What it really takes

Imagine a race in which you don’t know what you will have to do, where or how long the course is, or even when it will end. Imagine that once you sign up for this race, you are immediately told, repeatedly, to quit before you even start. You are warned you might die, and even if you don’t, you don’t have what it takes anyway to finish so you shouldn’t even bother showing up.

During the course of the “race” which has no finish line, you may be asked to dig up a tree stump with your bare hands and then drag it 10 miles to the top of a mountain, where you will be greeted by someone who asks you to memorize passages of the bible. You then drag the tree stump back down the mountain 6 miles somewhere else and recite the lines. If you get it wrong you hike six miles back to memorize it until you get it right. After 36 hours of no sleep, you may be asked to count out exactly 5000 pennies, only to have them thrown in an icy pond. Your next task is to retrieve them.

During the race you are constantly berated by race organizers who tell you to quit. And you have no idea where the finish line is until they tell you it’s over. It’s called The Spartan Death Race (www.youmaydie.com). The 2012 version lasted three days. Less than 15% finished. Intelligence may be the least of the discerning factors in finishing. Grit may be the biggest.

Why do some people accomplish more than others of equal intelligence? This was the question Angela Duckworth and her colleagues posed when embarking on a study in 2004 to measure people’s level of “grit.” Surveying the available research regarding traits beyond intelligence that contribute to success, Duckworth and her colleagues found it lacking in the specific area regarding the influence of possessing this quality, which they defined as follows:

We define grit as perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Grit entails working strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity, and plateaus in progress. The gritty individual approaches achievement as a marathon; his or her advantage is stamina.

Basically, Duckworth identified grit as the combination of two distinct characteristics: consistency of task, and perseverance through adversity.

The researchers initiated their own study to develop something they call the “Grit Scale.” After generating a series of questions intended to measure “grittiness,” (for example, “I have overcome setbacks to conquer an important challenge,” “I finish whatever I begin”), the researchers set up a questionnaire on their website, www.authentichappiness.com. Their results reveal higher levels of grit correlate with higher levels of education. The results also showed that grit tends to increase with age. Those individuals with high levels of grit also tend to have fewer career changes. Yet more surprisingly, those identified as possessing high levels of grit often had high grades in school yet scored more poorly on Standard Achievement Tests, suggesting that, despite lower scholastic aptitude, their perseverance and tenacity yielded stronger overall academic results.

The study gets even more interesting when the researchers decided to apply their Grit Scale to the 2004 incoming class of the United States Military Academy at West Point. Just getting into West Point is famously difficult. Entrance requires a nomination from a member of Congress or from the Department of Army. Once accepted, each entering cadet is evaluated on the Whole Candidate Score, which takes into consideration school grade-point average, Scholastic Aptitude Test results, physical fitness, class rank, and evidence of demonstrated leadership ability.

This comprehensive evaluation process for those applying to the academy is necessary to help the academy predict not only the graduation rate, but also the likelihood that entering freshman will finish an arduous summer entrance session known as “Beast Barracks,” or more simply “Beast.” Nearly 100 percent of the freshman cadets also took the Grit Scale test in 2004, and its results proved to be a better predictor of whether or not a cadet would survive Beast Barracks than the military’s own sophisticated and complexly designed evaluation tests.

It is grit—perserverence and passion for long-term goals, plus a willingness to remain tenacious in the face of adversity—that leads to deep expertise and mastery necessary to propel innovation