Being Smart Isn’t Enough to Succeed

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Jun 22, 2018

Note: This article is part of an occasional series dedicated to exploring the contribution of human capital assets (people!) to the valuation of a business. Welcome to The New ROI: Return on Individuals. Previous articles in the series can be found here.


Why do some really smart people fail where other, less intelligent people succeed?

Because being smart isn’t enough.

So what does it take to be successful? In this article we explore a particular personality trait of difference makers and an important key to success known as “grit.”

What exactly is grit? 

Dr. Angela Lee Duckworth is professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and author of the book GRIT – The Power of Passion and Perseverance. Dr. Duckworth’s work is part of a growing area of psychology research focused on “non-cognitive skills.” Non-cognitive skills refers to a set of attitudes, behaviors, and strategies that are thought to underpin the traits — motivation, perseverance, and self-control — needed to succeed in school and at work. In other words, the characteristics other than intelligence that contribute to human development and success.

In her Ted Talk, Dr. Duckworth describes grit as much more than just the notion of dedication and commitment. Grit is “having passion and perseverance for long term goals.”

In fact, Dr. Duckworth’s research suggests that grit is the distinguishing characteristic of high achievers in every field.

When it comes to high achievement, grit may be as essential as intelligence. And while intelligence can be easily measured, intelligence alone doesn’t explain an individual’s success. For example, you probably know smart people who aren’t high achievers, and conversely, you probably know people who achieve great things without having had the best grades (like Albert Einstein and Henry Ford).

The research suggests that the difference is due to having grit.

 What does grit look like?

Talent without grit is simply wasted potential. Combine talent with grit and you’ve got the making of a superstar.

Think of any exceptional athlete or musician. For example, by 1963 when the Beatles first toured outside the United Kingdom, the band had already played almost 500 concerts together. By comparison, most bands today don’t perform that many times in their entire career.

Grit is associated with an optimistic explanatory style and growth mindset. Gritty individuals tend to follow through on their commitments. Gritty individuals also have a strong sense of purpose and are motivated to find happiness through focused engagement.

Oftentimes successes come from simply showing up – especially when others don’t. And while there are plenty of tools to predict the performance of the individuals who do show up, these tools are usually poor predictors of the willingness and ability to show up in the first place.

An example

Meet one of my collaborators, Dave Nast, founder of Nast Partners. Dave is both a believer in, and an example of grit. He tells a story of how he started running at age 35 and within two months had five stress fractures in his left foot, which had him in a cast for four months. His doctor told him that his build was more “football player than runner” and that he should give up running and consider cycling for less impact. But Dave did not give up – he was determined to accomplish his goal of running a marathon.

Three years later, after completing his third marathon, Dave sent the doctor a thank-you note for getting him back on his feet and for the “motivation.”

Being told he couldn’t do something made Dave more determined. Dave wound up joining a running club, talked with experienced runners, and read books about distance running. He followed training plans, set goals and achieved them.

Setting goals and tracking your progress is a sign of grit, says Dave. “You can’t take grit out of integrity.

To Dave’s point, the characteristics of integrity, like being good to your word, performing to the best of your abilities and owning your mistakes, all speak to the characteristic of grit.

If you’re wondering how does one measure grit, you can take a very brief test to see where you fall on the “Grit Scale.” (My score was 4.70, what’s yours? Please share that in the comments section below)

Dr. Duckworth notes that while this test is self-reported and therefore open to gaming, what she has found is that a person’s grit score is highly predictive of achievement under challenging circumstances.

Love to hear your thoughts as well — please comment below.