What everyone gets wrong about grit

Grit is the combination of perseverance and passion, a term made popular by psychologist Angela Duckworth whose new book on the topic was published earlier this month (May 3).

Numerous stories on the book link the quality to success:

What quality do the most successful people share? True grit

Is ‘Grit’ really the key to success?”

Is grit the true secret of success?”

Duckworth does the same in her TED talk, titled “The key to success? Grit.” But since it was delivered to an audience eager to focus on its implications for achievement, Duckworth believes her overall message about personal growth was diluted. “I think the misunderstanding—or, at least, one of them—is that it’s only the perseverance part that matters,” Duckworth told New York Magazine. “But I think that the passion piece is at least as important.”

In addition to being seen as a means to achieving success, grit has also been oversimplified in the debate about IQ vs. hard work. (Both play a part when it comes to success. So does luck.) The real takeaway is far less sexy: Grit is a reminder to pursue endeavors for their own sake—especially ifyou might fail. An endeavor can mean a specific activity (like learning to code) or something more abstract, such as pursuing a character trait (like honesty or loyalty). The pursuits are worthy in and of themselves because they improve the quality of your life over the long term. There’s no expectation of immediate gratification.

Most of us have internalized the concept as if it were a self-help guide. Duckworth opens one of her chapters with a telling scene at the Wharton School of Business:

Even before I’d cleared my notes from the podium, an aspiring entrepreneur rushed to introduce himself. He was charming—full of the energy and enthusiasm that makes teaching young people so rewarding. Breathlessly, he told me a story meant to illustrate his own prodigious grit. Earlier that year, he’d raised thousands of dollars for his start­up, going to heroic lengths to do so, and pulling several all­nighters in the process.

I was impressed and said so. But I hastened to add that grit is more about stamina than intensity. “So, if you’re working on that project with the same energy in a year or two, email me. I can say more about your grit then.”

She left the entrepreneur with a message about how grit is “doing what you love, but not just falling in love—staying in love.” Real grit is impossible without passion. It’s about pursuing an activity for its intrinsic sake. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, it leads to an external reward.

“You don’t get the Nobel Prize because you want the Nobel Prize,” Silicon Valley psychiatrist Adam Strassberg said. “You get it because you love physics. There’s a lot of money here, but it’s secondary. The money follows. You need to be passionate about what you’re doing. If you are just after the money, that’s not enough.”

Too often we’re discouraged from pursuing endeavors for their own sake, but those are the ones with the greatest rewards—even if it looks like failure to everyone else.

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