Highly successful people behave differently.
And with that blinding flash of the obvious, I’d like to talk a little about how they are different, why it matters and what we can learn by studying how they think. If you’re anything like me, the new year brings with it a hefty dose of self-reflection; it creates room for more expansive thinking, not just about what we want to accomplish in the next year but what will feed our success in reaching those goals. For that reason it seems like a good time to examine the underlying drivers of success.
Earlier this year, I asked 700 successful advisors to describe their level of personal and professional success and to share what they considered to be the core drivers. The analysis suggested a clear pattern; the most successful advisors focused on three levels of engagement: personal, client and employee.
Client and employee engagement are fertile ground for new ideas and tactics however personal engagement may be the unsung hero of enduring success. Personal engagement is about passion, how you think and if – and where – you find support. In a word, it’s about your mindset. In fact, when advisors were asked about the drivers of success, ‘mindset’ topped the list. Since then I’ve been particularly interested (borderline obsessed) with understanding the mindset of the successful advisor in order to translate that into actions that will help us all get to the next level.
I’ll be honest, I’m mildly skeptical about the very topic I’m dedicated to understanding and perhaps that’s a good thing. A great deal of the literature on the drivers of success focus on things like optimism. And while I don’t want to discount the importance of optimism, it feels incongruous – or perhaps insufficient – when describing the hard work and determination that success demands. At the same time, I know that hard work isn’t the only answer. Fans of Malcolm Gladwell are likely familiar with the 10,000 hour rule he describes in Outliers which suggests that while practice (read, hard work) isn’t a sufficient condition of success, it is a necessary condition.
There is another concept, however, that is gaining significant popularity and that is the role of ‘grit’ in determining success. To the best of my knowledge it was first defined by Angela Duckworth, who describes grit as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals”. In her ground-breaking academic paper on the topic she says grit entails “working strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity and plateaus in progress.”
In my words, it the characteristic that helps us stay focused during the toughest times and bounce back when we’re knocked down. It’s a concept that was well represented by a gift my son received this Christmas. It was a blow-up shark with sand at the base. You can whack it with all your might and it bounces back. (Those of us of a certain age will remember this same functionality with Bozo the Clown.) It created an interesting demonstration of grit for both my son and the shark. For my son, the grit is apparent as he tries to knock down the shark, seemingly unaware (or not caring about) the physics of the weight at the bottom but committed to winning. And for the shark, well it just keeps popping back up despite the pummeling of a sugar-fuelled 5 year old.
Grit Can Be Learned
While the concept of grit is grounded in meaningful academic research, I’m sure you are asking the same question that was on my mind as I learned about this idea. Can we learn to be ‘gritty’ or are we born that way? For the answers, I wanted to share some insights from Caroline Adams Miller. Caroline is a Positive Psychology expert, coach, educator and author of several best-selling books, including “Creating Your Best Life,” “My Name is Caroline” and “Positively Caroline”. She is an expert on grit and you can follow her @PosPsyCarolineM.
I asked Caroline to participate in a webinar for advisors following her recent TedX talk on the subject of grit, “The Moments That Make Champions”. Excerpts from the interview follow.
Julie: What is ‘grit’ and why does it matter?
Caroline: Grit is a really extraordinary quality. It’s a little bit overused because I think people just like the word. So you’ll see sports stories or commencement speeches where you hear the word again and again. The term is sometimes used appropriately but it’s beyond resilience. It’s beyond tearing your ACL and finishing a football game. It was defined by Angela Duckworth, who won a Genius Grant Award in 2013 for this, as passion and perseverance in pursuit of long-term goals. One of the things she went out to study, with Martin Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania, what separates extraordinarily high achievers from people who are very, very talented and ostensibly should be finishing at the top of the pack but are not. They determined that the secret sauce was grit.
So if you break the definition down there are two key parts: passion and perseverance. The first part is ‘passion’. Are you lit up from within? Do you have a joie de vivre? Is there’s something burning inside of you that you want to accomplish. Perseverance is really about hanging in there over and over again. Think of figure skaters at the Olympics falling down on the ice. They don’t lay there and stare at the crowd, they get up and they get up over and over and over again no matter how many times they fall. So they persist and then they pursue these valuable goals that have meaning and purpose for them.
Julie: How do you measure grit?
Caroline: So when you look at some of Angela’s work, what she created is a very simple grit scale. All of my clients take it; it’s twelve questions. It determines your grit score between one and five. What they found is that grit score predicts some incredibly important things.
- The first one they found is it predicts who drops out of at West Point during the first summer, which is just brutal. It’s designed to weed out the weakest of the weak. Before this they didn’t know how to do it. They had SAT scores. They had leadership recommendations. They had all kinds of things: GPA, class rank, all the rest of it. Nothing predicted who would drop out until the grit scale.
