests we develop as children have a tendency to stick with us over the course of our lifetime. If you’re having trouble finding something from your younger years, then think about what you enjoy doing during your down time or even during your daily tasks.
2. Setbacks are opportunities for growth. Don’t be hard on yourself when you don’t see immediate progress. It takes time. Instead of viewing setbacks as failures, reframe them as opportunities to learn and grow as an individual.
3. Look for meaning in what you do. Search for meaning, even in the smallest of things. Ask yourself, “What can I do to make this more meaningful?” Tasks that bring a sense of meaning are more likely to allow you to maintain stamina and interest.
4. Find purpose. Meaning and purpose are often wrongly used interchangeably. Finding a sense of meaning in what you do does not mean that you will also find purpose in it. Meaning is the symbolic value of something in the present, whereas purpose implies a valuable goal to be reached in the future. Think about the outcome that an activity may have – how will that outcome benefit others?
5. Be hopeful. Don’t expect a change overnight. It’s going to take effort. As a professor once told me when I was struggling in her class, “You must not give up hope! Practice, practice, practice and then you will see results.”
6. Surround yourself with gritty people. It’s human nature to conform. Even if we don’t realize we’re doing it, we have a tendency to follow the flock. By surrounding yourself with gritty people, not only are you able to see the progress of your friends’ gritty determination, but you’ll also have a support system to help you develop your own.
Duckworth, A. (2016). Grit: The power of passion and perseverance. New York, NY: Scribner.
Duckworth, A. L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M. D., & Kelly, D. R. (2007). Grit: Perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(6), 1087-1101. doi:10.1037/0022-35184.108.40.2067
Gladwell, M. (2008). Outliers: The story of success. New York: Little, Brown and Co.
Suzuki, Y., Tamesue, D., Asahi, K., Ishikawa, Y. (2015). Grit and work engagement: A cross- sectional study. PLoS ONE 10(9). e0137501. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0137501
Terman, L. M., & Oden, M. H. (1947). The gifted child grows up: Twenty-five years’ follow-up of a superior group. Oxford, England: Stanford University Press.