Our culture upholds two seemingly contradictory ideas about how to achieve success.
On the one hand, there’s the idea that the only way to rise to the top is to be born into a rich family with powerful connections and have your success handed to you on a silver platter.
On the other hand, Americans love the idea that anyone can go from rags to riches by working hard and hauling themselves up by their bootstraps.
The truth is that both pathways can be effective ways to achieve your goals. But seeing as most of us aren’t insanely rich white males with a trust fund, we’re better off hedging our bets and going the bootstraps route.
The good news is a lot of evidence suggests the bootstrap mentality is actually the most important trait to cultivate for lifelong success. I say “bootstrap mentality,” but you might know this concept by another name: grit.
Why Grit Matters
Dr. Angela Duckworth, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, popularized the concept of grit back in 2013. Since then, her TED talk has been viewed nearly 10 million times.
She defined grit as the “quality of being able to sustain your passions, and also work really hard at them, over really disappointingly long periods of time.” It’s the persistent, focused pursuit of a motivating goal and the resilience to keep going in spite of the odds.
Duckworth proposed the audacious idea that this character trait matters more than intelligence and talent when it comes to predicting success. A variety of studies have borne out these claims.
Grit has been linked to success in everything from spelling bee competitions to West Point training to grades in school. It’s even correlated to a higher chance of maintaining a successful marriage. Grit can also facilitate self-growth, self-discipline and the willingness to take risks — all of which are essential for goal achievement.
So if you desire success in virtually any area of your life — be it academics, relationships or your career — then do yourself a favor and grow your grit.
How to Cultivate More Grit
Embrace failures and challenges as learning opportunities.
Obstacles and frustrations aren’t indicators that we should quit. But many of us view them that way. The first step for developing more grit is to practice reframing failures and challenges as a normal part of pursuing a goal and an opportunity for learning.
Whenever you hit a roadblock, ask “What can I learn from this?” instead of “Why did I ever think I could do this in the first place?” Maybe you could learn a new skill that enables you to work around the obstacle. Or you could plan a more effective approach toward your goal after identifying inefficiencies in your original game plan. It also helps to remind yourself that nobody innovated anything without failing a few (or a few thousand) times. So you’re in good company.
Focus on goals you’re truly passionate about.
Remember, there are two sides of the grit coin. One is perseverance, and the other is passion. That means it’s going to be much harder (if not impossible) to be gritty about a goal if you don’t really care about it.
The persistent pursuit of an overarching goal requires you to give up on other opportunities in life. So before you start working toward a goal, get really clear about whether it’s what you truly want. Grit requires long-term commitment. Just as you wouldn’t marry someone you don’t like, don’t commit to a goal that doesn’t actually speak to you.
Once you’ve identified your top-level goal, create mid- and low-level goals that will move you toward that mission. As you tackle these smaller goals, keep reminding yourself why you’re doing these things on a regular basis. That passion can fuel you through long nights and frustrating days.
Emphasize what you can control.
Grit doesn’t mean being in control of everything all the time. It means focusing your efforts on the aspects of your goal acquisition that you actually can control.
When you spend too much time thinking about factors beyond your control, you’re going to feel defeated. In contrast, keeping your attention on the areas where you can enact change will help you move steadily toward your goal.
Cultivate a support system.
Being gritty doesn’t mean you have to do everything alone. That attitude is a toxic byproduct of the bootstrap mentality. In fact, part of emphasizing what you can control includes building a network of people who support you in your goals. Whether they’re professional mentors or cheerleading friends, they’ll facilitate your progress.
Identify attitudes that are holding you back.
Many of us shy away from grit not because we’re incapable of persistence, but because we’re afraid of failure or hold other mental patterns that might sabotage our success.
A critical aspect of developing grit is identifying the attitudes or deeply held beliefs that might be getting in the way of cultivating the other traits on this list. Spend time journaling or talking with a friend or therapist to identify any attitudes that might be holding you back from full-on pursuit of your goal.
Be mindful of what grit isn’t.
Grit is not synonymous with being stubborn to the point of treating other people poorly. It’s not about becoming an automaton to the exclusion of being a well-rounded person. And it’s not about staying committed to a goal or relationship that clearly isn’t serving you.
Be willing to evolve your goals as your life circumstances change, and don’t stick with a goal if it’s bad for you. Instead, be perpetually honest with yourself so you can course-correct as necessary.
If you lack a genius IQ, the skills of a prodigy or the financial backing of a billionaire, none of that means you can’t achieve your goals. It just means you’ll need to rely on grit instead. When persistence and passion align, there’s no end to what you can do.
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