HealthAgenda

Mental Health

Why grit matters

More and more top performance scientists are pinpointing grit as a way of obtaining success. Is it how you win at life?

Health Agenda magazine
January 2017

‘‘I define grit as being passion and perseverance, especially for long-term goals,” says popular science author and University of Pennsylvania professor of psychology Angela Duckworth.

The articulate American is an expert on ‘grit’ – she has advised the likes of the White House, the World Bank and a number of Fortune 500 companies – and argues in her book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance that the secret to outstanding achievement involves a blend of desire and persistence.

It’s an argument that has grabbed headlines because it suggests that the ability to achieve academic and professional success isn’t necessarily something you’re born with – it can, in fact, be learned.

In 2013, Duckworth gave a TED Talk drawing on her research into how students, army cadets and corporate salespeople succeeded. She concludes that the one characteristic that emerged as a significant predictorof their success wasn’t social intelligence, good looks, physical health or IQ. 

“It was grit. Grit is passion and perseverance for very long-term goals. Grit is having stamina. Grit is sticking with your future day in and day out, not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years, and working really hard to make that future a reality. Grit is living life like it’s a marathon, not a sprint.”

The rules of the marathon

That feeling of it being a long, arduous race is not lost on some of Australia’s best sportspeople. At the 2012 London Olympics Australian marathon runner Benita Willis managed to cross the finish line, albeit in 100th place, despite battling a torn hip tendon. Her fellow teammates praised her grit and stamina as she trailed the winner by only 26 minutes.

In 2008 five-time Olympic cyclist Anna Meares experienced a career-stopping fall, fracturing her neck, dislocating a shoulder and tearing ligaments. She recovered, going on to be the Australian flag bearer at the Rio Olympics.

Her dad told The Australian, “She’s just one of those people who says, ‘regardless of what occurs I'm going to do whatever I have to do to get it right’. Whatever she puts her mind to, she will do it. If she didn’t have that strength in her attitude, she would never be where she is now. Anna would not know how to take a shortcut.”

The power of deliberate practice

In the same year that Meares crashed, New York Times bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell released his book Outliers, in which he spoke about the ‘10,000-hour rule’ – a notion that suggests it takes about 10,000 hours of practice to master a field.

It’s one viewpoint, but another expert on experts, Anders Ericsson, says it’s not time alone that’s important, the exact type of practice people do in those hours is pivotal. The Swedish professor of psychology at Florida State University came to prominence with his theory on ‘deliberate practice’ and the need for people to constantly push beyond their comfort zone.

“A lot of individuals think it’s the number of repetitions of a task that makes the difference,” says Ericsson, “but just playing a piece of music many times, for example, actually has very limited effects.

“You have to monitor what you’re doing, and if you’re not getting the intended result, make some kind of adjustment. Pick out an aspect that you can change and focus on that. Incrementally addressing issues eventually gets you to a very high level.”

One thing both people can agree on, however, is that there still needs to be a level of talent to progress. “Ten thousand hours is meaningless in the absence of that baseline level of ability,” Ericsson states. “I could play music for 20,000 hours. I am not becoming Mozart – never, ever, ever. I can play chess for 50,000 hours, and I am still not becoming a grandmaster – ever, ever, ever.”

Expert advice

Here are some tips from Australian mental toughness expert Dr Cory Middleton:

Fear of failure
“We've enabled greater levels of success – we have improved access to resources, education, it’s easier to travel, to change jobs. While we enable, we simultaneously build a fear of failure. ‘What if I’m not good enough to achieve this?’ That fear holds us back.

"The antidote is to break big goals down into smaller actionable steps. The fear often comes from the goal being so big and seemingly so grand. When we break the overall task down the size of these smaller parts is less fear provoking.”

Forget about instant gratification
“These days our motivation-reward loop is shortening. As technology speeds up we crave more and more. The immediate accessibility of almost anything has changed how our ‘pain-pleasure switch’ works. It’s painful if we have to work really hard over a prolonged time to make progress.

"The antidote is to switch the focus of your pain-pleasure switch from short term to long term. That means it will be painful if I quit early, painful if don’t stick it out to achieve my goals.”

Overloaded brain circuits
“There are a lot of very intelligent people who are underperforming due to the sheer overload of things they're attempting to do. They're overloaded financially, there’s pressure to stay healthy and to succeed at work, which slows down the progress and level of success of any of these elements.

"The antidote is to develop your habits of concentration. Rather than trying to focus on things simultaneously, build a mindset where you genuinely focus on one thing at a time.”

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