How Gritty Are You?

"Writing is failure, over and over and over again." ~ Ta-Nehisi Coates


by Matt Hart

Why is talent not enough? How does someone who wasn't born with preternatural abilities become successful? These are the key questions 2013 MacArthur "genius" and professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, Angela Duckworth, seeks to answer in her 2016 book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.

Duckworth, who has a BA in neurobiology from Harvard, a MSc in neuroscience from Oxford, and a PhD in psychology at the University of Pennsylvania argues that the secret to outstanding achievement is not talent but a focused persistence called “grit," which she describes as a passion and perseverance for very long term goals.

Through her own first person experiences growing up with a father who was obsessed with success, Duckworth articulates her argument well. She interviewed The Atlantic Monthly's Ta-Nehisi Coates, who has, in the last few years, reached a level of fame unknown to almost all writers, but who still had some shocking and humble things to say about his work.
"The challenge of writing is to see your horribleness on page. To see your terribleness and then to go to bed. And wake up the next day and take that horribleness and terribleness and refine it, and make it not so terrible and not so horrible, and then to go to bed again. And come the next day and refine it a little bit more and make it not so bad. And then go to bed the next day and do it again and make it maybe average. And then one more time if you're lucky, maybe you get to good. And if you've done that, that's a success." ~ Ta-Nehisi Coates
Ta Nehisi Coates

If you can reset your relationship with failure, you can overcome its stultifying effects. Duckworth illustrates this in the story of cartoon editor for the New Yorker magazine, Bob Mankoff. Here he explains the magazine's insane cartoon rejection rate.
"At this magazine, contract cartoonists, who have dramatically better odds of getting published than anyone else, collectively submit about five hundred cartoons every week. In a given issue, there is only room, on average, for about seventeen of them."
That's a rejection rate of more than 96 percent. Before ascending to the cartoon editors position, Mankoff himself had about 2,000 cartoons rejected between 1974 and 1977. The year he finally had one accepted, he managed to sell the magazine 13 cartoons, then 25 the following year, and 27 the year after that. By 1981 the New Yorker asked him if he'd consider becoming a contract cartoonist which then lead to him becoming the editor.
To be gritty is to keep putting one foot in front of the other. To be gritty is to hold fast to an interesting and purposeful goal. To be gritty is to invest, day after week after year in challenging practice. To be gritty is to fall down seven times and rise eight.
Really talented people don't always stick with things. In the long run the people for whom things don't come easy, in many cases, end up prevailing. Pair this book with Carol Dweck's equally effective treatise in Mindset: The New Psychology of Success and begin to change the way you think about failure.