There’s a video on Youtube of Will Smith that does the rounds every few months. He’s asked what sets him apart from others who might have similar aspirations. This is his response:
“The only thing that I see that is distinctly different about me is I’m not afraid to die on a treadmill. I will not be out-worked, period. You might have more talent than me, you might be smarter than me, you might be sexier than me, you might be all of those things – you got it on me in nine categories. But if we get on the treadmill together, there’s two things: You’re getting off first, or I’m going to die.”
In psychological terms, Will Smith is referring to ‘grit‘ – a characteristic that psychologist Angela Duckworth has been studying for over a decade. A ‘gritty’ person has passion and perseverance for very long term goals, is mentally tough, has stamina, is highly motivated, and is willing to ‘stay the course,’ despite inevitable challenges and barriers.
And according to Duckworth, grit - not talent or IQ or emotional intelligence - is the key to success.
As Wired puts it, "Success in the real world depends on sustained performance, on being able to work hard at practice. Our most important talent is having a talent for working hard."
While research on 'grit' started just over 10 years ago, similar concepts were explored throughout the 20th century. Conscientiousness, hardiness, resilience, ambition, need for achievement - whichever term you use, psychologists have made a point of separating latent ability (eg IQ), from the accomplishment of work. In fact, as far back as Aristotle, people have noticed tenacity and persistence play a highly significant role in determining success.
But Angela Duckworth's new book 'Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverence', released earlier this month, is sure to bring the concept of 'grit' well and truly into the limelight.
A Harvard graduate and recipient of the 2013 MacArthur "genius" grant, Duckworth sees grit as one of her most valuable characteristics. Speaking at the Education Writers Association national seminar, she said if she could go back to her childhood, she would tell her father grit is an overlooked element of success.