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How to cultivate the passion and perseverance to propel your career forward.
Can you steal a page from the playbook of the nation’s highest achievers to help achieve your loftiest career goals?
Absolutely, says Angela Duckworth, whose groundbreaking book “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance” (Scribner, 2016) has helped many people understand the attitudes and behaviors driving some of the most successful people in America.
Through her research, Duckworth has learned that grit isn’t something that’s just inherited or passed down to a select few. While some of us may be naturally “grittier” than others or have more experience or talent in a certain area, we can all learn to cultivate grit to achieve more of our most cherished long-term career goals.
“The potential that most people have to achieve is much greater than they often imagine,” Duckworth says. “So much of how far you get in fitness, scholastics, in business, is about the energy you bring and the consistency of your work.”
Where the research began
Duckworth, who got her Ph.D. in psychology after teaching in the public schools of San Francisco, New York and Philadelphia, became interested in the science of achievement after observing a gap between what the kids in her class were doing and what she knew they were capable of.
“I became a psychologist to figure out, ‘Where does that gap come from?” Duckworth says. “And how do we close it? I knew that if we really wanted to understand how people can fulfill their true potential, we have to understand—and not just assume we understand—motivation and habit and behavior.”
What are the elements of grit?
Her research revealed four psychological assets that the “grittiest” people had in common— assets that all of us can develop from the inside out to achieve greater career success.
- Interest – Starting in the teenage years, many high achievers begin drifting toward something that really interests them—a topic or hobby that they’re so into, they feel like they have totally “nerded out” about it, Duckworth says, and that interest just deepens with experience.
- Practice – We practice piano, train for half marathons or do run-throughs of work presentations before we give them. What’s different with gritty individuals is that they have a daily discipline of trying to do things a little better than they did yesterday. They don’t just show up, they stretch themselves each day.
- Purpose – It’s the conviction that your work matters. For most people, interest without a sense of purpose is hard to sustain for the long haul. But if you find your work both interesting and important to you and to others, you will stick with it when the going gets tough.
- Hope – When the going gets tough, we need to believe that our own efforts can positively improve our future. This belief makes successful people get back up again and again and again, and ultimately prevail.
5 tips to grow your grit
1. Cultivate your interests. Finding your passion isn’t something you can really “think your way into” or discover through list making, Duckworth says. Rather, it’s a result of experiencing things, and that takes both time and experience. You never know what might become an all-consuming passion. So get out of your house, shake up your routine and try to experience or learn new things. This doesn’t have to mean abandoning your current profession if you don’t love everything about it.
“Career is in a way like marriage. There are some good parts and maybe some parts you would love to edit out,” Duckworth says, “but you can’t because it’s a marriage and you marry the whole person.” In other words, you don’t have to love every email, task or meeting, but you do have to feel on balance like your job is interesting and has meaning for you.
2. Stretch yourself a little every day. “There’s a kind of daily perseverance that’s about showing up and doing things that are not especially easy and are a little outside your comfort zone,” Duckworth says. Deliberately choose things that you want to get better at—maybe it’s your interactions with customers, your grant writing or your social media skills—and spend more time practicing and challenging yourself to meet new objectives.
3. Solicit feedback. This is critically important if you’re going to improve and grow in your field, Duckworth says. You need to know whether you’re on target or missing the mark. Ask supportive co-workers, mentors or anyone whose opinion you respect. The best feedback is both immediate and informative, such as a colleague telling you where you ran long in a sales pitch or presentation. Ask for suggestions on how you could have done something better and keep a thick skin.
4. Defuse the “helplessness” circuit. Giving up is a very natural response to disappointment and stress, and it is hard-wired into us to some degree, Duckworth says. It’s the voice inside that says, “There’s nothing that you can do here.” Luckily, she says, we also have a “mastery” circuit that’s more recently evolved, that gives you more motivating messages such as, “There’s actually something to still try. It’s actually worth fighting a bit longer and a little bit harder.” If you have conquered something difficult in the past, bring that experience to the present adversity and say, “You know what, this has happened before and I struggled before and things actually turned out better because I kept trying.” Remind yourself that there is always something you can do.
5. Upgrade your inner dialogue. Keep your self-talk focused around things you can do, and make sure that what you are saying is optimistic and growth oriented as opposed to pessimistic and fixed, such as, “It’s always going to be this way.” If you are overwhelmed with emotion or struggling to move forward with a heated decision, Duckworth suggests talking to yourself in the second or third person to calm and distance yourself from the situation, such as: “Angela, you should do something about this right now and not get distracted by what’s going on.” Or try it in the third person, such as: “Angela is really having an issue. She ought to …” See whether that helps you cool the red-hot emotion of the moment.
When does grit call it quits?
Of course, Duckworth says, there are some instances when it just doesn’t make sense to keep on pushing, whether it’s because a project isn’t coming together in the way you’d hoped or you can’t get the buy-in or backing.
In cases like these, Duckworth says, it makes sense to check in and ask, “What am I doing this for?” If the answer is because there is no other way, she says, then keep pushing.
But if there is an alternate path that’s “a little smoother, a little better lit,” Duckworth says, then you could say to yourself: “Look, here’s where I can give up on this one tactic, on this one low-level goal, but still achieve the same high-level goal and save everyone a lot of hardship.”
After all, she says, grit is just one facet of your character. It’s how you combine it with curiosity, gratitude, empathy, emotional intelligence and other things that make you a winner at more than work but life.
“Character is not an old-fashioned concept,” Duckworth says. “It will always be in style.”
Photography (hero): Mark Kuroda, kurodastudios.com; Death to the Stock Photo
Hair and Make-up (hero): Nikol Elaine, nikolelaine.com