Research shows that perseverance is one of the most powerful traits to have in the pursuit of our goals. And that takes grit.
For a big chunk of my life I was a competitive triathlete. I distinctly remember being inspired to do my first triathlon when I watched Julie Moss crawl across the finish line of the Ironman in 1982. She had been in the lead for most of the race, but with less than 100 yards to go, she collapsed from dehydration and her body began to shut down.
Moss didn’t manage to win, but she refused assistance from spectators and slowly, painstakingly, crawled the last few meters, finally dragging herself across the finish line. Millions of television viewers, myself among them, were transfixed by the incredible agony and accomplishment of the human drama that played out that day. The sheer will, determination and perseverance that she showed would not only inspire me, but an entire generation of athletes, to begin competing in triathlons.
Research shows that perseverance is one of the most powerful traits to have in the pursuit of our goals. Angela Duckworth, from the University of Pennsylvania, has studied perseverance and found it to be a key factor for success in everything from Ivy League University students to West Point military cadets to National Spelling Bee contestants.
Duckworth uses the word “grit” to define “perseverance and passion for long-term goals” and created a “grit scale” to measure people’s dogged determination to stick to their goals. Duckworth’s research has become so important that most people who specialize in goal accomplishment have adopted her idea that “grittiness” is a key determinant of success. But there’s one problem. Once you accept the fact that “grittiness” is important to success, it leads to an inevitable question: “How do you get grittier?”
A recent report on “Promoting Grit, Tenacity and Perseverance” by the New York Department of Education set out to answer this question and did the best job I’ve seen of establishing a list of concrete recommendations for developing grit. The report found three teachable psychological facets that contribute to grit and perseverance:
1. Academic mindsets. When people adopt a growth mindset—i.e., they believe that learning and growth are rewards for persistent effort—they are more likely to persevere toward their goals in spite of challenges.
2. Effortful control. Skills of self-regulation and self-control, which can be developed with practice (through meditation, for example), help people to avoid temptations and distractions and remain focused on important goals.
3. Strategies and tactics. Certain tips and techniques, such as kaizen (taking small, daily steps towards your goals), implementation intentions (defining when and where you will make progress) or mental contrasting (flipping between visualizing success to bolster motivation and considering the next big obstacle to bolster preparation), can help people stay on course.
The good news about perseverance is that it’s not a matter of “you have it or you don’t.” It is a skill that can be developed. With the right mindset, the right level of self-control, and the right strategies, we can become more perseverant toward our most important long-term goals. We can become grittier.
JEREMY McCARTHY is director of global spa development and operations for Starwood Hotels and Resorts. Read more of his writing at psychologyofwellbeing.com.