Have you ever wanted to know why some people succeed while others fail?
Grit expert, Angela Duckworth, wrote an entire book about persistence, passion, talent, and hard work, titled, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. (All quotes are pulled from this book.) In her book, she illustrates how to build grit and the common misconceptions around it.
One of the many things I found helpful and interesting was why you shouldn’t waste endless amounts of time trying to find and follow your passions, but rather, you can develop your passions through building grit.
I’m sure you’re wondering, so I’ll just say it for you: what exactly is grit?
According to Duckworth, grit is simply “our passion and perseverance for long-term goals.” However, there’s a lot more involved. And the best part about it: you can grow your grit! That’s right, it’s possible to become more gritty. Curious how? Read on.
Grit is perfectly worded, as it incorporates the harsher sounds that allude to a sturdy and durable level of discipline and resolve. To maintain focus and perseverance after a long-term goal requires a lot of endurance.
This is a lesson I’ve learned the hard way after being in my 30s and not having a longstanding career. Although, on the opposite side, I’ve also been able to experience a lot of things and travel around the world while trying to figure “it” out.
However, wanting to have some form of stability and financial freedom, I’ve realized that something needs to change and I need to stick to some endeavor long enough to watch it flourish.
Heeding Duckworth’s advice: “If you’re not as gritty as you want to be, ask yourself why.” I reflected on this. I found that my lack of grit was connected to my lack of interest.
I can count a few times where I dedicated my whole self, time, and energy to growing in some aspect of my life — that is, when I was interested. Waking up at 5 a.m. every morning in high school to be on the field for marching band is one of them. Another is when I chose studying and rehearsing for grad school auditions over spending time with a guy I was dating. And currently, I sacrifice a social life to build my business.
Obviously, grit is something that is possible if you’re invested in what you will get from the hard work, with hopes that the outcome will reflect the effort. It is crucial to have something that you’re interested in, in order to be able to grow the necessary grit for a long-term commitment. Even further, Duckworth notes that to sustain grit you must be personally interested, as well as, feel a sense of greater purpose behind your endeavor:
“For most people, interest without purpose is nearly impossible to sustain for a lifetime. It is therefore imperative that you identify your work as both personally interesting and, at the same time, integrally connected to the well-being of others. For a few, a sense of purpose dawns early, but for many, the motivation to serve others heightens after the development of interest and years of disciplined practice.”
If you’re anything like me, you’ve had many passions in life or go through stages when you’re at a lost for what your passion is. There will be times when I’m thoroughly invested in learning how to play the guitar, and yet, the lack of calluses on my fingers prove otherwise.
Luckily, Duckworth tells us that grit can be harvested:
“On your own, you can grow your grit ‘from the inside out’: You can cultivate your interests. You can develop a habit of daily challenge-exceeding-skill practice. You can connect your work to a purpose beyond yourself. And you can learn to hope when all seems lost.”
But what if we don’t know what that “one thing” is that we want to devote all of our energy and resources into? How do we build enough grit to invest the amount of time and dedication required to succeed if we’re not interested?
No Passion, No Problem
If you follow any social media influencer, you know how much the word “passion” is toted around to sell books, coaching sessions, as well as online courses. It’s something that we are taught to seek out in life and follow blindly until the end of the earth.
Yet, somehow every time I’ve been passionate about something, I eventually burn out. (Refer to all my ex-boyfriends for the validity of this.) Turns out, I just wasn’t that interested, or rather, I didn’t have the interest and the grit.
If you’re reading this and feel like you don’t have a passion, don’t worry. Duckworth gives sound advice about what to do to find that touted word, “passion”:
“If you’d like to follow your passion but haven’t yet fostered one, you must begin at the beginning: discovery. Ask yourself a few simple questions: What do I like to think about? Where does my mind wander? What do I really care about? What matters most to me? How do I enjoy spending my time? And, in contrast, what do I find absolutely unbearable? If you find it hard to answer these questions, try recalling your teen years, the stage of life at which vocational interests commonly sprout.”
So if you have a passion or are working towards one, there is hope for you to develop it and build your grit. And the best part about grit is that it “is not entirely fixed. Like every aspect of your psychological character, grit is more plastic than you might think.”
