The Grit Advantage


Success as an entrepreneur (and in life) might just hinge on this trait. Do you have it?

By Kristen Kerecman, Innovate Blue Communications and Marketing Manager

My first few months working with Innovate Blue were packed with meetings and introductions to faculty, staff, leaders and entrepreneurs within our community. Among the questions I asked was “What quality makes Michigan unique for innovators and entrepreneurs? What makes us successful?” Many of them responded with just one word — Grit.

The people I talked with were a diverse group, from art and design experts to psychologists to business leaders, but they all touched on a trait that is gaining traction as a key predictor of success, and one that is familiar to so many here in Michigan.

Diving deeper, the concept of grit seems to be more of a collection of characteristics. And its essence is so often linked to the entrepreneurial mindset we cultivate at the University of Michigan.

Grit Goes Mainstream

For the last 12 years, Angela Duckworth of the University of Pennsylvania has been studying grit, which she defines as “the tendency to sustain interest in and effort toward very long-term goals” (Duckworth et al., 2007). For this groundbreaking work, she teamed up with the late and well respected U-M professor of psychology Christopher Peterson, who made pioneering contributions to the field of positive psychology. Their research (which won Duckworth a MacArthur Genius grant) shows that grit-related behaviors, such as postponing an immediate payoff for a longer-term but larger one, is actually a better predictor of success than IQ or other measures when it comes to many types of achievements.

In an interview with NPR’s TED Radio Hour, Duckworth describes grit as a “disposition to pursue very long-term goals with passion and perseverance.” She also emphasizes that stamina – being able to stick with it and work hard over the long-term – is a key component.

This concept probably sounds very familiar to entrepreneurs. Turning an idea into reality takes time, and entrepreneurs need the drive and perseverance to keep going even when the end goal seems nearly impossible.

In his Forbes article, entrepreneur and author Josh Linkner says that grit is actually the most important trait venture capitalists look for in startup founders. “Because of the hurdles you’ll need to jump, a healthy dose of grit is a crucial trait, for any leader,” he says.

How Do You Measure Up?

So what makes a person ‘gritty’? While Duckworth and others admit pinpointing the exact essence of grit is difficult, they find that a person’s ability to harness its key qualities lead to  more success, whether you’re starting a new venture or not.

Here are some of the more prominent building blocks of grit. Does this sound like you? Are there areas you’d like to enhance?

Sense of Purpose
Having a long-term goal you are passionate about helps bring value and meaning to all of the hard work and effort required to achieve it. Do you need to check tasks off your to-do list every day to feel a sense of accomplishment? Or can you recognize the value of the larger goal despite the many steps and likely setbacks required to get there?

Sticking to long-term goals takes courage. Entrepreneurs around the world will tell you that failure is an essential part of the journey. The key is to not be afraid of making mistakes along the way. You’ll surely stumble, but how fast can you get back up again? Don’t let one failure (or two, or ten) derail the overall effort.

Does adversity make you want to work even harder? People with grit tackle work tirelessly with a strong determination to finish the task at hand despite distractions and doubters. This tenacity to keep going even when the odds are stacked against you is key to success.

Self confidence
This is self confidence in the sense that while you may not have all the answers, you believe you can figure it out and find a way to solve a particular problem or challenge. It’s not striving for perfection, but rather being certain that you can build the knowledge and skills needed to be excellent where you focus your effort.

Humility & open mindedness
While self confidence is a key element of grit, so is humility. We Michiganders have no shortage of that! But this humility is less about being modest, and more about being open to collaborating, accepting help from others and welcoming fresh perspectives.

People with grit choose to be positive. They see the opportunity in a challenge. And despite the setbacks along the way, they can let go of the disappointment and move forward with humor, believing that it will all work out.

If you’re interested in how you measure up on Duckworth’s scale, you can find out your grit score here.

Do you identify with these characteristics?  According to Duckworth, “Grit is living life like it’s a marathon, not a sprint.” I think this same view can be applied for cultivating the qualities of grit itself. It’s a marathon. It takes time. And practice.

Thankfully, the University of Michigan has the resources, faculty, students and staff to help develop this quality. What’s more, we get to do all of this in a state with an abundance of grit. Michigan was built with hard work, with determination and by people who don’t give up when things get tough. In fact, if there is one city synonymous with the word grit it would probably be Detroit.

Developing Grit

U-M faculty lecturer Eric Fretz explores the concept of grit along with IQ and EQ in Entrepreneurial Creativity (UC 270), one of the core courses in the minor in entrepreneurship. “Grit is the piece that motivates students to push through the failures and keep moving toward the goal. Students often ask me what to do when they fail. The answer is: get to work,” he says.

Fretz believes there are essentially three ways to develop grit: being exposed to a degree of adversity, pushed and challenged in new ways, and supported in a safe and trusting environment with high standards. It’s the last two that UC 270 focuses on by exploring the relation between creativity, innovation and problem-solving processes. Students consider the elements of creative thinking, explore insights from a variety of perspectives and engage in projects designed to foster creativity and innovation. “You can have imagination, but if you don’t do anything with it then you’re not an innovator,” says Fretz.

Oscar Ybarra, professor of psychology and co-director of Innovate Blue, agrees that grit is an important approach for getting valued things accomplished. “The U-M entrepreneurship ecosystem provides many opportunities for students to practice long-term thinking while they engage with the “messiness” of unscripted challenges in a safe environment,” he says.

But he also suggests that too much single-mindedness can backfire if students don’t reflect on their choices and actions.

“We want students to persevere and not give up when things get tough. But as much research indicates, at times people keep devoting effort to goals that are no longer reachable or even valuable to them just because so much has been invested. I think what makes U-M entrepreneurship unique is that we strive for some nuance in our students’ thinking so they can assess, adjust and if necessary chart a new path,” says Ybarra.

So to build the characteristics of grit, immerse yourself in situations that challenge you to bring them out. Check out U-M courses like UC 270, join competitions like the School of Public Health’s Innovation in Action and the optiMize Social Impact Challenge, meet with students tackling some of our time’s biggest challenges, or explore the new minor in entrepreneurship. The opportunities are there. Are you ready for your marathon?


CC Image courtesy of Wilkart on Flickr

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