If you’re anything like me, the thrill of watching the Olympic games in the coming weeks might be dampened with a side of self-doubt. At 22 years old, Olympic figure skater Ashley Wagner is considered “mature?” What have I done with my life? Even learning that The Bachelor contestants are largely younger than me has made me feel unaccomplished. They might not be gold medalists, I think, but at least they know what they want and are going after it. I’m still working on the first part. Interestingly, it’s exactly that—ruthlessly pursuing a goal over time, or “grit”—that sets high achievers apart, according to psychologist and “genius grant” recipient Angela Lee Duckworth. In a December story in Monitor on Psychology, the magazine I write and edit for, my colleague interviewed Duckworth and taught us all about the trait that, “as much as (or in some cases more than) talent can predict success in a variety of difficult situations.” Here are some highlights:
- A Defining Factor of Grit is Perseverance: Perseverance in this case is defined by the ability and stamina to go after long-term goals. If you pride yourself on, say, resisting late-night snacks, but change your career goal every time you face a setback, grit is not your forte. Self-control, a more temporary concept, may be. (And yes, it’s possible to have both.)
- You Can’t Have Grit Without a Goal: People who are gritty, Duckworth says, are hard workers who don’t see pursuing their goal as “work.” They value it deeply, believe that good things will come from achieving it, and don’t waste time second-guessing themselves or worrying about what they could be doing instead. In other words, if you find a goal you’re passionate about, the grit may follow.
- There Are Ways to Boost Grit: One may be to practice looking on the bright side. (Think: “Writing that cover letter was great practice for the next job that I’ll want even more!” rather than, “If that employer didn’t want to interview me, no one will!”) Since grit usually involves overcoming obstacle after obstacle, pessimists are less likely to have it. Another may be to commit to committing. According to Duckworth’s research, showing up is indeed half the battle—if not more. “Woody Allen once said that 80% of success in life is just showing up,” she says. “And I think grit inclines individuals to show up for their commitments, and to keep showing up.”