Talent, IQ, and good looks are fine, but they don't determine how well we do.
At least once a day, one of my kids will ask me if I think some achievement is possible for them. From the fantastic (Mom, do you think it’s possible I could be an Olympic gymnast? or Mom, do you think I could go on American Ninja Warrior?) to the real (Mom, can I test for my black belt in April? or Mom, do you think I can climb all the way to the ceiling?), my answer is almost always the same: that’s up to you. Are you willing to work for it without getting discouraged?
This answer has changed over the years. When my kids were little, I tended to answer their questions based on whether or not they exhibited natural talent. I was sure my oldest would be a brilliant student because she displayed precocious verbal skills early on. I was worried that my son would have to be held back because he didn’t speak well until he went to kindergarten. But the opposite happened in both cases; my daughter struggles in school, my son excels. And it’s all because of grit.
This is Angela Duckworth, who was a teacher for years until she began to ask herself one question, based on her observations of kids in her classes: What if doing well in school and in life depends on much more than your ability to learn quickly and easily?
To answer the question she went to school to study psychology, then embarked on a series of studies in various locations — from West Point to direct sales companies, from the National Spelling Bee to rookie teachers in inner-city schools.
In all those very different contexts, one characteristic emerged as a significant predictor of success, and it wasn’t social intelligence, it wasn’t good looks, physical health, and it wasn’t 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 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.
My parents always told me that perseverance was important, but I’m stubborn enough to spend a lifetime learning that lesson myself. As a kid, I let natural talent for things like piano and softball founder from lack of interest. As an adult, I let go of a promising start in creative writing because I couldn’t handle rejection. But recently, I’ve begun to overcome the limited depth perception and abysmal hand-eye coordination that have plagued me since childhood because I found something I’m willing to fight for — literally.
Grit is something that I’m learning late in life, but I can’t ignore how vital it is — not just for success but for self-confidence, inner strength, and emotional stability. I’m appalled by how many times throughout my life I said, “I can’t do this” until it came true. I wish I had learned many years ago that failure is not a state of being, but a chance to learn. Nothing in life has shown me that truth as vividly as watching my children turn failure into success.
I’ve watched my most uncoordinated child become the only one who can climb walls and swing through obstacle courses, because he spent every waking moment working at it. I’ve watched a 6-year-old struggle for a year to ride a bike before deciding one day that she wouldn’t be left behind any longer, climbing on the bike, and pedaling down the street. I’ve watched five babies learn to walk by falling over, and over, and over again … and getting back up every single time.
I’ve become so convinced of the singular importance of grit that it’s changed my parenting. I no longer focus on talent–in fact, I’ve become wary of even mentioning a particular gift a child might have. When I say, “you’re good at that,” my kids expect to be perfect, and for that perfection to come easily. Instead, I tell them they could be good if they work hard, and encourage them to greet failure with a sense of gratitude and relief. It’s a lesson learned that might not have to be re-learned, or it’s the hardest part of learning the lesson — the first fall is always the most shocking, after all.
They still throw up their hands sometimes, but they don’t do it as often. And they don’t give up as often, either — which is really what building grit is all about.