Lately I’ve been hearing a lot about grit, and its importance to achievement – it’s one of those popular buzzwords in positive psychology.   The more I’ve heard about it, the more curious I became – what is it, and why is it so critical to achievement?

Grit is often described as the combination of passion and perseverance for long-term goals.  In fact, psychologist Angela Duckworth, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and a trailblazer in the study of all things gritty, has a new book coming out entitled:  Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, (May 3, 2016).  In it, she cites her extensive research in her Duckworth Lab at the University of Pennsylvania, as well as insights from studies and interviews with high achievers and peak performers in their field.  Her lab focuses on the two character traits that, she believes, can predict achievement, even more than talent and natural ability:  grit and self-control.

What is it about grit that makes the difference between those who succeed in accomplishing difficult, long-term goals, and those who fall by the wayside?  It’s not just about talent, or hard work, or self-control, although these are components.  Perseverance is part of it, as is tenacity, but not the whole picture either.  It encompasses discipline, courage and resilience – there is no hard-won achievement without these – but none of these characteristics on their own determine grit.

One of the hallmarks of grit is the ability to stick with and pursue a goal over a long period of time, in spite of obstacles, challenges and setbacks along the way.   In a research statement published by the Duckworth Lab updated in May of 2015, grit…..”entails having and working assiduously toward a single challenging superordinate goal through thick and thin, on a timescale of years or even decades.”  (Yes, decades.)  Clearly, sustaining interest and motivation over long periods of time is key.

What about self-control?  According to Duckworth and her colleagues, the two are related, but not the same.  Self-control is defined as “the voluntary regulation of behavioral, emotional, and attentional impulses in the presence of momentarily gratifying temptations or diversions (Duckworth & Seligman, 2005; Duckworth & Steinberg, in press.)   Basically, people who have grit tend to be more self-controlled and people who are high in self-regulation can be gritty as well, but not always.  The time factor seems to be the distinguisher: self-control is more typically employed when resisting tempting alternatives in the moment.  (Sitting down to study when you would rather go for a bike ride.)

Clearly, any long-term goal worth achieving is going to involve challenges, setbacks and detours.  Discouragement, weariness and even boredom may set in.  Unexpected roadblocks can occur. That’s where grit comes in.

© Błażej Łyjak |

© Błażej Łyjak |

How do you know if you have what it takes?  If you don’t naturally come by it, can grit be developed?

  • Passion is integral to grit. Without it, it’s going to be difficult to maintain the sense of purpose and drive necessary to keep going when the road gets rocky.  No matter how passionate you are about becoming a concert pianist, there are going to be times of disappointment, discouragement, and days when practice feels like drudgery.  Passion for your goal is what will fuel the resolve you need at those times.
  • Speaking of practice, it’s critical to achievement and mastery of a subject or skill. Studies of those who rise to the top of their field show that thousands of hours are spent in devotion to their pursuit.  Focused practice for hours, days, weeks and months are what it takes to attain mastery, and grit is what it takes to get you there.
  • Psychologist Heidi Grant Halvorson, in her book, 9 Things Successful People Do Differently, reminds us that “effort, planning, persistence and good strategies are what it really takes to succeed.” Incorporating this knowledge into your goal planning will more readily lend itself to building your grit muscle.  Grit doesn’t happen in a vacuum.
  • Without tenacity – stubbornness, drive, sticking-to- it–no- matter-what – it’s going to be near impossible to achieve something over the course of months or years. Long term goals can get sidetracked by any number of issues – financial, health, serious family difficulties.  A no-matter-what mindset is what will get you back on course and moving forward again. 
  • Resilience is closely correlated with tenacity. It’s the ability to be flexible, to get back up after getting knocked down, no matter how many times – strength of the spirit.  Resilient people have an internal compass that acts as a powerful guide through the inevitable hard times they may experience, and keeps them connected to their core purpose through times of distress or disorder.

Staying physically fit is important to grit – it takes determination and self-discipline to hit the gym or exercise class week in and week out, and physical wellbeing dramatically increases our chances of success in other areas.  Having a strong sense of purpose and meaning attached to your aim is another.  Having a mentor or support network to help you keep going during rough times can play a critical role in  success.  Finally, look back through your life and draw on your previous accomplishments and hard-won achievements. You may be surprised at what you come up with.  Recognizing those successes and building on them can help build the confidence you need to be gritty when you need to be.

I would love to hear your comments and thoughts on this topic.  How has grit served you when you had a difficult objective to achieve?  If you currently have an important goal you’re striving towards, what helps you keep going during times of adversity?

Categories: Wellness


David Walsh · March 23, 2016 at 7:51 am

Good Morning, Suzanne,
GREAT (gritty) article to start the day. As a Sales Professional, this hits home on so many levels. I especially enjoyed the part about looking at past successes to power me through tough times.
Happy Spring, to you and “your guys”.
David W

Suzanne Levy · April 16, 2016 at 1:30 pm

Thanks for your thoughts, David! Looking at our past as information for the future is a powerful tool! I’m glad this article was helpful to you.

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