This post is part of my series on Heidi Grant Halvorson’s 9 Things Successful People Do Differently and my experiences with her advice.
Thing #6: Have Grit
At first, this sounds like a strange thing to tell someone they need to do. “Go out and develop some grit, ok?” That doesn’t seem possible. It’s either something you have or don’t, right? Not exactly. Like being a realistic optimist (from Thing #4), it’s a mindset, and like willpower (which we’ll talk about in Thing #7) it’s possible to develop.
When the book talks about grit, it means persistence and the commitment to long-term goals. The ability to keep going in the face of setbacks is what gets you to the finish line. As it turns out, research indicates that a key difference between people who have this tenacity and those who don’t is how they see their abilities. Carol Dweck has spend decades studying this phenomena and divided people into two groups. The first is the entity theorists, who have what she calls a fixed mindset. Entity theorists hold that abilities like intelligence are like height: You have fixed amount of it, and you can’t increase it. The other group is the incremental theorists, who have a growth mindset. Incremental theorists believe that abilities are like muscle strength: They can be improved through the right kinds of effort. People who fall into the former category explain setbacks as a lack of ability. They tend to say things like “I’m just not good at this.” The latter tend to blame on more controllable factors — like not working hard enough, using the wrong strategy, poor planning, or the infelicities of the situation. Entity theorists lack the grit to improve; incremental theorists respond to difficulty by trying harder.
As it turns out, research has shown that the incremental theories are right. Ability is not like height, and it can always be improved. The difficulty comes in convincing yourself of this. To develop grit, you have to be willing to examine your beliefs and when necessary, challenge them.
Five years ago today, I started a new job. I left my old one because there were certain things that I wanted to do — particularly in project management — that I wasn’t going to get a chance to unless I made a change. I wanted to be project manager because I thought I could be a great one, while I could never be a great software engineer. For a few years I continued to believe that last part, but I realize now that I was wrong. The reason I wasn’t going to become a great software engineer was not that I couldn’t, but that I wasn’t doing the right things to improve. The last year has been one of tremendous technical growth because I’ve focusing on the right things. I’m a much better engineer now than I was five years ago. One of the challenges facing me in the next year or two is figuring out whether I want to focus even more strongly on that path or pursue other growth opportunities instead, but I know that it’s my decisions about what I do that really determine my potential.