Why grit is a game-changer

Why grittiness starts with a growth mindset

What differentiates top performers? Talent? Sometimes. Brains? Perhaps. More often it’s grit; the ability to stick unwaveringly to a goal. And grittiness begins with a “growth mindset”.

Is having brains everything?

It seems not. When it comes to a quality that rivals talent or intelligence, there’s a new kid on the block – and its name is Grit.

This isn’t the story of Rooster Cogburn, John Wayne or movie cowboys. It’s the story of us and our ability to remain unshaken in the pursuit of goals. It’s our stamina in the face of adversity. It’s every cheesy idiom from “hanging in there when the going gets tough” to “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”.

To get a little more concrete than colloquial jargon, grit is defined as an individual’s passion and perseverance for long-term goals. A definition helps, of course, but we were still left wondering what it means for organizations. So where did we land?

Is it really that big of deal?

The term Grit comes from research by Professor Angela Duckworth of the University of Pennsylvania who has found a strong relationship between grit and personal success across some pretty unusual contexts.

Using the Grit questionnaire developed by Angela Duckworth, a 2014 study from Eskreis-Winkler et al. (2014) showed that men with higher levels of grit were more likely to stay married. Another study also found grit to be a strong predictor of graduation from Chicago public schools. It predicts the successful completion of a demanding, 24-day selection course for the Army Special Operations Forces. On top of that, it is a predictor of teacher effectiveness, the sales of novice sales agents and the success of children participating in the National Spelling Bee.

So what’s the connection? Grit refers to our tendency to pursue long-term goals without wavering in attention or effort. Essentially, those with grit finish what they start, staying focused despite distractions or time. It is this characteristic that suggests people with grit work harder and longer than less gritty peers and, as a result, perform better. If this is something we can build in ourselves and our teams, then it’s a legitimate game-changer in performance management.

Is Grit the same as Resilience?

Ultimately, no. In brief, Resilience is very much about our ability to bounce back from a challenging event and return to our previous level of high performance. While Grit is our long-term ability to sustain our performance. It describes our ability to invest additional effort and remain on track for goals, regardless of the obstacles.

To simplify the difference, it’s a matter of timing. Resilience is a reaction to a single incident while Grit keeps us steady in the face of our everyday challenges.

Is it something we can cultivate?

Duckworth has stated that studying our capacity to become grittier is increasingly more important. Grittiness interventions, she suggests, should look to change our unproductive beliefs about personal skill development. We need to recognize that confusion and frustration are part of the learning process, not indicators that we should abandon our task.

We can cope with challenges in another way—by embracing them. In an experiment by Hickman et al. (1998), problems of varying difficulty were used to prime participants before they were asked to complete a maze. Those participants who attempted the more challenging problems stuck with the maze longer. Exposure to challenging conditions makes us better able to face future challenges.

Finally, there’s evidence to suggest we can reinforce hard work with reward. Another experiment by Cameron et al. (2004) ran several conditions with varying task difficulty and reward. For the second part of the experiment, the participants were given timed problems as a means for measuring performance. Interestingly, the experimenters found that rewarding effort on a challenge task led to better performance than the other conditions. The subjects also reported that they enjoyed the task more than the other conditions. But why is this? Well, the rewards that they received reinforced giving more effort. As a result, the subjects carried their ‘industriousness’ on to the next set of problems.

But how do we use these insights?

You can begin to build your gritty mindset by:

  • Embracing frustration. No really, I’m serious (and I mean this in a positive way). Confusion and frustration can be discouraging, but they’re part of the learning process. They probably mean you’re on the right track.
  • Saying ‘yes’ to stress. Challenging experiences build a tolerance to stress. By conquering obstacles that really test our perseverance, we build our capacity to stick with it.
  • Seizing failure. We try everything in our power to keep from failing at our goals. We might be missing a trick. Failures are an opportunity for us to reflect, learn and find ways to improve our performance.


Blog written by Rory Sisco, Solutions Designer at Mind Gym.


Blog references

Cameron, J., Pierce, W., & So, S. (2004). Rewaeds, Task Difficulty, and instrinsic motivation: A test of Learned Industriousness Theory. Alberta Journal of Educational Research, 50(3), 317-320.

Duckworth, A., & Quinn, P. (2009). Development And Validation Of The Short Grit Scale (Grit-S). Journal of Personality Assessment, 91(2), 166-174.

Duckworth, A., Peterson, C., Matthews, M., & Kelly, D. (2007). Grit: Perseverance And Passion For Long-term Goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(6), 1087-1101.

Hickman, K., Stromme, C., & Lippman, L. (1998). Learned Industriousness: Replication in Principle. The Journal of General Psychology, 125(3), 213-217.

Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Eskreis-Winkler, L., Shulman, E., Beal, S., & Duckworth, A. (2014, February 3). The grit effect: Predicting retention in the military, the workplace, school and marriage.