It may be best to go back to my February 5, 2018 article for some context to this article. At the time I wrote it I had intentions of following up much sooner with this part II article, and the part III that will be coming soon. In my opinion, the work that Angela Duckworth is doing provides the best explanation for why so people experience high levels of success, and the best pathway for people to achieve. It has nothing to do with what has been written in self-help books, or what you may see on a late night infomercial. Passion and persistence make up grit, which is what separates those who succeed at high levels from those that do not.
In order to better understand grit and the role that it plays in personal development and success, it is imperative to look at a couple of important characteristics and beliefs. Those two things are talent and effort. What role do each of these two characteristics play in terms of a person achieving a high level of success? What Duckworth has found is important, and can be applied directly to anyone that wants to achieve anything, from a simple task to being the absolute best at something.
Many of us look at successful people and make the judgment that they have incredible talent, and with a little luck, have achieved at a high level. How many times have you heard people make the comment “in the right place at the right time” or “it isn’t what you know, it’s who you know?” In essence this is how many people often rationalize their own shortcomings because both talent and luck are out of their control. It does not matter the task or skill, it always appears that there are people that are “naturals” who seemingly excel because of innate talent. And for some, it appears that they put forth incredible effort, yet cannot reach the same level of success as those that were “born” with certain gifts.
The truth is that some people have more talent than others. This may be superior physical skills or for someone else, cognitively. Some people may have genetics on their side that give them certain advantages on physical tasks. Others may have access to learning opportunities that others do not have that enhance their skills. LeBron James was born with some physical genetics that enhance his ability to play basketball at a high level. Bill Gates was very fortunate to grow up in a community where early computers were built and attend a school that was a beneficiary of being given a lot of the cast-off computers where he and his friends could use them to their heart’s delight. However, there are hundreds of thousands of men that are 6’8” tall and weigh in the same ballpark as James, yet they are not the best basketball player in the world. There are many that are the same size, and are outstanding basketball players, but are not the greatest in the world. And, there were other boys who had access to computers at an early age like Gates, yet they did not start Microsoft and become one of the wealthiest men in the world.
Duckworth argues that talent is important, though many of the tests that are used to measure it do a very poor job of measuring it. There are tremendously talented people that go unnoticed, as well as those who never achieve success. So what explains the reason for this? Duckworth says it is because effort is twice as important as talent! In her opinion we have a tendency to overemphasize talent and underemphasize everything else, including effort.
Perhaps the best way to look at it is to reference a master artisan Duckworth writes about in her book. A Minnesota potter by the name of Warren MacKenzie was 94-years old when interviewed by Duckworth, and in his lifetime he had thrown thousands of pots. Many of them are beautiful pieces of art, while others were actually quite poor. None the less, he is considered a master, one of the best at his craft. What was his secret? Effort. Once he made the decision to be a potter he threw pots every day to develop his skill. Many people have talent, but it is only with effort that people turn that talent into a skill, and after throwing what he figures to be about 10,000 pots, he stated that it started to get a little easier to produce high quality pots on a regular basis. From this perspective, one can look at a mathematical equation: Talent + Effort = Skill. As he threw more and more pots, and became more and more skilled, the quality increased significantly and he started to sell more, becoming quite successful. Thus, his skill improved and coupled with continued effort, he experienced success. So, Skill + Effort = Success!
Imagine the discipline and passion that it takes to wake up every day and throw clay onto a wheel and make pots. Or, like James Patterson, block out “office hours” each day to write. You see, LeBron James did not just show up at game time and become a great player. He spent hour after hour in the gym practicing to develop his skills. Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, Julius Erving, all of the great basketball players of any era were blessed with talent — as were many other young men at the same time — but they also outworked everyone else too. It is likely that no living golfer today has hit more golf balls than Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. They put in the effort to be great.
One of the most common statements that I hear each year from different students goes something like this: “I’m not good at math.” It is very reasonable that some students have more talent for math than others. In my household, I am at least the number three, if not the number four most talented mathematician. However, as Duckworth points out, while talent is important, it is not as important as effort. The frustration working with many students who are “not good at math” is that they put forth very little effort to improve their skills. Carol Dweck writes about mindset, and these students have what she describes as a fixed mindset. Because they believe they cannot be good at math, they do not try to be good at math. They will not put forth the effort. They will not put in the time. In other words, they lack grit. Thus, one of our great challenges is to instill effort and commitment. If one is going to succeed at anything, they have to have it.