April 1, 2014
by Dr. Jordan Soll, BSc (Hon.), DDS, Dip. ABAD
In 1965, my primary school principal told my parents that they should be happy if I became a stock boy. That was grade three, and at my mother’s insistence, a year which I repeated. I am a December baby, which certainly did not help an easily distracted boy at this time. In 1975, my high school principal told my mother and I that I should not set my sites so high “because I don’t have a hope in hell of getting into medical or dental school.” Due to my mother’s overruling of the school board, I received my basics. I continued to bring home slightly above average marks throughout my public school years, but it was not until university that I began to hit my stride. My close friends can attest to the fire that burns inside me and my wife will tell you, the biggest mistake anyone can make is telling me that I can’t do something. Is this being extraordinary — or simply doing the ordinary extremely well, combined with always following through with what you promised?
For many years I never really thought about my advancements or personal successes, except to acknowledge that I had a passion to do the best job I could, and stick with it until I was pleased with the result. Albert Einstein always maintained that he was not that smart, but rather he had the ability to look at a problem for a much longer period of time than most. This ability to stick with something when most give up, whatever your task may be, is being proven to be the key to success even when there is little available talent. Put another way, it is displaying the characteristic of Grit.
According to Angela Duckworth, a research psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania and a recent fellow of the MacArthur Foundation, Grit is “giving a sustained effort over a long period of time.” It has only been recently, through an article in the newspaper about the interesting research that Ms. Duckworth has been conducting, that I have spent some time realizing how the ordinary achieve the extraordinary. Moreover, it was through fate and a questioning of events that led to her research on the characteristics of success, yet her life did not start out this way.
By Duckworth’s own admission she was “flaky”. She obtained an undergraduate degree at Harvard, started a summer school for low income kids at Cambridge, interned at the White House in the speech writing office, attended the Marshall School at Oxford, was a management consultant for McKinsey & Company and taught math in the public school system. It was at this time, as a math teacher, that she began to notice a pattern; that her more gifted students were not always her best performers and the students who struggled academically often persevered until they were successful. It was this observation that motivated her to attend the University of Pennsylvania as graduate student in the Department of Psychology.
In her research, Duckworth focused on two traits that predict success:
Grit — being the tendency to sustain interest and effort in pursuing long term goals
Self Control — the regulation of behavioural, emotional, and attention impulses
Duckworth determined that grit allows people to pursue challenges over the course of years and self control helps us battle “hourly temptations.” In addition, through her graduate work, she concluded that self-discipline scores were far better predictors of success than their academic performance or IQ scores.
In one of her many online presentations, Duckworth discusses the work of Catherine Cox — a graduate student at Stanford University.
She read biographies of 300 geniuses and found that there were two common traits:
There was a tendency not to abandon tasks for mere changeability — not seeking something fresh because of novelty, i.e. not looking for change for change sake.
There was tendency not to abandon tasks in the face of obstacles and maintain perseverance, tenacity, and doggedness.
Cox concluded that history and psychology shows that constant change is not a good idea for getting ahead.
Further investigation by Duckworth of National Spelling Bee contestants, revealed that gritty kids scored the best. They were determined to work on the hardest words they did not know. Moreover, she found that research at the U.S. military academy, West Point, showed that there was a positive correlation between the greater the grit, the greater the chance of success. This study was replicated every year for more than five years, which led to confirmation of her initial data. Duckworth concluded that in many cases there was an inverse correlation between grit and talent. As part of her PhD studies, Duckworth created a “Grit Scale” comprised of 12 statements. By evaluating how much these statements apply to the individual, she has found that the results are highly predictive of success and it is now used routinely by West Point to predict the success of their new cadets.
Throughout my years I have always pursued success, which led to self esteem and overcoming the visions of the challenging years. It is a trait that is ingrained in my DNA and, for me, is simply a way of life. No matter what label you put on it, I tend to follow actor Will Smith’s explanation of why he is so successful: “I’ve never viewed myself as particularly talented. I’ve viewed myself as slightly above average in talent. And where I excel is having a ridiculous, sickening, work ethic. You know, while the other guy is sleeping, I’m working. While the other guy is eating, I’m working. While the other guy is making love, I mean, I’m making love too, but I’m working really hard at it!” OH