The Secret to Succeeding at Absolutely Everything


As the Olympics Games in Sochi approach, there's one story we'll hear again and again — the one about the athlete who emerged from injury, personal hardship, or the back of the pack to win Olympic gold. Those are the Olympic stories most people love, and these athletes inspire us because the best of the bunch refuse to give up, under any circumstances. (See also: 9 Ways to Stay Motivated When the Going Gets Tough)

In other words, most of us naturally admire what you might call "grit," or the ability to maintain passion and perseverance for a very long time to achieve very big goals. That's why we're especially moved by the stories of athletes who have the most to overcome.

Now there's research to back up what we already know (funny how that happens): determination counts. In fact, research by psychologists Angela Duckworth and Carol Dweck show that grit is the most important factor for success. It's more important than IQ and social intelligence and good looks. It even matters more than talent. The good news is that you can develop and nurture grit. Here's how.

Develop a Growth Mindset

If you're bad at managing your money or getting ahead at work, it's easy to think there's nothing you can do about it. You were just born that way. (It kind of makes for an awesome excuse, right?) According to Carol Dweck, however, this "fixed mindset" is a recipe for failure. (See also: 6 Attitudes That Lead to Financial Failure)

If, on the other hand, you have a "growth mindset," you're more likely to see your skills and abilities as something you have some control over. Those who have this sort of mindset see failure not as, well, failure, but as an opportunity to learn, try again, and, eventually, succeed.

See the difference? If you can think of your skills and abilities as secondary to your effort, you gain control over your performance. That means you get to decide whether you succeed or fail.

Embrace Failure

We all make mistakes. We say the wrong things, we make the wrong choices, and we just plain screw things up. Unfortunately, we're often so mortified and regretful about it that we forget that failure isn't such a bad thing.

In her research, Duckworth found that grit was a better predictor of success in everything from spelling bees to college completion than any other factor. Part of being gritty involves bouncing back from failure and trying again and again. So, if you really want to succeed, the first step is to take failure in stride, rather than allowing it to become the end of the road. When you fail, you are not a failure. You're just human, and you're learning. (See also: How to Embrace Failure, Keep Going, and Succeed)

Stop Praising Yourself

Much of the research that Dweck and Duckworth do is centered on children and academic achievement. Dweck's research in particular found that children who receive a lot of praise about how smart they are actually tend to have less academic success. (In my experience, they also become pretty smug kids.) These tiny Einsteins come to believe that because they can figure many things out easily, they should be able to do everything easily. And if it's not easy, they won't try, for fear that others will see them as no longer being smart.

The truth, of course, is that no one is good at everything. Not even Einstein (he could have used some grooming tips, for example). The children who are praised for how hard they try, however, tend to show the best academic performance over the long term — and even enjoy school more. When school gets hard, they try harder. Sure, being smart can make the process go more quickly, but the truth is that most tasks eventually yield to persistence. (See also: Success Secrets You Should've Learned in High School, But Didn't)

It's probably too late for most of you on the parental praise front (although it's worth thinking about in your interactions with your own kids), but as adults, we can use the same logic when talking to and thinking about ourselves. How do you feel when you fail at something? Do you become instantly discouraged and despondent, or do you re-evaluate your strategy and give it another go? If you're quick to give up, put some thought into how you think about yourself and what you say to yourself when things go wrong. Then give yourself a pat on the back for trying your best and work on doing better.

If you need a little extra inspiration, consider watching the Olympics. You'll see a whole lot of people who are on top of the world, at least for a day. What's less obvious is just how much failing they had to do to get there.

By the way, if you're interested in learning how gritty you are, you can take Angela Duckworth's GRIT survey and find out.

How did you do? How gritty are you?

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Guest's picture

Interesting stuff Tara. I actually just read elsewhere that praising the effort as opposed to the result is the best way to encourage children's development. Being from Ireland, we don't have the sort of over-the-top positive reinforcement you tend to see in the US, but this is a valuable lesson nonetheless.

Guest's picture

Scored 4.38 out of 1 -- 5 (90-99 percentile). Thanks for the link!