The Truth about Grit and Why You Need to Develop Mental Toughness

I’ve discovered something that is one of the greatest contributors to people’s success. I am deep into the world of sports with my five kids – from ages 10 to 19. There’s barely a weekend that has gone by the last 15 years that we haven’t been to a tournament of some kind. We have walked through a ton of disappointment, failure, tears – championships and successes, but I have always wondered,  “Why are some athletes mentally stronger than others? Why do they stand out of from the crowd. How are they so good at overcoming failure? What sets them apart?” But this discovery isn’t limited to sports. It applies to the game of life. Some people succeed and overcome more regularly than others. They have a greater sense of purpose and they live a more meaningful life. Why? They possess something called grit. photo_kayak_grit_copy

In scientific studies this one characteristic has emerged again and again as a significant predictor of success. This extreme trait of self-discipline is known as, ‘mental toughness,’ or ‘grit.’ The people who learn this skill accomplish truly extraordinary things in life.

What’s interesting is that intelligence is only responsible for around 30% of people’s success. This dispels the myth that only the most gifted and talented succeed. This is good news for anyone who wants to succeed more often because if they excel in grit, there is a very high chance they can outperform those who don’t.

What is grit? According to Angela Duckworth, the researcher who discovered this personality trait, grit is, “Passion and perseverance for long term goals. It’s having stamina, sticking with your future, day in and day out.”

In her studies she discovered:

  • Ivy League undergraduate students who had more grit also had higher GPAs than their peers — even though they had lower SAT scores and weren’t as “smart.”
  • At the elite United States Military Academy, West Point, a cadet’s grit score was the best predictor of success in the rigorous summer training program known as “Beast Barracks.” Grit mattered more than intelligence, leadership ability or physical fitness.
  • When comparing two people who are the same age but have different levels of education, grit (and not intelligence) more accurately predicts which one will be better educated.
  • Competitors in the National Spelling Bee outperform their peers not because of IQ, but because of their grit and commitment to more consistent practice.

Understanding and applying grit and mental toughness will give anyone a huge competitive edge in a fractured world.

So what can you do to be different and make grit work for you? First, understand that your brain functions like a muscle. The more you utilize what I’m about to share with you, the sharper you can hone these skills. Building new neural pathways will take time, but once those connections in your brain are built, the results are powerful. You need to stick with it because it will take a little time to clear the cobwebs.

Here are three proven ways that will help you stand out from the crowd.

(1) Focus.

As society is becoming increasingly distracted, the capacity for grit is less common. According to a recent Financial Times article, “Tweeting, updating your status on Facebook or checking LinkedIn when you are working makes you less productive.” Add to that the incessant ringing of our phone, the sounds of incoming email messages, music playing at all times, and dozens of Google searches every day and it’s easy to make the case that as a society our ability to narrow our focus and generate internal strength is lower than it has ever been.

Economist Herbert Simon saw the tidal wave of data coming at us and described it like this, “a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.” He wrote that in 1977.

Focusing makes the important point that, “the power to disengage our attention from one thing and move it to another is essential for well-being.” Excessive stimulation from our devices, and just from the crowds around us, makes it increasingly difficult to become fully absorbed in anything at all, according to Daniel Goleman, the author of, Focus – the hidden driver of excellence. He makes the case that full absorption into what matters – or focus – is fundamental to happiness and fulfilment.

From a neurological perspective, your brain functions better with 3 or less things in front of you. No more. 3 goals, 3 tasks, 3 to-do’s. You can also implement the power of focus by waking up and spending the first hour of your day on the most important tasks in front of you. We tend to be more creative in the mornings first of all. And second, your brain energy is at full force when you wake up. Nothing has had the chance to zap or drain you. So spend your time on what matters. Not email, not facebook – your #1 most important goal.

(2) Consistent commitment over time yields the best results.

The idea of sticking with something in small increments over time until you reach the level of mastery was made popular by Malcolm Gladwell in his book, Outliers. It’s called “the 10,000 hour rule.” The basic idea is that if you want to be ‘genius-level’ at most anything, it will take you 10,000 hours. It worked for Beethoven, Picasso, Peyton Manning, and Lionel Messi. It can work for you.

While the rest of the world is distracted or overcommitted, you can stand out and be different. You can reach a level of mastery at almost anything if you put in the work. The baseline time commitment required to become a contender, even if people are predisposed to a certain level of talent, is at least 20 hours a week for 10 years.

This is a key factor for Duckworth as she mentions in her research study:

“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. Whereas disappointment or boredom signals to others that it is time to change trajectory and cut losses, the gritty individual stays the course. “

Many times, 0eople who have difficulty achieving success have not learned this truth. Never underestimate the power of small wins over a long period of time. Those wins will transform your future.

(3) Embrace failure.

Learn to see adversity as a growth opportunity, difficulty as the price, and failure as part of the journey. Another way to put this is to develop COURAGE. Your ability to manage the fear of failure is an absolute in becoming mentally tough and is a significant predictor of success.

This is interesting as it relates to youth sports. There is a growing trend of educators who believe we are coddling our youth by removing competition. It’s talked about in a book by Jessica Lahey, The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed. The concern is that this form of coddling is preventing some kids from actually learning how to fail and to embrace failure as an inevitable part of life. It asks a vital question. In our effort to protect our kids from disappointment are we inadvertently harming them? If they don’t learn how to fail at home, they won’t know what do do when they fail in their 20’s.

Let your kids fail. Allow yourself to fail. Do so with grace and self-belief. Then, dust yourself off and move full speed towards your next goal.

Contending with failure and building on it is a pattern gritty people implement called, ‘a growth mindset,’ popularized by Stanford psychologist, Carol Dweck. What she found is that the most successful people in their craft had an uncanny ability to overcome adversity. In other words, when they stumbled or fell on their way to greatness, they didn’t see it as a setback – they saw it as an opportunity for growth and as an inevitable part of their journey. They know that the seeds of their coming successes are planted in their setbacks.

In life, none of us are guaranteed success. But learning to be people of grit and becoming mentally strong can drastically increase our percentages of success in the things we put our hearts and minds to. It is THE biggest predictor of success. We all have the same 24 hours in a day so live yours differently. Set yourself above the crowd and live a life filled with grit.


Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

5 thoughts on “The Truth about Grit and Why You Need to Develop Mental Toughness