We all want to be successful and, having learned for ourselves, able to teach our kids and grandkids the secrets to success. Positive psychologists have studied the most satisfied and successful people in the world, exploring the key ingredients that enabled them to flourish.
It’s likely that sometime this week-end a parent or coach will declare to a discouraged child that “quitters never win.” But that old-fashioned advice seems like lip service in a society devoted to designating some children as “gifted” or “natural talents.” And yet the wisdom of the ages is proving to be more powerful than the flashier labels currently being applied.
Grit – the combination of passion and perseverance – is proving to be the best predictor of future success. A series of studies have found that people with high levels of grit are more successful at work, school, sports and other pursuits. Their desire and dedication enable them to overcome the inevitable setbacks that must be mastered in order to achieve a long-term goal. Numerous large-scale analyses have determined that IQ accounts for only a quarter to a third of a person’s professional or academic success.
“Unless you’re a genius, I don’t think that you can ever do better than your competitors without a quality like grit,” says Martin Seligman, the Penn professor known as the father of positive psychology. And the good news is that the character strengths that combine to create grit can be cultivated and strengthened, as opposed to having a fixed quantity of innate intelligence or talent.
After interviewing high achievers from various fields, Angela Duckworth collaborated with Seligman to identify what characteristics distinguished them. They found that the common denominator for success was a determination to overcome obstacles in order to accomplish a long-term objective that held deep personal value. In short, successful people are passionate about achieving their goal, which fuels their ability to persevere.
At West Point, for example, the Penn researchers found that grit was the premier attribute for predicting who would survive the grueling first few months. Results of a grit questionnaire were far more effective in determining who would drop out than traditional measures such as SAT scores, high school rank, faculty appraisals or athletic background. You can take the Penn grit questionnaire yourself at: https://sites.sas.upenn.edu/duckworth/pages/research
Passion emerges as people immerse themselves in an endeavor they find fascinating. As one understands the complexity of an area in which they’re interested, they become enlivened to dive deeper into the topic. As the challenges become apparent, so does the desire to overcome the obstacles. For instance, Jan enjoyed jogging, and began to wonder about running a marathon. As she tried the training regimen that’s required to run 26.2 miles, Jan found deep personal satisfaction in being able to prolong her runs.
Ambition arises as individuals set especially challenging long-term goals. It was one thing for Jan to extend her runs from 30 minutes to an hour, but then she set a goal of running for more than 5 hours. That’s what’s known as a BHAG: Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal. Jan added the second element required for being a high achiever by envisioning herself crossing the marathon finish line to the cheers of her family and friends.
Perseverance is another important character strength cultivated by successful individuals. As it became more difficult to find the time to go for increasingly long runs, Jan had to ask her family and friends for help in looking after her kids. When she strained a calf muscle, it was very tempting to give up. But her fierce determination drove her to find a solution. She worked with a physical therapist and was able to push past the problem.
Self-discipline is the flip side of perseverance. In addition to the ability to keep doing something, being able to stop doing something detrimental is also essential. Jan loved going out with her husband and their friends on Saturday evenings. But she found that after a night of drinking, she wasn’t in any shape to go for a long run the next day. Jan had to learn how to relax and have fun while severely limiting her alcohol consumption.
The final quality associated with high achievement is optimism – the mental skills that successful people learn for managing discouragement. Optimists think that problems are temporary, and believe they’ll ultimately prevail. Telling herself she could find solutions empowered Jan to overcome all of the challenges she faced, and enabled her to experience the satisfaction of successfully running a marathon.