Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The One True Secret to Success: Grit

As Jason Lehrer explains in a great article in the Boston Globe, the one true secret to success is grit. Link here.

Obviously, intelligence and talent have something to do with it, but if you cannot stick with a project, if you do not put in the extra time and energy, you are far less likely to succeed.

Hard work does not compensate for an absence of talent and intelligence. Work actualizes potential; it does not create it.

I would add that a person can only sustain a work ethic when it produces a measure of progress. There is a different between slogging your way forward and spinning your wheels.

As Lehrer points out, recent scientific research has shown that grit is a far better predictor of success than talent and intelligence.

This is another way of saying that character counts and strength of character keeps you working long after lesser souls have given up.

Lehrer identifies two ways that you can undermine a person's grit.

First, tell him that success comes from inspiration. Tell him that he need but await his next epiphany. Then the world will light up, the truth will be revealed, and it will all make sense.

People who belong to the inspiration/epiphany school of thought are more likely to give up sooner than those who believe that they must keep on working. They assume that if the epiphany is not there, no amount of work will force it to appear.

The second way to undermine a person's grit, thus his strength of character, is to keep telling him how brilliant he is.

When you tell someone that he is brilliant, that he has a gift from God, he will understand that he does not have to work very hard in order to succeed.

The same applies to beauty. People who are beautiful can attract attention for doing nothing more significant than smiling and winking. Thus, they are less likely to put in the time and the effort required to develop and sustain serious relationships.

What is there in the culture that undermines grit?

Lehrer names an educational system that has placed a single-minded focus on IQ and test scores, perhaps because they are so easily quantified. This emphasis gives children the impression that success is a function of an innate disposition, not of intense work over time.

But Lehrer's perspective assumes that we all accept that it is important to compete and to work to succeed. Clearly, there are important forces in the culture that want to devalue competition and success... because they feel that when one person succeeds another person fails. If failure makes anyone feel bad, it must be avoided.

Those who do not want success to be the goal emphasize the virtue of having a well-rounded personality.

Yet, as Lehrer says, well-roundedness tends to make us into professional dilettantes. It deprives us of the single-minded focus that would make us excel at an activity.

You cannot, he says, truly excel at piano if you spend half of your time playing the banjo.

If you are spending less time on a task than someone else of similar talent, the chances are good that he will do the best job.

Another contributing factor is our slavish adoration of wealthy people who seem to have succeeded while not appearing to work very hard. That is, celebrities.

When you make millions for playing make-believe, or for playing dress-up, you are offering proof that inspiration or good looks, in and of themselves, can be rewarded.

Many celebrities spend so little time working that they have all the time in the world to party and to shop.

With celebrities you have the largest disconnect between work and compensation. Nothing about how much work they put in could possibly justify the mega-compensation received by movie actors.

So, while our political class routinely trashes bankers and traders for their outsized bonuses, no one is wondering whether a rock star and a movie queen have truly earned their wealth.

If we as a country attempt to solve our financial crisis by emulating celebrities then we are in for a very long and dark night.

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