May 17, 2024
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Grit still best predictor of success


Renee Rock

Renee Rock

By Renee Rock

One good old-fashioned job skill is still the key to success.

As the middle child in a large 1950s-era family, I had to work hard to earn the attention of my hardworking blue-collar father. Like many in single-income families, my father worked long hours, often putting in overtime to make ends meet.

Neither of my parents went to college. My father attributed his rise from a truck driver hauling produce across 48 states to vice president of transportation at one of the largest grocery chains in the nation to one factor: good old-fashioned grit.

My father felt deeply that hard work was the key to success, much more so than talent, luck, brains or timing. To make it in this world, he believed, you simply had to finish what you started and never give up.

I believed him at the time and worked hard in a competitive industry selling cosmetics for Vidal Sassoon at the ripe young age of 16. If there ever was a field where grit and hustle were predictors of success it would be sales, a profession in which daily, if not hourly, rejection is the norm. And it was in this daily arena of hustle and hope that I developed my own grittiness. I learned how to approach people without fear, build long-standing relationships based on good will and reciprocity, and never take no for an answer. And when things didn’t go my way, I learned how to pick myself up from failure and move forward.

At the age of 22, after becoming the West Coast regional manager for 20 salons, I left Vidal Sassoon to start my own cosmetics company. Like my father, I worked long hours. I hustled to exceed each previous day’s sales and never gave up.

When I transitioned to a new career teaching entrepreneurship at a private liberal arts university, I began to view my father’s unfailing belief in grittiness as an outdated truism. The world, it seemed, had changed. The algorithm for success in the fast-paced, technology-driven world where 20-something college dropouts became millionaires overnight seemed less about hard work and more about natural ability, timing and sheer dumb luck.

While my father looked to work for a predictable source of income and sense of identity, millennials seemed to want to grow rich overnight and live life on their own terms. I began to wonder how hard work and resiliency fit into this new way of being.

Psychologist Angela Duckworth just completed research into one of the toughest institutions in American history to succeed at, the West Point Academy, that informs the discussion. For each applicant, they calculate a weighted average of SAT or ACT exam scores, high school rank, appraisals of leadership potential, and performance on physical fitness measures. And yet cadets with the highest Whole Candidate Scores were just as likely to drop out as those with the lowest scores. Why? Cadets are subjected daily to an unrelenting cycle of highly demanding training designed to test their physical, social and emotional toughness. The ones who made it through the harrowing rigors of induction into the academy had something the admissions process didn’t test for: grit. This single factor seemed to explain why some of the most promising cadets routinely quit when their training had just begun. The cadets were asked, on an hourly basis, to overcome challenges that exceeded their current skills. The ones who made it had a never-give-up attitude.

In fields as wide ranging as the fine arts, sports, education, sales and military training, Duckworth found that her grit scale more accurately predicted success than a battery of personality tests, SAT, ACT and IQ scores, and even expert appraisals of leadership potential.

I found these same factors to be highly predictive of future success in my research on entrepreneurs. Creating a startup reveals weaknesses that you never knew you had and challenges you to rise above them. With a startup failure rate of 97 percent, those who defy the odds are especially gritty. My research shows that third- and fourth-time entrepreneurs increase their chances of success by over 40 percent. The highly successful entrepreneurs I interviewed were resilient, hardworking and knew exactly what they wanted. Good, old-fashioned grit is still the best predictor of success.

• Renee Rock is a senior lecturer in the School of Management at California Lutheran University.