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The Science of Failure: Insights on How to Cultivate Grit

The Science of Failure: Insights on How to Cultivate Grit

What does it take to be successful? That’s the million-dollar question that leaders and employees alike ask themselves, hoping to uncover the secret to building an effective team, getting their dream role, or gaining a competitive advantage.

According to Lauren Eskreis-Winkler, assistant professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, the secret to success isn’t talent or skill — it’s grit. Eskreis-Winkler has studied grit over the years, determining its connection to success and what people can do to cultivate it. She shared her findings with us on the latest entry in our Building Forward webinar series:

The makings of grit

As defined by Angela Duckworth, the founder and CEO of the Character Lab, the definition of grit includes two key components: perseverance and passion. Working hard, applying yourself to get a job done, and overcoming challenges to achieve long-term goals are obvious components of grit. However, the ‘passion’ piece is actually the more challenging aspect of cultivating grit — it can take people years before they truly find something they love.

While perseverance and passion are the cornerstones of grit, a person’s beliefs and attitudes determine if they can cultivate grit long-term. Grit comes from believing you can succeed, even when you fail — and not giving up when you inevitably do fail. It takes deliberate practice. 

Taking from Psychologist Anders Ericsson’s advice on using deliberate practice to become a world-class expert, Eskreis-Winkler informs us that gritty people deploy four steps to achieve excellence: 

1. Focus on your weaknesses 

2. Get feedback

3. Concentrate 

4. Repetition 

While Eskreis-Winkler’s work has studied what determines grit, she’s also studied what grit can determine. In fact, her research has used a grit scale to predict successful outcomes — measuring, for example, which West Point cadets stay versus dropped out or the finalists of the National Spelling Bee. According to Eskreis-Winkler’s lab, grit was able to predict outcomes over other variables, like IQ, physical aptitude, or GPA

3 tips for cultivating grit

So, how do you actually build grit? Eskreis-Winkler outlined three key ways you can become — or help others become — a grittier person:

  1. Prioritize practice via changing your beliefs: People lack grit because of lack of practice — either they don’t know how to practice or they believe they can’t. First and foremost, change your beliefs around practicing, and don’t let frustration or fear of failure stop you from pushing forward. Also, adjust your beliefs around talent — while talent is important, it doesn’t mean you’re destined to only be good at a select number of skills. Passion trumps talent, time and time again.  
  1. Give advice to gain motivation: When someone procrastinates or fails at a task, it’s not usually because they lack the knowledge on how to complete it. Instead, they lack the confidence they need to become motivated. Motivation isn’t something that can be taught, it must be inspired. If you’re lacking the confidence you need to chart forward, fake it until you make it. Act like an expert, give advice to others, and remind yourself you have value to add. Eskreis-Winkler’s findings actually discover that when people give advice to others — rather than receiving it — they’re more motivated to pursue a goal. 
  1. Cultivate a growth mindset: Citing Psychologist and Stanford Professor Carol Dweck’s insights, Eskreis-Winkler explained that we can either have a growth or a fixed mindset. We either believe capabilities are either flexible and changeable, or they’re innate and immovable. Our mindset has a tremendous impact over whether we persist — if you don’t believe change is possible, why would you try to change? By cultivating a growth mindset and a desire to learn, you lay the foundation for grit.

The science of failure 

Grit isn’t the science of success, it’s the science of failure — it’s how you respond to loss and frustration, it’s making the choice to learn over looking smart. 

To foster grit in yourself or your colleagues, you need to start to become comfortable with failure. Embrace regular feedback, and remain persistent about your passions. Doing so will improve inter-team collaboration and refresh your sense of productivity and purpose.

Stay up to date on the latest thought leadership on the hybrid workforce — check out upcoming events in our Building Forward webinar series and read our blog on Jamil Zaki’s tips for honing empathy as a skill.

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