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To be great, grit isn't all that matters

April 7, 2021 - 15 min read
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What is grit?

Why does grit matter?

How do you develop grit?

What happens when grit becomes obsession?

The power of flow

How to get into a flow state

Grit matters … but so does flow

Have you ever wondered what it takes to achieve long-term success?

Psychologist and leading grit researcher Angela Duckworth argues that it’s grit

She’s been studying it for years and says it’s “the single trait in our complex and wavering nature which accounts for success” — even more important than natural talent, ability, and intelligence.

Duckworth conceptualizes grit as applying focused attention, resilience, perseverance, and dedication (in the form of time and effort) to deliberate practice. 

It’s hard to imagine anyone would disagree that you need grit to excel. But to think that grit is the only and most important explaining factor for greatness is unfair. 

To understand what sets elite performers apart from each other, we need to account for additional variables beyond grit.

Most people would agree that grit matters when it comes to success. 

But what is grit, and why is it important? This article will explain why grit matters — but why alone it’s not enough to achieve your long-term goals.


What is grit?

Grit is a combination of passion and perseverance — without passion, perseverance leads to burnout. And without perseverance, we simply give up.

Grit gives people a mental toughness that enables them to persist — and even succeed — in the face of adversity.

For this reason, grit experts such as Duckworth consider grit the single most important personality trait that all high achievers share.

It’s not that these individuals experience fewer setbacks or less hardship than others — it’s that they don’t give up when faced with challenges.

In short, grit is the secret to achieving any long-term goal — the difference between those who have grit and those who don’t is their mindset

People with more grit have a growth mindset that allows them to see obstacles as challenges and approach them with a positive attitude.

passion and perseverance

How do you measure grit?

So, how can you measure how gritty you are? The best way is to use a grit scale — such as this one by Duckworth.

It contains 10 questions that help determine your level of grit.

If you’re a leader in your organization, you may also find it useful to test the grit levels of your current and potential employees.

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Why does grit matter?

Grit matters because it bridges the gap between raw talent and potential and achieving success.

Natural ability and intelligence can only get you so far — without the drive and determination to follow through, your potential will remain untapped.

The simple truth is that achieving anything worthwhile requires effort, and you will face obstacles along the way.

Grit sets you up for future success by giving you the strength to go over, around, or straight through those obstacles.

As Duckworth notes in her book Grit, the Power of Passion and Perseverance: “Our potential is one thing. What we do with it is quite another.”

This is good news for all of us since it is empowering to know that we can achieve anything with enough grit.

How do you develop grit?

Developing grit is possible with practice — what it requires is for you to have a growth mindset.

If you’re ready to discover how far your grit can take you, follow these five proven strategies for developing grit.

1. Find your passion

Passion is the foundation of grit. If you don’t have enough passion for something, you will not perform to the best of your abilities and will eventually lose interest.

To find your passion, think about what you used to like doing as a child or what you like to do in your spare time.

5 ways to develop more grit

2. Practice

Talent will only get you so far. Whether you want to perform in the national ballet, climb Everest without oxygen, or win gold at the Olympics, it all requires practice.

3. Contribute to a greater purpose

When you feel a sense of purpose, it helps you develop more grit.

It can be more motivating to know that you are improving the lives of others rather than focusing solely on your own goals and achievements.

4. Give yourself time

No one achieves success overnight — achieving long-term goals requires patience.

5. Immerse yourself in gritty culture

Surrounding yourself with gritty people can help you develop more grit.

What happens when grit becomes obsession?

There’s no question that when you compare everyone in a given population, grit is a key factor, but it doesn’t explain differences at the elite level, where one would assume every individual has comparable levels of it.

It’s clear that without grit, you’ll never have a chance to become elite. 

Grit is what pushes great performers to reach the edge of their ability. It’s what helps them show up and persevere despite incredible odds.

But grit can quickly become an obsession, and a dangerous one at that. 

Professor and researcher Robert J. Vallerand found that obsession can actually undermine sustainable high performance. 

To suggest that your passion should become your obsession is to push someone off a cliff.

So what separates one gritty person from another gritty person? 

The answer lies in flow. While grit brings us to our edge, it’s flow that continually pushes the edge out, and keeps sustainable performers from falling off into the abyss.

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The power of flow

Grit is the price of admission at elite levels of performance. It factors into how one would break through to the top, but it doesn’t answer the question, “how do you stay?”

To raise the bar and maintain peak performance, we have to look into flow. Flow is what keeps elite performers on their edge without falling off. 

And while it can be elusive, it’s a scientifically-backed path to sustainable performance, and the secret sauce of anyone who strives to become a GOAT (Greatest of All Time).

Flow is the optimal psychological state for becoming one with what you do. 

Experts link it to enhanced performance, creativity, and well-being. Flow states are experienced when you perceive your skills to be a match for a big challenge. 

Another pre-condition for entering and sustaining flow involves having a clear goal for action and feedback relative to your performance that is also clear and immediate.

Research shows that the experience of flow itself becomes a goal in itself. 

A person seeks to replicate the experience only in new and different circumstances. Through the continual experience of flow, you can realize a dynamic upward spiral of personal growth.

By mastering challenges in an activity, you can develop greater levels of skill. And in turn, the activity will cease to be as involved as it was before. 

But in order to continue experiencing flow, you must identify and engage in progressively more complex challenges. 

This is how flow becomes a mechanism for growth in the pursuit of greatness. We create potential in-flow experiences by rendering it present and growing it simultaneously.

How to get into a flow state

“Warren Buffett has always said the measure [of success] is whether the people close to you are happy and love you… It is also nice to feel like you made a difference — inventing something or raising kids or helping people in need.” – Bill Gates

To answer how you would ensure that flow is happening, we have to go back to Robert J. Vallerand’s passion research, which he embarked upon in 2004. 

flow equals harmonious passion

Vallerand’s research linked flow ability with passion. We now know that individuals who express flow by way of harmonious passion have a more harmonious integration (otherwise: flow that keeps them from descending into a state of obsession, and burnout).

Gritty people that derive such an excessive amount of their self-esteem from their work that they are unable to "turn it off" when they should are likely suffering from the opposite of harmonious passion — obsessive passion

Their minds are ruminating on work issues, even when they’re in the presence of significant others outside the office. With this lack of control, obsessive passion has been linked to lower flow experiences. 

Over time, these individuals’ performance becomes less and less sustainable.

Individuals with a harmonious passion for their work identify with their work and become deeply engaged with it, but not to the extent that they neglect other aspects of their life.

On the flip side, individuals that maintain harmonious passion are also gritty, but they have a more complex sense of self.

How does this play out?

Individuals with a harmonious passion for their work identify with their work and become deeply engaged with it, but not to the extent that they neglect other aspects of their life. 

Having control over their passion, they can more easily enter flow at work and experience time with their family at home or a dinner conversation with friends to bring equal intrinsic rewards.

Developing the ability to become fully immersed in flow requires a level of wisdom and maturity, but it’s a skill that can also be developed with the help of a coach.

Grit matters…but so does flow

Remember, if grit has gotten you far in life, it can (and will) become a vice at some point in your career. 

To keep yourself continually pushing without overextending, it’s critical to work on developing the skills needed to help you enter a state of harmonious passion, or flow — only then will you become unstoppable. 

And if you need help finding your flow, get in touch with BetterUp to find out how our expert coaches can support you.

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Published April 7, 2021

Dr. Damian Vaughn, PhD

Chief Programs Officer

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