My grandmother had grit. She was born on the kitchen table, had a special baseball cap reserved just for wearing into town, once confused Dom Perignon with a mafia leader, and told me to “suck it up” when I complained about my teachers.
I resented the fact that she didn’t take my part when I came home crying that Mrs. Archie was telling—not asking—me to finish my math homework. It wasn’t that grandma couldn’t be sweet when she wanted, it was more than she did not suffer fools; learning can be tough at times and she didn’t have time to waste on a cry-baby who couldn’t take a few knocks.
Not everyone may agree with my grandmother’s attitude toward life, but science is actually proving that grit is a far more reliable predictor of success than intelligence.
Grit is an important component of mental toughness.
Lets take a close look at what grit really means:
1. FAILURE IS AN OPTION
Getting the job done on our Wyoming cattle ranch had less to do with failing than learning the best way to do it. It wasn’t until I was hit in the face with college entrance exams and job performance appraisals that failure took on such an ominous meaning.
When I was younger, I was told that failure and trying again was simply part of the learning process. Failure presented a “problem” to be worked out and it was often a game of trying something new that might work.
I grew up believing in the power of Plan B. My grandmother was very good at brushing off failure and taking the steps necessary to try again. Stupidity, in her eyes, was going back out and repeating the same mistakes. Her second, third, or fourth attempts were transitions from failure to success.
Grit looks at Plan B as a powerful next step.
2. GRIT TRUMPS TALENT
University of Pennsylvania psychology professor Angela Duckworth has found that grit—defined as passion and perseverance for long-term goals—is the best predictor of success. In fact, grit is unrelated, or even negatively correlated, with talent. When working with West Point cadets, she found that those who scored higher in grit had the mental toughness to keep going when times got tough.
The high score on grit surpassed other tests such as SAT scores, IQ, class rank, leadership, and physical aptitude when it came to predicting retention rates.
Leaders who score highest in grit and mental toughness are those who are positive thinkers. My grandmother was a positive thinker who looked for solutions and wasn’t afraid of working hard to find them.
3. PRAISE CAN MAKE YOU WEAK
Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck has done amazing research on how children who are praised for getting good grades because they are “smart” are less confident as adults than children who are praised for getting good grades because they are “hard workers.”
The praise that insinuates a child gets good grades because they were born smart also sends the message that “you are what you are” and that hard work will not change their situation.
Praise that implies that you did well because you worked hard at it produces a growth mindset that understands you have the ability to change your situation—if you put your shoulder to it.
4. STRESS CAN MAKE YOU STRONG
My grandmother warned me against avoiding the negative things in life, whether it was Mrs. Archie’s math assignments or sitting on a spool of barbed wire in the back of the pickup truck when there was no room to sit on the front seat. “Suck it up” was her favorite phrase.
Now I realize that facing the negative aspects of life prepared me to be more resilient. It also equipped me to deal with everyday stressors. Pain, along with drudgery, will most likely be experienced on the way to success.
Eric Kandel, who shared the Nobel Prize for Physiology in 2000, discovered the phenomenon of synaptic plasticity. As we try something new, we have to work at it. The nerve cells involved in that learning process fire a neurotransmitter to get the process started. The more effort we exert, the larger the synapses enlarge and the connections strengthen.
The more we stress our brain, those neural pathways get stronger. That is why practice—the repeated firing of neurons—leads to improved performance.
We rarely embrace hard work that stresses our brain, but our brain actually get stronger from it. James Loehr, an expert on peak performance, says, “Stress (in moderation) is not the enemy in our life; paradoxically, it’s the key to growth.”
I have not always appreciated my grandmother’s approach to life, but she had the mental toughness to understand that routine stresses make us stronger. She knew that the development of grit was just as important as the development of my math score.
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