Ask any entrepreneur, and they’ll tell you they’ve reached where they are today because they persevered through the bad times. Not once, we’ve heard it or preached it ourselves that hanging in there for our business goals is the most important ingredient in making it as an entrepreneur.
We’ve all thought at least once: ‘As long as I persevere and stay passionate about my long term goals, I’m going to make it’.
We’ve all thought ‘As long as I’m gritty, I’m going to make it’.
When did grit become interesting?
Grit has become a popular topic since 2013, mainly when Angela Duckworth’s research at University of Pennsylvania received a platform through TED, where it gathered 13 million views.
Since then, she’s published her 10 years’ worth of research in the book Grit – The Power of Passion and Perseverance. Through her studies and interviews, going from military academies to schools, from businesses to spelling competitions, she recounts how having a purpose in life, being willing to work hard for it, and having some resilience when faced with setbacks are the keys to success.
In Berkeley’s Greater Good Magazine review, Jill Suttie underlines how the book’s message is mainly a positive one, but also underlines how the book’s science becomes thin in places – both by the limited populations studied, and by ignoring external factors tied to success. Duckworth mentions this too – “Of course, your opportunities—for example, having a great coach or teacher—matter tremendously, too, and maybe more than anything about the individual,” she writes. But “my theory doesn’t address these outside forces, nor does it include luck.” Then she moves on to recount her own work, recounting studies and interviews.
Going deeper into the topic of grit
Duckworth’s strong words on describing the effects of grit in education and work performance brought on further examination of her work and conclusions. In the context of further outside research and critique, Duckworth admitted the language of describing the findings of her papers may have expressed grit as having a stronger effect than the reality of the data.
Going deeper into the topic only makes you more confused. Trying to narrow down the studied cohorts to entrepreneurs, you find both research and personal accounts of experienced entrepreneurs confirming that grit does have a role to play in the success of startups.
Look for example at Ben Horowitz, one of Silicon Valley’s household names. In his book the “Hard Thing About Hard Things”, he notes: “You have to keep looking for a move. Even if you are dead and buried and they have shovelled dirt on you, you have to keep going.”
Truthfully, when you think of entrepreneurs being gritty, Horowitz builds the perfect image of the passionate entrepreneur who hangs in there by the skin of their teeth. But once you linger on this image, you realise it’s a hyperbole.
The pitfalls of being gritty
It’s unrealistic to think that grit – having passion and perseverance for a set goal – is the only thing you need to succeed with your startup. External factors, like market trends, plain luck or the interests of venture capitalists and customers at the moment can also break a startup’s success streak overnight.
Putting grit as the sole success criteria also sets a standard that at this moment is unreachable. You see, once you start deconstructing grit, you come to understand a handful of points that sound discouraging. Here they are, summed up.
1. We don’t know how people become gritty
Firstly, there is little understanding of how grit is taught or acquired. Some believe it’s a trait hard to change, others think it’s related to one’s mindset: it might start from having a growth mindset, being self-reflective and recognising when you are procrastinating. Different methods may work for different people in different contexts, and this fragmentation is what makes grit hard to pinpoint as a learning objective.
2. You can’t fake the passion of being gritty
Secondly, for grit to work – to become the criteria for success – you need to be truly passionate about the goals you set yourself. Simply put, having a goal pushed on yourself by a partner, family members, or even a board of advisors is bound to become a source of anxiety and depression. This is one place where faking it till you make it won’t work.
In the same way, realising that your passion towards a goal may shift as you move forward, filtered through new experiences, and not acting accordingly, may also feed your anxiety, or worse, the failure of your business. Susan David went straight for the point when she wrote in her book, Emotional Agility:
“We should be gritty, yes, but not stupid. The most agile and adaptive response to an unattainable goal is goal adjustment, which entails both disengaging from the unattainable goal and then re-engaging in an alternative.”
3. Grit is more complicated than we’d like to admit
Grit is most commonly deconstructed in two personal characteristics: self-discipline and self-control.
Think of self-discipline as the capacity to plan, organise and complete small and large tasks, in a sustainable manner. While the myth of the constantly working entrepreneur is pervasive, a truly self-disciplined entrepreneur knows that having times of recovery and learning are part of being successful. Insufficient self-discipline in the entrepreneurial world is translated into recurring all-nighters, wearing fatigue as a badge of honour or giving off a sense of busy-ness, but without actually getting things done.
Self-control is the capacity to not let yourself be distracted by short-term successes or temptations (anything from spending one more day you don’t actually have on Netflix to focusing on side features for your product or flashy, low-return marketing stunts).
Ironically, when people approach self-control rationally, they’re much more likely to find it difficult, as they spend a lot of time arguing with themselves in their heads. The good news is that recent discoveries suggest that tying self-control to positive feelings – like showing compassion and gratitude towards your fellows or validating your feelings of pride you have for your skills – the more likely you are to possess both self-control and to feel good about the whole process.
Grit matters. But it’s not a ‘no matter what, you’ll win’ card
Google grit, and you’ll find hundreds or articles – from blog pieces to research studies, tooting the importance of having grit to become a successful person in one’s endeavours – entrepreneurship included.
We like thinking grit is the only thing that matters, because it sounds like a guarantee for success: no matter who you are and where you come from, as long as you try hard enough, you’re going to make it. But the hard truth is that like with everything in life, there are no fool-proof guarantees.
At the end of the day, great entrepreneurs know that being gritty is part of the job description. But they also know that success is the right mix of grittiness, analytical skills, confidence and having the right support network. And even then, they know that sometimes, their startups will fail.
Sometimes, being gritty has nothing to do with picking up your startup, and everything to do with picking yourself up and trying to reach your next big goal.