There are many different ideas about the characteristics a person must possess or develop to become successful.

At the top of many people’s lists are traits like integrity and self-confidence. Clearly, it is hard to climb any mountain if you don’t have the self-confidence to trust yourself, and the ability to inspire others to trust you, too.

Another ability that makes all the lists is the ability to show gratitude. Successful people who may seem to have the right to be arrogant are often the most grateful people. They constantly comment on how blessed and fortunate they are to be doing what they are doing.

A passion for excellence is another core trait of successful people. They are constantly trying to improve themselves and find better ways to do things in the world around them.

However, one trait may supersede all the rest as the predictor of individual success. That trait is a four-letter word – grit.

In a TED Talk boasting more than 12 million views, Angela Duckworth shares what she learned about grit while teaching seventh-grade math in New York City’s public school system. In the classroom, she noticed that I.Q. was not the only difference between her best and worst performers.

Duckworth said her best performers did not always have the highest I.Q. scores. In fact, some of her high-I.Q. students weren’t doing so well. This discovery caused her to wonder: What if doing well in school and in life depends on something other than learning quickly and easily?

Duckworth began researching, and found that one characteristic emerged as a top predictor of success – grit. It was passion and perseverance. It was constancy of tenacity and the ability to learn valuable lessons from defeat.

In the past week, the subject of grit came up in my life three times, reinforcing that this trait is one that deserves special attention.

  1. My sister, who has been teaching fifth-grade students for more than 25 years, brought up the topic in conversation. She read an article about how kids today are getting “soft” and how the characteristic of grit is becoming less prevalent. The coddling and protecting of children can rob them of the struggle with adversity, which is what builds endurance and perseverance.
  2. While meeting with the president of a major university, we were tackling the challenging concepts of changing the culture and building a unique student experience. The goal was to create a student experience that better prepared them for success in the real world. Grit was the word used to describe what students need.
  3. My third experience was the most personal. It was the passing of my father. He had been struggling with frontal lobe dementia for the last four years of his life. The disease made it impossible for him to speak or write what he wanted to say. However, for three of those four years, he found a way to not only live independently, but to experience times of joy and achievement. When it was time to share more thoughts about him in a eulogy, I summarized his life in seven points of observation, appreciation, and lessons learned. Grit showed up as lesson #5, and it looked like this.

Dad, “Perhaps your greatest lesson for us came with your dementia… where your grit and mental toughness was astounding. We know that the disease pushed you to the edge emotionally and physically. When you couldn’t talk- you pointed, when you couldn’t drive- you rode your bike, when you couldn’t ride your bike -you walked the neighborhood, when you couldn’t use the lawn mower- you cut the whole yard with a weed whip …and when you could no longer live alone-you became a favorite of the caregivers with your smile, wave, and determination.  Your grit, mental toughness and determination showed us that life is a constant set of choices at times fraught with pitfalls and obstacles…however the way you made your choices was truly inspiring to all of us. Thank you!”

It could just be a coincidence that grit kept popping up in different places in my life. More likely, it was that I was listening but didn’t hear that one trait quite as loudly as I heard it this week.

June 11, 2019


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