Grit: The Key to Success?

Grit has become the latest buzzword in psychology and academics. This is the perseverance and resolve that help people power through life, not the annoying sandy particles that get in your eyes in a heavy wind. But is grit more of a character trait or a personality type? Or is it a skill that can be learned. If so, how can we become more “gritty?”

Cambridge Dictionary defines grit as, “Courage and determination to persevere despite difficulty.” This topic piqued my interest after tutoring a student who made no effort to persevere through even the most basic challenges. And who showed no curiosity to learn the subject at hand. Any response I could elicit involved much coaxing and prompting and was often totally off the mark. (Interestingly, their IQ test came out as above average.) The good news is, researchers are finding that grit is like a muscle we can strengthen over time, and not just a personality type that we are just born with.

A Google search will reveal hundreds of entries on grit- this is not a new concept but one that is rapidly gaining attention. Some researchers feel that intellectual talent is well established but want to know more about the individual differences that predict success. What makes certain people take achievement to whole new levels: is grit the secret ingredient to success?

Passion and Perseverance

Psychologist Angela Duckworth put grit on the map, with her New York Times bestseller and TED talks on grit, which she defines as “the perseverance and passion for long-term goals.” While growing up, her scientist father often remarked on her “lack of genius.” Ouch! Yet she became a celebrated researcher, teacher, business consultant, and neuroscientist. Ironically, she received a 650K MacArthur Foundation fellowship known as the “Genius Grant,” to further her work on grit. She hypothesized that “genius” does not drive success, but rather a unique combination of passion and perseverance.

We may envy successful people or compare ourselves to others who seem superior to us in some way. But inwardly we may lack that same passion for a single-minded goal. What makes people want to pursue a goal so intensely, sometimes at great personal sacrifice? And are only those who achieve a lofty long-term goal or achievement deemed successful or gritty?

In a Forbes Article, “5 Characteristics of Grit,” Margaret Perlis describes grit as having the fortitude to react to daily needs and challenges. And she makes a case for fortitude being more about everyday attitude than reaching an end-goal. A gritty attitude involves conscientiousness as much as it does courage. It takes grit to power through something that you may not have a passion for!

As educators or employers or parents, we often focus on building knowledge, yet we fail to understand what drives others to persevere or to perform well in their tasks. How can I motivate my daughter to enjoy writing?” a parent once asked me, after I gave a talk on how to help students develop their writing skills.  Can we really motivate others to acquire an interest or a skill or does that have to come from within? Some schools, wanting to capitalize on building grit, have suggested developing a score for it.  The last thing we need is another measurement for quantifying performance. One more place to not measure up. And how can we assign a value to something psychologists are still trying to fully understand? Those with G.R.I.T. have the following key personality traits in common.


To develop grit, you must set goals and keep going towards them even when it is uncomfortable. Those with grit do not let anything stop them. This goes beyond mere conscientiousness, a common trait among gritty people (and a word which teachers have used to describe me since kindergarten.) When I quit a challenging math course, I was so disappointed with myself that I rejoined the course weeks later and still passed. With grit, you must find that balance between what Duckworth calls, “suffering” and ecstasy. I felt that ecstasy at completing my precalculus class! Those who set audacious goals require courage. And a bit of craziness. Like the triathlete I met who completed five Ironman races in five days: that’s 11 miles of swimming, 560 miles of biking, and 131 miles of running. There are a few spots left for the 2024 challenge if you want to sign up!

Goal-oriented people summon courage to not only start and keep going, but to potentially fail. They embrace it as part of the process and recognize that vulnerability and defeat are necessary steps to success. Astronaut Jose Hernandez, featured in the Netflix film “A Million Miles Away,” is another good example. His goal childhood goal was to go into space. And he did not let anything deter him from that goal, starting as a migrant farm worker and fighting his way towards becoming a respected engineer. When NASA rejected his application eleven times, Hernandez studied what made other successful applicants stand out plan. He immersed himself in similar experiences, learning to fly a plane, scuba dive and learn Russian while working in Russia. With the 12th application, hand-delivered to Houston, he was accepted. Astronauts have super-grit as they overcome challenges of g-forces, zero gravity and dizziness. 

To accomplish your goal, you must embrace hard things. Eleanor Roosevelt once said: “You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience which you really stop to look fear in the face. You can say to yourself, I have lived through this…I can take the next thing that comes along. You must do the things that you think you cannot do.” It takes practice to do hard things and resilience to do even harder things. Soldiers and marines are good examples of those with the mental fortitude who face fear and persevere. Athletes and doctors, who also endure rigorous training regiments, are other good examples of gritty, goal-oriented people.

To keep going when the going gets tough, you need to find a purpose, and a why. Whether that is to serve your country, or to improve yourself. But you do not need to be an Olympic star or an army ranger to have grit. Dedicated teachers handling tough classes, or people coping with chronic illness and impairments, or even introverted authors trying to market their work also show grit. Or it takes grittiness to stand up to a bully and practice kindness. The examples are endless. One thing is clear: long term endurance and follow-through takes practice and determination. And it requires resilience. My dad had the resilience to keep going after suddenly losing his wife of 65 years. After, he still maintained his regular habits, whether that was ending each day in prayer or completing his morning push-ups.


Those with grit build resilience through practice. One of the most resilient people I know is a young man named Will, who became a quadriplegic during a football game at age 14. His perseverance helped him wean off a ventilator and tracheotomy and learn to walk again. Will always found a way! With every challenge, he took it one step further or longer. What set him apart was a purpose- a desire to share his past pain to help others. His injury fueled new passions: This former football player is now a recumbent cyclist who helps provide adaptive equipment for the physically challenged. He has raised tens of thousands of dollars to that end. And encourages young people with similar injuries, to bring them hope. Gritty people find purpose in pain: the same gritty personality that helped him apply himself before his injury, helped him build resilience in post-recovery.