This means that there’s hope. You can develop grit and become a hard worker, even if you’ve never been one in the past. Grit is a skill, just like anything else, that can be learned and developed with time and invested energy.
What if you already have the passion and the skill but still aren’t successful? Do you find yourself not working hard even though you have the talent to be great? That’s probably because you don’t have the grit. Do you start endeavors with fervor and excitement to only be disappointed as you stare at the guitar case that hasn’t been opened in a month?
That’s because passion and talent will only get you so far.
Why Talent Isn’t Enough
If I had a dime for every time someone told me that they don’t have the natural talent to sing, I could build a house of dimes. They state this in such a resigned tone that it’s apparent that they believe because they were never born “a singer” they could never become one.
It wasn’t until I worked at a music recording studio in Boston that I learned that anyone can learn to sing. Vocal cords are merely muscles that can be developed, just like any other muscle you go to the gym to build.
So why do people place so much stock in natural talent to be the indicator of ability? Probably because it’s easier to praise others and resign ourselves to staying within our comfort zone.
There’s a danger when we pay more attention to talent than to grit and hard work. Duckworth tells us that, “If we overemphasize talent, we underemphasize everything else.”
By telling children that they can’t sing, they will never put in the effort to learn since it will be an unachievable feat. Trust me, that was my life.
Singing was a pipe dream. However, once I learned that singing is learnable, my whole belief changed. I started taking voice lessons and soon became a voice teacher myself.
This past year, I performed in my very first musical. After seven years of hard work, it was proof and validation that the grit I maintained through the sore throats, the vocal nodule, and the voice recordings that made me cry, allowed me to silence all the people who told me growing up that I was tone deaf and I should never sing in public.
Grit and hard work compliment talent. If you don’t have the natural talent, that’s the place to start. But there’s also the people out there with natural abilities who never do anything with it because they don’t have the grit. Duckworth elaborates on this idea:
“I would add that skill is not the same thing as achievement, either. Without effort, your talent is nothing more than your unmet potential. Without effort, your skill is nothing more than what you could have done but didn’t. With effort, talent becomes skill and, at the very same time, effort makes skill productive.”
Effort and perseverance, aka grit, are the wings to which a skill or talent can fly. Anything can be learned, it just takes those of us not born with the natural talent to work a little harder. And yes, that includes the arts.
Now this idea of the arts being something to learn, rather than an inborn trait may seem strange and against cultural beliefs. Yet, Duckworth’s research has proven that anything can be learned, meaning good news for all those wannabe artists out there.
I’m not sure where the belief started that artists are born and not made. Maybe because art has been so divinely linked that people thought you were either “chosen” or you weren’t.
When it comes to drawing, singing, playing music, or any other fine art, it’s easy to succumb to the “they’re just born with it and I’m not” mentality. However, the research on grit tells us otherwise.
In Grit, Duckworth states that, “Even the most complex and creative of human abilities can be broken down into its component skills, each of which can be practiced, practiced, practiced.”
Not only is this news exciting, it’s also a little terrifying. It means that the only thing holding us back from becoming great, is ourselves. That’s a great deal of responsibility, and hope.
As an artist, I know I’m successful when I am what is referred to as “the flow.” And by success, I mean that I am allowing the divine inspiration to flow through me without any disruptions.
It seems that applying grit and perseverance towards an artistic endeavor would only force it and staunch the flow, yet, Duckworth’s research has proven that it’s quite the opposite:
“Across these diverse occupations, grittier adults reported experiencing more flow, not less. In other words, flow and grit go hand in hand.”
If I work harder, not only will I be more productive, but I’ll also experience more flow? Well, I guess that puts an end to all my excuses.
So if you’re anything like me — easily inspired and distracted with a touch of lazy — there’s good news. Grit is a skill that can be developed over time and with effort, and can eventually become a part of who you are:
“Over time, we learn life lessons we don’t forget, and we adapt in response to the growing demands of our circumstances. Eventually, new ways of thinking and acting become habitual.”
So there you have it. The answer to questions about passion, talent, and the desirable grit. I know that it’s given me a whole new perspective to look at life.
I highly suggest reading Duckworth’s book, as it is filled with enough case studies and research to make you believe that if you have enough grit, anything is possible.