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The Importance of Creating Gritty People

Every leader dreams of finding a person with that rare “never say die” attitude. They dream of finding a person who will take a project, own it, and, through setback after setback, find a way to win.

I say “dream,” because in life, these people are hard-to-find outliers. But what if you could create them? In her book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, Angela Duckworth suggests that you can.

Grit Over Genius

When we think of people who achieved the impossible or overcame insurmountable odds, we usually think of geniuses like Albert Einstein, Amadeus Mozart or John Nash. They seemed “destined” for greatness. The implication is that they were born with some innate ability.

This can distract us from the truth, because, as Einstein famously said, “genius is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration.” Duckworth thinks the 90% matters most. She calls it “Grit.” Tough-mindedness. Hard work.

Never say die.

Grit is formulaic and practicable. Duckworth says it arises when four things align:

  1. Interest
  2. DELIBERATE Practice
  3. Purpose
  4. Hope 

First: Interest

Have you ever tried to become great at something just because you thought it would make you look good? Have you ever wanted to be as great as someone you admired? I have, and I’m going to venture that you have, too – many, many times.

It’s commonly called “daydreaming,” and most of us never follow through because it’s just a fantasy. Grit, on the other hand, goes to your core. If you have Grit, you must have a genuine interest and curiosity about what you are trying to achieve, be that the subtlety of chess, the rigor of physics, or the nuttiness of speed-eating.

People with Grit want something that captures them. It’s not just interesting. They stay interested in it, and they identify with it. They want to be the sort of person who wakes up day after day after day striving to understand how they can become better.

But we’re coming dangerously close to repeating another cliche like the one about “genius.” This time the keyword is “passion,” and it can also obscure the truth about Grit. I don’t know if there are many commencement speeches given these days that don’t exhort graduates to “follow their passion.”

But “following your passion” sounds as predetermined as the “destiny” awaiting an “genius,” doesn’t it? It sounds like your passion should already be there, fully formed, just waiting for you to go for it. I think that strikes fear into most people because they think, “Oh, my God, I don’t have one. Now I’m really screwed.”

Duckworth explains that, in reality, you have to foster a passion.

You have to actively put some work in and try things. You have to get into them for a while, and then you have to decide. Part of Grit is actually doing enough exploration early on, and quitting enough things early on, so that you can find something that you’re willing to stick with.

So I think the idea of “following a passion” is just the wrong way to phrase it. It’s about “finding a passion,”and good leaders can help their people get there.

Whenever you can, you MUST find out what your people's interests are. Start now and ask your sales guy, “What, out of everything you do, is the most interesting to you?” Create a research project for him around that interest, and put aside time every week for him to explore it. If it becomes a Passion, great. If not, figure that out early and move on to the next interest until you find the one that will truly move them.

Next: Deliberate Practice

The only cure for the ailment of mediocrity is practice, and to practice specifically.

To just say: ‘I’m going to become great Marketer” will have you so overwhelmed by the wealth of information (and misinformation) that you will only become good at compiling information about Marketing. Combine that with daydreaming, and you’re not even close to Grit.

Grit means getting specific. “Great Marketer” doesn’t mean anything. But a marketer who knows how to convert into qualified leads CEOs on Facebook who are aged 25-40 and are looking to improve the activity measure of their sales reps – now we’re talking.

Making that happen takes Grit, which means that the most effective type of practice will improve your employee’s performance in one, narrowly targeted, clearly measurable aspect. And when he can do that, then he is much more likely to succeed when he approaches similar problems in completely different areas.

Someone with Grit substitutes nuance for novelty. Through practice, they keep finding another level of subtlety to understand. With that attitude, there is always something else to learn, someplace new to explore, and another way to become better than before.

Third: Purpose

The concept of the Ego feeds into another cliche that’s really only a half-truth. We think that the ego is the only thing that drives people. We tend to believe that people are self-centered and solely interested in their own aggrandizement.

It’s not true. Ego only takes people so far; for most of us, there is only so much we are willing to do for ourselves. Grit starts with how connected your team member is to your organisation. If she has Grit, she feels a purpose beyond a paycheck, motivation beyond buying that house, commitment beyond personal affluence.

How do you get people into that mindspace?

First, you have to be there yourself. Why does your organization exist? What is your company's war cry? What is the higher purpose supporting what you do?

At Results, our war cry is that we want to change the way work, works. We refuse to take part in a world where people are kept in the dark about organizational strategy, where they go home not knowing whether they contributed. Instead, we create a world where individual success can be measured and proven. A world where contributions are celebrated. A world where people can rise above their ego.

A world where they belong. In that world, Grit becomes possible.

Finally: Hope

How might a leader create a world like that in their own organization? Giving your people a sense of purpose will be a critical part of the endeavor. But only part of it.

There has to be a vision as well. There has to be hope that the vision will come true. When a person with true Grit perseveres through setback after setback, brightness in the future is what keeps him going. 

Leaders often have a hard time with this. Duckworth quotes one: “...my team, they just don’t care. I can’t permanently change the way they think.”  That’s partially true. You can’t change them. But you can create a situation where they can change themselves. You can create an organization where Grit happens, and where those with Grit get to win.

If some of your team are stuck in a “cycle of pessimism,” it doesn’t mean they are wrong. They might have cause to be that way. It might be something within your organization. But it’s probably something in their life that has proved to them that their worries come to fruition. That can become a feedback loop, where they think a bad thing will happen and then, sure enough, that bad thing happens.

As a leader, you can just break that cycle as it pertains to your organization. You can reverse it.


Work through Duckworth backwards:

  • Create some hope and show them that something good came of that hope.
  • Encourage those who want to improve, and put them in a situation where they can prove their worth for all to see.
  • Celebrate those who put in the 90%.

And perhaps, at least within the scope of your organization, free a genius in your midst.