Teachers today lament the loss of grit in adolescents today. One told me that teens are getting too soft. (She must not have met anyone like Will). A CNN article entitled, “Have Our Kids Gotten Soft?” echoes this lament about twenty-somethings. Hiring managers similarly complain about those who quit soon after starting, from disillusionment in the job or lengthy hours. We all have stress they argue- why can’t people become more resilient? Some blame this on helicopter parenting and others the decline in competition in an era where everyone is a winner. But are younger generations just more self-aware and less willing to tolerate what is not working for them? It takes courage to quit, to take a risk and reinvent yourself. Grit is a balance of talent and effort, of intensity and direction, of duration and exertion. We can sabotage our efforts if both over-exert or under-exert ourselves.

In his book Outliers (about super achievers like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs), journalist Malcolm Gladwell suggests that you must give ten hours a week for ten years, or 10,000 hours to master an achievement. Motivational speakers often cite that it takes ten weeks to establish a new habit. But what is the magic number for success? Gladwell suggests the over-simplified formula of habit formation may have sprung from the work of a plastic surgeon named Maxwell Malz, who noticed it took people a minimum of three weeks to acclimatize to a new look or the loss of a limb. From this, he hypothesized that it takes a similar time to adjust to change and new behaviors.

Motivational gurus like Tony Robins quickly latched onto this- if only success were so simple! We need not all be extroverted entrepreneurs to be successful, but Gladwell illustrates that a little luck and pluck go a long way. But he argues that circumstance, cultural background and family history contribute too. Others say the formula to success is making up your bed every day or building a daily mindfulness practice. Whatever the magic ingredients, work ethic and attitude are often seen as the great equalizers: If we put in enough sweat equity, we will succeed. I would add that consistency is also key to developing grit!


Gritty people live intentionally and purposefully. According to Lisa Olivera, a therapist in Oakland, California, and author of the book Already Enough: A Path to Self-Acceptance, living with intentionality:

  • Creates a sense of agency in our lives (cutting through the noise, finding balance, self-advocating).
  • Gives us access to our own power.
  • Supports us in feeling more present, in tune, and capable.

The good news, says Olivera, “You don’t need to overhaul your entire life, or start from scratch. You can infuse intentionality into activities you’re already doing and actions you’re already taking…” Acting on personal values and belief systems take some of the guesswork out of everyday decisions, which can elevate stress. In fact, a 2021 research study had participants recording their distress, well-being, and values-based actions every day for 21 days. And it revealed that taking actions based on values was linked to lower daily distress and greater well-being. But it is important to note that values can change over time, from those we grew up with or held earlier in life. And change can be unsettling at first.

Tips for Intentional Living

Psych Central offers 8 tips for living intentionally:

  • Tune Out the Noise: Don’t let social media, other people, or rabbit holes distract you from your intentions and values.
  • Identify your Values: Decide what is important to you and what activities fulfill you.
  • Set a Morning Intention: develop a daily ritual, practice or mantra.
  • Refocus: Build mindfulness and intentionality into the daily actions you are already doing.  
  • Create Small Shifts: Make little daily actions that affirm your values and goals.
  • Create a Vision Board: Map your dreams (for relationships, career, hobbies-in pictures or in words.)
  • Recount Your Intentions: In a daily journal or in your mind, reflect how you lived out your values.
  • Give Yourself a Break: Be kind to yourself, as you would be towards a friend.

We’ve all binged watched on Netflix, but when we can move beyond mindless indulging or just living to get by. Some don’t have the luxury of setting big goals as their circumstances have them in survival mode. With a little grit, we all can discover new feats we never thought we were capable of. Granted, we don’t have to make every minute of every day productive- all 1440 minutes. No pressure! But if we can be intentional and dependable, open-minded and determined, we can accomplish great things. Success is not always about the end-result or accomplishment, but about everyday attitudes and decisions to gain fulfillment in our lives.


Those with grit use tenacity to their advantage. It becomes their superpower. The constancy of your tenacity is based on the degree to which you can access, ignite, or control it,” says Margaret Perlis in “5 Characteristics of Grit- How Many Do You Have?”

There is much speculation on what makes people more successful: tenacity or natural-born talent. Those who possess a special skill are often told, “You are so talented,” or “You have such a gift!” As if you just naturally emerged from the womb with it. Practice and tenacity is what helps people sustain their attention over time to develop their passions, talents and gifts.

But how do super-achievers sustain such long-term focus and tenacity in pursuit of their goals? And do these people show grit in just their areas of passion, or in all areas of their lives? Like the intense Type A personalities who seem to succeed in all their endeavors. You know the type. Grit is often the common ingredient that gives people that dogged determination, like a sort of hyper-focus super-power. I have known many endurance athletes who fall in this category! Richard Quick, a winning Olympic Swim coach, once told me that the most successful athletes were not the ones who have natural talent, but the ones who see setbacks as temporary, and are willing to put in the steady and tedious work to reach their goals. Having faith in yourself, and in a higher power help too!

The good news is that researchers like Duckworth are discovering that grittiness can change during your lifetime, and it can be developed. For example, as people age, they can become grittier. We can build it with practice: Grit is not just a natural ability or personality type! As Abraham Lincoln once said, “I will study and prepare myself and someday my chance will come; I will be ready. What are you waiting for?

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