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Outlier’s Path

Constant Application of Force

This past week, I participated in a few conversations about the importance of determination, grit, and perseverance and how talent is overrated. The constant application of force over a long period is much more critical. While all this sounds like motherhood and apple pie, we all have the same hours in a day. Does it just come down to more effort?

We had the pleasure of having Angela Duckworth speak at our 2019 Global Offsite. She was a consultant who quit after a year to find more purpose as a high school math teacher. She later found her calling as a psychology professor. Her study on grit won her the MacArthur Fellowship and her book on the subject was published in 2016.

Duckworth defines grit as both passion and perseverance for long-term goals, and the ability to maintain interest and effort over long periods, even through adversity. She notes that enthusiasm is common, but endurance is rare.

She introduces the formula: Skill = Talent x Effort and Achievement = Skill x Effort; therefore, Achievement = Talent x Effort^2. Many have used this to conclude that talent doesn’t matter and effort is the dominant variable, but that would miss a few points. First, while effort is the dominant variable, we still want to start with some talent. If we have zero talent, no amount of effort will help either. For a person, his/her talent can be innate or developed. In a company, our talent can be developed or hired. It is not static. Second, the framework is more valuable as a decomposition than the combined formula. We all know people who put effort into developing their skills, but once they’ve made it to their dream college or company, they put less effort into developing new skills or behind their existing skills to achieve. Gritty effort is the constant application of force over long durations, so what is the key to maintaining effort over long periods?

Angela points to four psychological assets that contribute to grit:

  • Interest: passionate interest in the craft
  • Practice: dedicated and deliberate practice to improve
  • Purpose: one’s work is meaningful and connects to a broader purpose
  • Hope: perseverance and resilience to overcome challenges

Gritty people have passion and perseverance because their interests absorb them, their work leads them to experience flow, and they believe their work has a purpose. None of this is entirely surprising. However, their path to excellence is more than just logging more hours of practice. They log more hours of deliberate practice. They set stretch goals, dedicate themselves to achieving them, ask for critical feedback to improve, and when finished with one goal, they repeat with another stretch goal. Extraordinary achievement is the stringing together of many ordinary achievements of smaller stretch goals along the way. Finally, hope is not merely positive psychology. It is about perseverance over adversity and simply getting up every day for deliberate practice until you finish the season. It is not that gritty people never quit. Angela found no interest or purpose in being a consultant, and she traded being a high school math teacher for being a university professor of psychology. But, gritty people don’t quit on a bad day.

Ultimately, grit is about holding the same top-level goal for a long time. Setting an ultimate goal that gives meaning to everything you do is critical. In very gritty people, most low-level and mid-level or short-term and mid-term goals cascade and, in some way, relate to the ultimate goal. As a corollary, we may lose grit from less coherent goal structures.

If you want to be gritty, be around and work with gritty people. If you want your company to be gritty, create a gritty culture, hire gritty people, and celebrate gritty achievements. I have been fortunate to work with gritty people, like all of you. Hopefully, I am there to support you on your path to your top-level goal. Let’s help each other to not quit on a bad day.