Discover how fortitude and grit can help you reach your goals and rise
to any occasion
to any occasion
Twenty-nine-year-old Micha Burden wasn't the fastest swimmer when she was in college. She didn't have the most powerful—or graceful—strokes either. But she had always dreamed of becoming a professional swimmer. So when she was two years out of school (and out of shape) and heard about a grueling ocean marathon called open water swimming, she not only wanted to compete at the highest level, she wanted to win.
"I showed up for my workouts and got my butt kicked every day," she says. But she didn't give up, despite the fact that even Kenneth Baum, the sports performance
consultant she had hired, pointed out how difficult it would be for her to reach her ambitious goal. "Her times were so slow; she was far off the national mark," admits Baum, author of The Mental Edge, who nonetheless stuck by his client. "At one point I was thinking, You're kidding—this isn't going to happen. And then she blew everybody's mind."
And everyone out of the water. In October 2007, Burden managed to beat 24 superior athletes to win the U. S. Open Water World Championship Trials in Fort Myers, Florida. How'd she pull it off? Baum chalks it up to grit.
Researchers today are homing in on this previously neglected mental trait and uncovering its colossal influence on success. Turns out, grit explains why your college roommate is a business wunderkind, and how Molly-down-the-street became a black belt in tae kwon do after popping out four kids. It's not that they have more brains, athletic prowess, or talent than you do. They just may have a better-developed ability to gut it out—that is, to set a far-reaching goal and drive relentlessly toward it.
"Micha Burden is living testimony that great things can happen when you dream big and follow through," says Baum. "She had a real fire inside her to perform her best. She lived it every single day. That is grit. Athletic ability shuts down when there's adversity. Grit doesn't."
UNTIL RECENTLY, THE RAZZLE-DAZZLE PREDICTORS OF success—higher intelligence, raw talent, innate aptitude—hogged the research limelight. After all, the formula made sense (Einstein was simply a genius; Mozart, a musical prodigy) and, thanks to IQ-measuring tools available since the middle of the 19th century, was easy to quantify. The thinking remained even after Lewis Terman, Ph.D., who developed the Stanford-Binet IQ test, followed a large sample of genius-level children for decades and found that, as adults in the 1950s, the only difference between the most successful and the least successful of the bunch was that those who scored real-world achievement possessed traits such as perseverance and goal
orientation. Still, there was little scientific follow-up in the decades that came after Terman's assertion that smarts alone were not enough to guarantee success.
But then, in 2002, Angela Duckworth, Ph.D., a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, and her colleagues interviewed high achievers in various fields and found that they all shared one personal quality: grit. Defined as "sustained perseverance and passion for long-term goals," grit seemed to explain why more top CEOs hail from state schools than from the Ivy League, and why some people gut out that last series of sit-ups in boot camp while others flop on the floor when the burn really kicks in. According to Duckworth, "Grit entails working strenuously toward challenges and maintaining effort and interest despite failure, adversity, and plateaus." While some people cut their losses when faced with boredom or disappointment, those with grit stay the course.
In order to examine this quality of long-term stamina, Duckworth put together a survey called the Grit Scale to rank an individual's level of perseverance (to find out where you fall, go to WomensHealthMag.com/Grit), and then used it in studies to measure the relative importance of grit, intelligence, and talent for lifetime success.
In a paper published in 2007 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Duckworth presented the findings from her studies: In one, she ranked the grittiness of 139 Penn undergrad students and found that those who tested high on the Grit
Scale earned higher GPAs (despite having lower SAT scores) than their less grit-possessing peers. In another, she found that the Grit Scale was an alternative to the IQ score for predicting whether a child in the 2007 Scripps National Spelling Bee would advance to the final round. She also found that the grit measurement bested high school class rank, SAT scores, physical fitness level, and faculty appraisal scores in foreseeing which cadets entering West Point would make it through the first grueling summer training session called Beast Barracks. The conclusion? Grit is an essential component of achievement.
INHERIT GRITTY FORTITUDE,
WHILE OTHERS need to cultivate it. "Grit does seem to be innate in some people, but fortunately, it can also be developed," says Tara Jones, Ph.D., a sports psychologist and executive coach at Lane4 Consulting. So if you were born lazy, it's never too late to get your grit on.
"You first have to pinpoint a long-term goal that you're willing to work hard to obtain, even if it means overcoming obstacles," says Dean Keith Simonton, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of California at Davis. The goal should be
specific: "I want to write a novel this year," not "I want to write." Then figure out exactly how to achieve it. "Performance goals are about the training, putting in all the hours or miles so that you can reach your final goal," he says. But a solid work ethic will take you only so far. In order to will yourself to get out of bed and run every morning, you need passion, which is grit's other key element. "It's about doing something because you want to," says Jones. "That's why people can bounce back from setbacks—because they have this really robust desire. It's critical for persistence." Whether you feel passionate about knocking out a triathlon or you have an overwhelming desire to become fluent in another language within six months, you need to truly care about your goal to develop grit.
And when you've gone googly-eyed from working late for a month straight or can't fathom taking another step toward the finish line, visualization can help you suck it up. "Visualize the end goal being realized, feel the feelings of success," suggests Baum. Picturing yourself standing at the podium as you collect your diploma, or
being ushered into a swank corner office, makes the end goal feel
real—attainable and gratifying—and helps you muster the drive to stay on track when quitting just seems easier. Anytime the going gets tough, Jones suggests asking yourself, How will I benefit? "Envisioning the meaning is critical," she says.
Of course, if your goal is an athletic one, sometimes the sheer physical pain can be enough to hijack your nothing-is-going-to-stop-me attitude. Baum suggests latching on to mind games to help you push past the discomfort. "Pain is temporary; victory
is forever" is his favorite mantra. "Pain is just a sensation, like hot or cold," he says.
"The more you condition yourself, the more you can endure it." Baum personally
uses imagery to get through difficult races. "I say to myself, My legs are like pistons, my lungs like bellows," he explains. "It lets me focus on the mechanics and not on the pain."
In order to keep your nose to the grindstone, developing optimism is especially helpful. (A prime example: Micha Burden told herself daily she would win that race.) "You have to be optimistic to have grit," says Simonton. "You have to believe that no matter what obstacles you face, no matter how much extra effort you have to put in, you can win."
In fact, Duckworth has found that optimistic people are grittier. "Grit is about sticking with things, and a lot of times people don't stick with a goal because they have pessimistic explanations for negative events," she says. In other words, an optimist who bails on a tough spin class might say, "Must be because I didn't get enough sleep last night. Tomorrow will be better." But a pessimist would say, "I stink at this. Might as well never get on a bike again."
"You can train yourself to view things in a more optimistic, positive way," says Jones. "It's about challenging your own beliefs. Instead of
thinking, That always goes wrong, stop yourself and remember the times it didn't
go wrong and think about what you did to make it go right." Recording your
successes on a regular basis helps bolster positive thinking. "When you're
facing setbacks," she says, "you have that bank to draw from and you can remind
yourself of your abilities."
And that will prevent you from ditching your
goals on a crappy day. "If I sat down and had the Should I be a
professor? conversation on days when my academic articles were rejected,
then my emotions would color my judgment," says Duckworth. It's not that you
should never assess whether you are on the right track, she says, but schedule
the Should I give up? talk and then forget about it. "Every three
months on a Wednesday, put on your calendar that you are going to spend 10
minutes having an existential crisis. In between, just say, Today is not my
day to question it," says Duckworth. "You have to give something a real