True Grit: What an Olympic Snowboarder, an A-list Actor and Finland Can Teach Us About Building Resilience

“Grit is passion and perseverance for extremely long intervals.”


Last month I hi-lighted the research of Angela Duckworth on why grit can matter more than IQ in determining success in life. But that doesn’t help us become grittier.

There is a link between grit and expertise. To become grittier, Duckworth advises, we should look at who is gritty and ask ourselves how they approach things and what they do. In a recent interview, she said:

If you want to be gritty, you can look and see what do Olympic athletes do with their time. How do they organize their lives and their days?
World class experts tend to be gritty and talented. You can model what they do. World class experts do not just practice, but deliberate practice, which has certain features. When they are working on what they do, it’s with a specific and intentional goal in mind. Not like, “I’m here to do a better job today. But I’m working on the angle of my elbow as it reaches,” really specific.

They work on weaknesses, not strengths. They’re comfortable being uncomfortable. They’re falling down a lot. They’re playing things that are too hard. They’re attempting challenges that are too high. They’re getting feedback.

Duckworth gave the example of Shaun White and this article in the New York Times magazine. She continued:

He (White) was interviewed. He was watching a videotape of himself after he’d come down from the run, which is what all experts do. Seek feedback as immediately as possible. What he said is also particular of the attitude of experts. One could role model or emulate to get a little grittier.

It was not a particularly good run. Apparently he was trying to do a kind of snowboarding or whatever that’s new for him. The interviewer said, “Why don’t you just go back and do something a little more familiar?” He said, “I don’t want to be the kind of person who doesn’t finish what they began.

The Great Philosopher Will Smith

One thing that comes up again and again when we talk about how to develop mastery is deliberate practice. You can’t just repeat the same task over and over, you need to break it down and work on the individual parts. You need to work on the hard stuff.

The other thing about reading people as they do deliberate practice, try to get better, get feedback, work on specifics, and work on their weaknesses, is that they actually conceive of themselves as the sort of person who is loyal to their interests and steadfast about their goals, a harder worker.

Have you ever listened to Will Smith? He says, “Nobody will outwork me. If you and I are getting on a treadmill together, two things, either you’re getting off first, or I’m going die.” It’s really that simple.

Keep in mind, that a relentless focus on our goals can make us blind to danger. Too much grit can be a bad thing.

Developing Grit In Organizations

I know a lot of people in audience run organization. I think there’s a really important role. You want to shape human behavior, organizations, culture, values, norms. That’s the way to do it.

There probably are companies that embody and promote grit more than others. I think there are countries. In Finland, they have this word “sisu“, which roughly translates to grit. In Finland, people talk about building their “sisu”. Young children in Finland talk about, when you do a hard thing, you need to use “sisu”. If I do a really hard thing, my “sisu” will get stronger.

There are companies who try to have this very self aware identity at the corporate level, organizational level, pursuing things with focus, not getting too hung up on any given obstacle, being flexible about this. If I can’t get that this way, I’ll try that way. The vision, the mission that organizes that company is stable and true.

On the Role of Failure

Failure is a necessary part of the process of learning. While the benefits are not so great that we should seek it out, it does bring us a huge amount of information that we can use to make ourselves better.

You embrace it in the sense that it’s just a necessary part of the process, which is why when I said that experts are working in their discomfort zone. They’re working where they’re failing more than they’re succeeding, and thereby growing in line.

The thing to embrace is probably the information that’s carried in failure. Not, I failed. I’m going to get up. I’m going to be resilient. But why did I fail? How do I adjust so that the probability of failure is lower in the next round, when in fact, I am going to get up again and do it.

… If you look at world class athletes, world class chess players, world class violinists, world class mathematicians, they’re all faced with the same difficult psychological challenge. I think it’s a universal for learning.

What about kids?

As for kids, Duckworth says to focus on Carol Dweck’s growth mindset.

So far, the best idea I’ve heard about building grit in kids is something called growth mindset. This is an idea developed at Stanford University by Carol Dweck, and it is the belief that the ability to learn is not fixed. That it can change with your effort. Dr. Dweck has shown that when kids read and learn about the brain and how it changes and grows in response to challenge, they’re much more likely to persevere when they fail because they don’t believe that failure is a permanent condition.

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Still curious? Read about the two mindsets that change everything and pick up a copy of How Children Succeed.