Lessons from Grit by Angela Duckworth - rocketMBA
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Lessons from Grit by Angela Duckworth

Lessons from Grit by Angela Duckworth

Grit by Angela Duckworth was a fantastic read. I had heard about Angela Duckworth before (probably from an article about her TED talk), so I vaguely knew that grit is a major key to a successful career. However, this book is worth reading because it goes far beyond that.

I highly recommend you pick up a copy of this book. For me, the unique part about Duckworth’s work is that certain elements will stand out to you, depending on your life experiences, where you are in your career, etc. Here were nine concepts that jumped out at me:

1. Talent matters, but hard work and effort matters a lot more to success.

Society loves to extol the idea of talent, but Duckworth’s work has led her to believe that hard work “counts twice.” Duckworth writes, “Talent – how fast we improve in skill – absolutely matters. But effort factors into the calculations twice, not once. Effort builds skill. At the very same time, effort makes skill productive.”

A quote from the actor Will Smith still sticks out in my head, even weeks after I finished reading the book: “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 outworked, period. You might have more talent than me…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. It’s really that simple.”
Duckworth points out that staying on the treadmill is important, but so is getting back on day after day. She summarizes this point by writing, “Many of us, it seems, quit what we start far too early and far too often.”

2. The two key components of grit are passion and perseverance.

Duckworth writes that, “grit is about holding the same top-level goal for a very long time.”

Warren Buffett’s three step process can help us narrow our life missions. The process is to:
1. Write down a list of 25 career goals.
2. Select just your top five highest priority goals.
3. Completely avoid the 20 goals you did not select.

While Duckworth points out that things change in life, and our goals may as well, Buffett’s process helps us focus our ambitions and really put our effort behind the most important things we want to accomplish.

3. Interests can change over time, and may take years of experimentation to find.

To have passion, it is imperative that we follow our interests. Yet, we often think those interests develop right away when in reality, it often takes years for them to do so.

Duckworth quotes a Swarthmore professor, Barry Schwartz, who believes that many of us have unrealistic expectations in life. He is quoted as saying, “It’s really the same problem a lot of young people have finding a romantic partner. They want somebody who’s really attractive and smart and kind and empathetic and thoughtful and funny. Try telling a twenty-one-year-old that you can’t find a person who is absolutely the best in every way. They don’t listen. They’re holding out for perfection.”

Duckworth says that science shows that passion comes from discovery, then a long process of development, then a lifelong process of deepening.

To help us find our interests, she encourages experimentation. My understanding is that we should let the process flow, rather than constantly asking ourselves if we have found our life’s pursuit. Introspection is key here, with a reflection on what we enjoy thinking about, what we dislike, etc., followed by a lot of experimentation.

4. Focus on deliberate practice, and reduce friction by setting up routines conducive to deepening our interests and achieving our goals.

The key to become an expert is years of deliberate practice, not just quantity of hours. Very few of us can focus on deliberate practice for a long number of hours in one day – a few hours per day, but of deliberate practice everyday is key.

I really liked Duckworth’s idea of setting up routines to make the deliberate practice a habit. One change I made as a result of reading this section of the book is to use my Saturday and Sunday mornings for deliberate work, rather than spreading my work throughout the day. I am a morning person, so using my most efficient hours for deliberate practice makes sense.

Duckworth found that experts in fields set up stretch goals, and focus deliberate practice on their weaknesses. Unlike beginners who need encouragement, experts are more focused on figuring out what they did wrong so that they can focus on improving those key points.

5. Grit increases if we see our ultimate goals as impacting the world beyond ourselves. How we see our work, no matter what it is, is essential.

This was another point that shifted my mindset. Duckworth found that we are at our best when we connect our goals in some way to benefitting other people. Her point was certainly true when I reflected on my own life and when I feel the most purpose in my life.

Duckworth cites the work of Yale professor Amy Wrzesniewski in this section. Duckworth writes, “How you see your work is more important than your job title…This means that you can go from job to career to calling – all without changing your occupation.”

Duckworth says that Wrzesniewski suggests, “Thinking about how, in small but meaningful ways, you can change your current work to enhance its connection to core values.” Wrzesniewski calls this “job crafting.”

If we see our work as making the world a better place and helping others, we will be happier and more gritty.

6. Interpreting outcomes optimistically and having a growth mindset leads to increased grit.

Duckworth cites one of my favorite quotes in this section, attributed to Henry Ford – “Whether you think you can, or think you can’t – you’re right.”

This principle goes back to a concept I learned in business school – Carol Dweck’s idea of a growth mindset (read our post about the growth mindset).

Duckworth summarizes this concept with the formula: Growth mindset + optimistic self talk = perseverance over adversity.

7. The best mentors (and parents) are supportive and demanding, and express that they are helping because they have high expectations.

Duckworth cites an experiment by psychologists David Yeager and Geoff Cohen, who found that teachers who stated they were giving edits to their students because the teachers had high expectations and thought the students could do better had the students that re-wrote their essays at twice the frequency as the students who did not receive that message.

In leadership positions, everyday actions of “warmth, respect, and high expectations” can help others achieve great things.

8. Join or create a gritty culture.

As we discussed in an earlier post, the environments we are in have huge impacts on us. Joining a team, company, etc. that is gritty will make you a grittier person. If we are leaders, creating a gritty culture is essential.

Duckworth cites a conversation she had with Jamie Dimon (one of my favorite leaders – read a post about leadership lessons from Dimon here) in which he said, “You have to learn to get over bumps in the road and mistakes and setbacks. Failures are going to happen, and how you deal with them may be the most important thing in whether you succeed. You need fierce resolve. You need to take responsibility. You call it grit, I call it fortitude.”

Dimon looks for “capability, character, and how they treat people” when he is looking to hire leaders. Additionally, when he is selecting senior managers, he asks himself, “Would I let them run the business without me? Would I let my kids work for them?”

9. We can all be “geniuses”

I loved Duckworth’s last few sentences in the book: “If you define genius as being able to accomplish great things in life without effort, then [Duckworth’s dad] was right: I’m no genius and neither is he. But if, instead, you define genius as working toward excellence, ceaselessly, with every element of your being – then, in fact, my dad is a genius, and so am I…and, if you’re willing, so are you.”

Summing it up

I highly encourage you to pick up a copy because I think certain concepts and studies will call out to you depending on where you are in life. This was a rare book that truly changed how I see the world, and I think it can do the same for you as well.


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Before graduating from Stanford GSB with an MBA in 2016, Alex worked for three years in public equity investing. Born and raised in Los Angeles, Alex enjoys hanging out at the beach with friends, playing basketball, and learning about history. He currently works in Equity Research in Downtown LA.

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