Raise your hand if you’ve seen Eddie the Eagle, the movie chronicling the story of Michael “Eddie” Edwards, the ski jumper who represented Great Britain in the 1988 Calgary Olympics. If you haven’t watched it, next time your spirits need a lift cue this one up. Eddie was the first British ski jumper to compete in the Olympics since 1929, and while the movie embellishes bits of his story, the creativity and determination it took for him to reach Calgary is still staggering. Perhaps even more staggering—especially to those who believe winning is everything—Eddie came in dead last in both the 70 and 90 meter jump competitions. And yet Eddie is clear that he considered himself a winner, regardless of how he placed in competition.
Eddie Edwards was one of the least talented and least likely individuals to make it to the Olympics in any sport, winter or summer. He never expected to make the podium in Calgary; for him it was all about setting a goal and achieving it. He persevered despite opposition from his father, British Olympic officials, and his teammates. What kept him climbing those stairs, flying off the ramp, and, frequently, crashing onto the snow? In a word: persistence, that critical combination of positive attitude and strong motivation. I’ve written about it before, in terms of academic performance, here: http://lbmendel.com/?p=289 .
We know intuitively that persistence—or perseverance—matters. If you don’t stick with something obviously you can’t succeed at it. But why does one student, soldier, athlete, or entrepreneur persevere when another doesn’t? That’s the question that psychologist and MacArthur “genius” grant winner Angela Duckworth has been researching for almost fifteen years. Duckworth’s research has shown that it’s not just perseverance that matters, but the combination of perseverance and passion for very long-term goals. She labels that combination “grit.”
In 2004, Duckworth began working with military psychologist Mike Matthews at West Point. Her assignment: trying to predict more accurately which entering cadets would stick and which would bail. At the time, one in five West Point cadets dropped out before graduation, many of them during their initial seven-week training program. As a group, the entering cadets were the best of the best; they ranked at the top of the admissions pool on the Whole Candidate Score, and they met every indicator for potential success. And yet, in significant numbers, they dropped out.
Matthews was looking for a better measure of potential success, and the Grit Scale developed by Angela Duckworth looked like it could be the answer. The questions that make up the Grit Scale focus equally on perseverance and passion, and it turned out that grit was a far better predictor of West Point success than the Whole Candidate Score. Even more interesting, there was no correlation between aptitude, or talent, as measured by the Whole Candidate Score, and how well cadets did on the Grit Scale. According to Duckworth’s research, what determines whether you stay or bail at West Point doesn’t depend on your SAT scores, your high school rank, your leadership experience, or your athletic ability. What matters, she writes, is grit.
Duckworth has interviewed hundreds of teachers, coaches, corporate CEOs, and others who are leaders in their fields in her work on grit. One of her most interesting ideas involves the concept of passion as it relates to perseverance and grit. The kind of passion that breeds success, according to Duckworth, is not intense emotion but consistency over time. Passion, she writes, is “a compass—that thing that takes you some time to build, tinker with, and finally get right, and that then guides you on your long and winding road to where, ultimately, you want to be.” Eddie the Eagle’s passion, his compass, was competing in the Olympics, and that’s what kept him climbing those stairs and flying off the ramp. His passion, in other words, guided and shaped his perseverance.
Duckworth’s book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, is chock full of groundbreaking ideas and research. She believes that we can build grit in ourselves and others, and in the final chapters of the book she explores studies that aim to determine what kinds of activities might increase the grit quotient. There are no long-term studies with definitive answers yet, but, she writes, short-term studies show that “doing hard (versus easy) things teaches a person to do other hard things.”
Duckworth’s best advice about getting grittier? Adhere to the Hard Thing rule: Do one thing regularly that’s hard for you and work to improve at it. Maybe it’s playing the piano or writing or ski jumping—it doesn’t really matter. Odds are you won’t become Mozart or Margaret Atwood or Eddie the Eagle, but you may be amazed at what you can accomplish.
Watch Angela Duckworth’s TED talk here: https://www.ted.com/talks/angela_lee_duckworth_grit_the_power_of_passion_and_perseverance. Or visit her website: https://angeladuckworth.com/. And if you need further inspiration, here’s a trailer for Eddie the Eagle:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hyzQjVUmIxk.