When it comes to success, is grit as important as intelligence?

I consider that question often, and most recently during the preparation of the epilogue for the second edition of my book, Through the Fires, where I refer to some courageous people who are rising above hardship and adversity.

When Angela Duckworth, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, studied people in challenging settings, including contestants in the National Spelling Bee, salespeople new to their positions, rookie teachers in tough neighborhoods, and cadets at West Point, she said she discovered that one characteristic emerged as a significant predictor of success. It was grit.

Duckworth discussed her findings in a 2013 TED Talk, where she defined grit as passion and perseverance for very long-term goals. Grit is having stamina. Grit is sticking with your future, day in, day out, not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years, and working really hard to make that future a reality. 

When I think of a gritty individual, Abraham Lincoln comes to mind. Lincoln suffered enormous loss throughout his life, yet never gave up. Born into poverty, his mother died when he was nine. He lost his first job as well as his first election campaign. His first love died, and only one of his four sons lived to adulthood. He was defeated in his bid for the vice presidential nomination. Depression was a constant during his adult life.

But he persisted and after an arduous race for the Republican presidential nomination (he was up against a trio of more experienced politicians), Lincoln was inaugurated as President of the United States on March 4, 1861 when he was 52 years of age.

My mother had grit, and I’d like to think I possess a certain amount of grit, too. I am a wealthy man today, but I recall vividly what it was like to be poor and behind in my bills. I understand what it’s like to open a letter declaring that my home was entering foreclosure proceedings. I know what it’s like to survive a childhood with an abusive father. And I know what it’s like to plug away and find light at the end of the tunnel.

I look for grit in the people I hire, and in the students I send to college. To get ahead in the office and in life you need to work hard. It’s as simple as that. I could throw money at a problem like student debt, but I choose to fund college educations through my foundation for kids who demonstrate persistence and pure will — kids who’ve got grit.

I know it takes a lot of attention and effort to develop a solid work ethic in students and keep them motivated for the long haul.

Interestingly, Duckworth referred to a term known as growth mindset, which she defined as a belief that the ability to learn is not fixed, and that with effort it can change. She said that when kids discover that the brain develops and grows in response to challenge, they’re much more likely to persevere when they fail, because they don’t believe that failure is lasting.

To be gritty, Duckworth said, we have to be willing to fail, to be wrong, to start over again with lessons learned.

That’s got to be promising for anyone who has suffered defeat. It’s not about intelligence, it’s not about talent — it’s about picking yourself up and trying harder. Because if that’s your attitude, there is light at the end of the tunnel.