- The same is true at Teach for America. It’s a very rigorous, two-year program. A lot of people don’t make it because they’re put in the worst of the worst schools with underperforming children.
- The third one is the National Spelling Bee, which I found fascinating. By the age of twelve, you can have a higher grit score than your peers. It breaks down to how many hours have you spent trying to learn the most words, regardless of whether you finished in a high round or not in previous years.
Julie: I guess the obvious question is, can grit be learned?
Caroline: Yes is it can be learned and that’s why I’m studying it and that’s why I’m writing about it. That’s why I have a grit challenge because one of the things that Angela has found is that about half of your ability to be resilient and to keep ‘getting up’ is inborn. Let’s face it, some people are born more optimistic than others. Some people are born more resilient. Some people are more impulsive; others are less impulsive. All of those things play into your ability to keep going and have a ‘can do’ spirit.
But the other half of it is what you choose to think about and do every day. The reality is that in the United States (and probably all over the world) we’ve become less gritty simply because too many people got too many trophies for doing nothing. There’s a lot of other things that come into it, but the self-esteem movement has bred a whole generation of quitters. So the question has become, “How do you inculcate grit in people who are not gritty?” Not because they did anything wrong, but because society, culture, schools did not purge it.
There are a few tangible things to consider:
1. Stress reduction. Interestingly, some of the highest achievers I coach have figured out how to include meditation and, particularly, exercise. A lot of my clients tend to be iron men and iron women. They are people who get up and have a win physically at a sport, an exercise, judo — whatever it is – in the morning. That kind of stress reduction ability tends to breed a grittier mindset.
2. Gritty people hang out with gritty people. You’re defined by the company you keep. At West Point, their way of dealing with people with low grit scores is to room them with people with higher grit scores. Brilliant. That is Social Contagion Theory right there. Grit is a contagious quality.
3. You can also learn to be more hopeful and optimistic. Some of this, again, is defined by who you spend time with. A lot of people use coaches to help them learn the mindset of a winner. But you can learn to cultivate the idea of not making everything so pervasive and so pessimistic and personal. You can learn the traits of optimism and also hope.
Julie: You talked about three things we can do to increase grit in your TedX talk. Can you tell us about those?
Caroline. I think there are three things people can do in the micro moments of every single day.
1. When you’re faced with something tough during the day, ask yourself, “why not?” instead of “why?”. Gritty people always invest in themselves, they bet on themselves. They say, “Why not? I’m going to go for it. If I don’t know how to do it, I’m going to find someone who’s going to teach me how to do it. I’m going to find a way.” That’s number one.
2. Gritty people change the channel in their brains. When things get tough they won’t quit. They do something. They have a phrase. They have a song. They go to a different kind of visual in their brains. Everybody has a different place. I could go on and on about the different examples I’ve heard. But in my TED talk I talk about the Hanoi Hilton and the Vietnam POWs. They would go to a totally different place in their minds before and during torture sessions. That allowed a lot of them to withstand the torture because they saw what other people did.
3. The third one is they connect with other people. Gritty people build teams around them built of all the right people. So you have to be a positive energizer.
Those are the three things, every day. Micro moments every day. You can do those three things and you’ll be surprised at the fallout from doing those things differently.
Julie: I imagine a lot of this happens almost unconsciously. We turn away from challenge. Is getting gritty about becoming more conscious of how we’re reacting?
Caroline: Yes. I think a lot of people are very reactive to life. That’s what the research shows. In order to be a high achiever or a leader, you have to be awake at the wheel of life, which means being proactive. I’ve never coached anyone to elite performance who didn’t become somewhat proactive about how they approached their day.
Habits can be both learned and unlearned. If you have unproductive, un-gritty habits, it helpful to know that these things are not set in stone at birth. They’re changeable. If you didn’t get rewarded by your family, by your school, by your culture, by the organization you work in for being gritty, it’s time to learn how to become that person.
In my conversation with Caroline, we discussed another important aspect of grit and one that I’m seeing reflected when I speak with successful advisors. It’s connected to the notion of team and finding support even when you are already at the top of your game and it’s part of the ‘personal engagement’ factor we uncovered in our research. Specifically, I’m seeing a trend toward creating or participating in Mastermind groups.
I asked Caroline to define mastermind groups.
“I think a lot of people may have heard the idea of a mastermind from Napoleon Hill’s runaway bestseller, Think and Grow Rich,” she said,”where he talked about these masterminds formed by people like Ben Franklin. It goes back to the notion that great thinkers would get together and they would challenge each other in how they thought and can you come up with better ideas. I think this all goes back to the fact that gritty people hang out with other gritty people.”
In a future post I’ll write more about how to find or create a Mastermind group.
So as you enter 2015, my hope is that you become more gritty. Let’s put wide-eyed optimism aside for the moment and focus on the actions, the small daily decisions, that can change the course of our year and our lives.