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It’s All in Your Head

September 1, 2009


In a post I entitled The Amazing Mind, I referenced an op-ed piece by David Brooks that lauded the value of good old-fashioned traits like hard work and tenacity [“Genius: The Modern View,” New York Times, 30 April 2009]. “The key factor separating geniuses from the merely accomplished is not a divine spark,” Brooks writes. “It’s not I.Q., a generally bad predictor of success, even in realms like chess. Instead, it’s deliberate practice. Top performers spend more hours (many more hours) rigorously practicing their craft.” Harry Maurer and Cristina Linblad report on a study that agrees with Brooks [“What’s Better Than Being Smart? Hanging Tough,” BusinessWeek, 17 August 2009 print issue]. They write:

“Genius will get you somewhere, but for the climb to the top you need grit. Recent research indicates that old-fashioned virtues such as conscientiousness and perseverance are a better determinant of success than intelligence, according to an Aug. 2 Boston Globe article, “The Truth About Grit.” While IQ tests are widely administered, the science of grit is in its early days.”

The Boston Globe article cited by BusinessWeek was written by Jonah Lehrer. He began his article with the likely apocryphal tale of Sir Isaac Newton discovering the law of gravity by having an apple fall on his head. Lehrer remarks that it was Newton’s tenacity as well as his genius that helped him become one of the world’s greatest scientists — not the serendipity insight provided by a falling apple. Lehrer then went on to his more general discussion of tenacity.

“In recent years, psychologists have come up with a term to describe this mental trait: grit. Although the idea itself isn’t new – ‘Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration,’ Thomas Edison famously remarked – the researchers are quick to point out that grit isn’t simply about the willingness to work hard. Instead, it’s about setting a specific long-term goal and doing whatever it takes until the goal has been reached. It’s always much easier to give up, but people with grit can keep going. While stories of grit have long been associated with self-help manuals and life coaches – Samuel Smiles, the author of the influential Victorian text ‘Self-Help’ preached the virtue of perseverance – these new scientific studies rely on new techniques for reliably measuring grit in individuals. As a result, they’re able to compare the relative importance of grit, intelligence, and innate talent when it comes to determining lifetime achievement. Although this field of study is only a few years old, it’s already made important progress toward identifying the mental traits that allow some people to accomplish their goals, while others struggle and quit. Grit, it turns out, is an essential (and often overlooked) component of success.”

Angela Duckworth, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania who helped pioneer the study of grit, remarked, “Nobody is talented enough to not have to work hard, and that’s what grit allows you to do.” Lehrer reports that researchers are hoping to learn how parents and teachers can help students develop grit in order to improve their chances of succeeding in school and in life. One of the keys to motivation, it seems, is seeing the future in concrete terms, like “setting a specific long-term goal.” When people are asked to think about abstract ideas, the result is often procrastination [“Motivating minds,” The Economist, 24 January 2009 print issue].

“To some there is nothing so urgent that it cannot be postponed in favor of a cup of tea. Such procrastination is a mystery to psychologists, who wonder why people would sabotage themselves in this way. A team of researchers led by Sean McCrea of the University of Konstanz, in Germany, reckon they have found a piece of the puzzle. People act in a timely way when given concrete tasks but dawdle when they view them in abstract terms. … Theories abound for why people procrastinate. Some psychologists think that those who delay completing tasks do so because they have low confidence that they will succeed in that task. Perhaps procrastinators are perfectionists or they may just be depressed. Others believe they are impulsive and lack self-control. Earlier research has shown that people defer tasks that are unappealing, difficult or expensive, which is no great surprise. Dr McCrea and his colleagues, however, are the first to show that the way in which a task is presented also influences when it gets done.”

It may just be that self-motivated people — those with grit — have the ability to see any task in concrete terms. People who cannot transform the abstract into the concrete often have a difficult time choosing a course of action. People with grit seldom have that problem. A former Indian military officer by the name of G.R. Gopinath is an excellent example of someone with grit [“All in the mind,” The Economist, 12 March 2009].

“He spent three years lobbying government bureaucrats to obtain the necessary licenses and sold all his possessions and mortgaged his house to raise capital. Even in his darkest years he never had any doubt that he was destined for success. ‘I knew this could not go wrong. I knew the money would come,’ he says. And sure enough his business eventually took off. That allowed him to pursue a new vision—cheap flights. Why should Indians travel the length and breadth of their huge country on trains when Americans got on planes? He established India’s first low-cost airline, Air Deccan, pushing the government to relax regulations and using the internet to cut booking costs.”

The article goes on to observe that most entrepreneurs share the same kind of drive demonstrated by Mr. Gopinath. I’ve written a lot about the optimism shared by most entrepreneurs. When one thinks about it, grit and optimism are probably two sides of the same coin. When you believe you will succeed, you do everything you can to make your dream come true. That’s why entrepreneurs are so good for countries — be they developed or developing countries.

“Entrepreneurs operate in all kinds of ways. Some see a market opportunity and draw up a business plan to take advantage of it. Others are more like the captain, driven by an inner force to start a business and unwilling to take ‘no’ for an answer. A growing body of evidence suggests that entrepreneurs have certain distinctive psychological traits. Noam Wasserman, of HBS, suggests that many entrepreneurs are unusually, sometimes excessively, confident. They are convinced that, against all the odds, they will be able to turn their dream into reality. This sometimes allows them to do something at which most people fail, but it also means they hardly ever hit the forecasts in their business plans.”

Not hitting the forecasts found in business plans is not necessarily a bad thing. The old adage, “a man’s reach should exceed his grasp” expresses the philosophy followed by most entrepreneurs — dream big. Still, business plans do need to be based in reality. The important thing is that the vector a business is on remain positive. Because most entrepreneurs possess both grit and optimism, the chances of their achieving success are greatly increased if they remain headed in the right direction. At least, that is what the studies seem to be telling us. They are also telling us that if we are not surrounded by self-motivated people, we need to give them concrete tasks to accomplish. I have written before about the importance of vision in both government and business. A leader who can make others “see” — in concrete terms — what he has in mind will likely also be a great motivator. We all need a little motivation in our lives.

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