Genius and Grit

This post was written with my colleague Dr John Waters.

Thomas Edison’s famous saying that “Genius is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration” reflected his belief that creativity is more a product of work than it is of the imagination. The truth of his aphorism is demonstrated in all forms of creativity, whether in science, in art or in sport.

For example, the typical Nobel prize-winner will have spent many decades of research work in demonstrating the truth of an idea generated early in their career. Professor Higgs was awarded a Nobel Prize in 2013 for the discovery of the Higgs boson particle that he had first suggested in 1964.  It took 49 years of research work to show that his idea was a reality. Similarly, musicians, writers, artists and sports people do not reach great heights of performance without the will and commitment to train, practice, overcome setbacks and never give up, over long periods of time.  How many thousands of laps of a pool are necessary to winning an Olympic swimming medal?  How many thousands of hours of unending practice does it take to play tennis like Roger Federer?

The question is what does it take for a person to continuously focus on a narrow aspect of their life and pursue an objective come what may? This sort of behaviour is often described by words like passion, perseverance, an indomitable spirit, and stick-with-it-ness.  But psychologist Angela Duckworth from the University of Pennsylvania bundles all of these concepts into the term “grit”, which she defines as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals”, and says that it is something most successful people share.   You can learn of her research into “grit” in her TED talk and recent book titled Grit

Of most interest here is Duckworth’s application of her research to professional careers and her conclusion that “grit” is as valuable for career success as it is for success in other aspects of life. Her work provides some useful insights:

  • There is no correlation between “grit” and intelligence as measured by IQ. There are plenty of smart people who don’t have high grit and there are plenty of people who don’t score high on IQ tests who are incredibly gritty (and successful).
  • People with high grit tend to be more successful than people with low grit (where the task requires focus and application).
  • Grit can be developed (this is an ongoing focus of Duckworth’s work with kids).
  • High performers, when faced with a struggle, are not alarmed into changing tack, whereas others cut their losses and turn to easier tasks.
  • Grit is not inherently good. Being gritty about the right things is important. Smart and gritty is better than just smart or just gritty.
  • Grit may be essential for great success but it is often not an “attractive” quality. Duckworth and other researchers suggest that we do not like people who openly strive to get ahead. “Strivers” invite self-comparisons and competitive fears. And, apparently, we are more attracted to “natural” behaviour than to “striving” behaviour. When we watch a champion sportsperson succeed we do not know whether the success has resulted from innate skill (being natural) or from having done more practice than competitors (being a striver). With the striving hidden from our sight we become biased towards seeing success as a “natural” rather than a “striving” behaviour.

The final point has a practical implication in the workplace in a bias against “strivers”. For example, in one study managers (American, not Australian) were asked which quality they desired most in a new employee and they chose industriousness over intelligence five to one.  However, subconsciously, they held the opposite view, for when asked to make a hiring decision they systematically favoured those with the higher IQ.

So the “grit” research leads to some confusing career advice such as:

  • “Try hard enough and you can do just about anything, as long as you don’t seem to be trying too hard”
  • “Be authentic, but keep your striving behaviour hidden” or
  • “Remember that the duck that glides gracefully over a pond is driven by a frantic pedalling beneath the surface”.

But clearly organisations need people with “grit”. How do you identify them?

Addressing this question at the US military’s West Point Academy was the inspiration for Duckworth’s research work. She claims that the 12 Item Grit Scale she developed there was a far better predictor of “grit” than the battery of vocational and aptitude tests then in use.  Her Grit Scale is freely available on the Net, but if you want gritty people you might try incorporating some of its simple questions into your recruitment interviews, as below.

Tell me how and why these statements apply to you:

  • Setbacks don’t discourage me.
  • I finish whatever I begin.
  • I have achieved goals that took years of work.
  • I have overcome setbacks to conquer an important challenge.
  • I am a hard worker.


Enjoy your week.

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