Sometimes a slog can be beautiful. In 1990, Sally Herndon became the program manager in North Carolina for Project ASSIST, an antismoking initiative. Her mandate was to improve the public's health by reducing smoking. But how could she prevail against one of the world's most powerful lobbies — on its home soil of North Carolina? A knockout blow seemed highly unlikely. Rather, Herndon knew that to succeed she would need to chip away at the problem.
Herndon and her team spent two years planning, but just as their rollout began, they suffered a terrible setback. In 1993, the tobacco industry persuaded the state legislature to pass a law mandating that 20% of the space in government buildings be reserved for smoking. Devilishly, the law limited local governments from passing stricter regulation. Herndon called it the "dirty air law."
So the team had to chip away where it could. It started by picking a fight it thought it could win: making schools smoke free. "Even tobacco farmers didn't want their kids to smoke," Herndon says. Her team had to go from school board to school board, one at a time, grinding out tough victories at the local level. By 2000, it had persuaded 10% of the state's districts to go tobacco free. In 2004, it reached 50%. In 2007, it hit 100%, thanks to a statewide ban on smoking in schools.
In the meantime, more winnable fronts opened up: private hospitals, where sick patients often had to walk a gauntlet of secondhand plumes as they entered and exited. Several progressive hospitals declared their facilities smoke free. Then came prisons, the state's General Assembly, and, finally, in 2009, restaurants and bars. Chip, chip, chip.
During Herndon's relentless 20-year campaign in North Carolina, the adult smoking rate had dropped by almost 25%, and millions of people have been spared the effects of secondhand smoke.
Herndon's willingness to withstand such a slog in a challenging environment is an undeniable showcase of "grit." In fact, new psychological research suggests that grit — defined as endurance in pursuit of long-term goals and an ability to persist in the face of adversity — is a key part of what makes people successful. In a culture that values quick results — this quarter's numbers, this week's weight loss, this month's click-throughs — grit can be an underappreciated secret weapon.
Consider the difference grit makes even in a naturally gritty place: West Point. To be admitted, cadets must have impressive marks on multiple dimensions such as SAT scores, class rank, leadership ability, and physical aptitude. They've been tested as leaders. Yet during the first summer of training, a grueling period known as Beast Barracks, one out of every 20 cadets drops out.
When Angela Duckworth of the University of Pennsylvania analyzed these incoming West Point cadets, she found that a very simple survey gauging grit — in which people self-assess on statements such as "I finish whatever I begin" — could predict who would survive the Beast Barracks better than any existing West Point measure. "Grit may be as essential as talent to high accomplishment," Duckworth wrote, and her research has shown the payoff of grit for audiences ranging from Ivy League undergrads to spelling-bee winners. Though, to be fair, the latter prefers to think of it not as "grit" but as "eschewing pococurantism."
Grit is not synonymous with hard work. It involves a certain single-mindedness. An ungritty prison inmate will formulate a new plan of escape every month, but a gritty prison inmate will tunnel his way out one spoonful of concrete at a time.
Grit is often undervalued in business, because businesspeople like breakthroughs, which are good ideas that you'll have next week. ("I'll tunnel out one spoonful of concrete at a time until I can innovate the spoon into a jackhammer.") But even when it's looked upon as a last resort, it works. A U.K.-based website that hosted popular features for teachers, such as a job board and a threaded-discussion forum, decided to revamp its site. For a year, developers worked on the upgrade, but on the big launch day, there was a nasty surprise: The new site was incredibly slow. It sometimes took 30 seconds for a page to load. Traffic plummeted as teachers abandoned it.
Jon Winny, the product manager of the web group, recalls that discussions initially focused on finger-pointing. Software developers insisted the problem was the servers, while the server people insisted the problem was buggy code. "People were looking for the magic bullet that would solve all the problems," he says.
It took about a month for the group to accept that there was no magic bullet. Then came the grit. It took over a large conference room and wallpapered a 40-foot wall with electrostatic whiteboard panels. Then it began to list all the flaws that might contribute to delays, clustering them into eight key stages in the process of serving a web page. Soon, the team had filled the wall with hundreds of hypotheses.
Every morning started with a standing scrum meeting in the conference room, which became known as the "war room." Each day, the group would identify a few of the problems to chase down. "It was slow, slow progress," Winny says. "We'd eke out two or three seconds per week." Notice the similarities to the antismoking effort in North Carolina: a big goal pursued in small increments, as well as a kind of "siege mentality." We are fighting a war on load times..
Four months later, after countless late nights of work, the team shaved the average load time down to five to eight seconds. And the teachers started coming back.
Grit is tough because you don't get the psychic payoffs that come with an exciting discovery or a shift in direction. You rarely get big wins to celebrate. In fact, you may never truly win. You will never have a web page that loads instantaneously or a state with no smokers. All you can do is shave a few seconds off a load time or persuade a few more rural school districts to join your campaign. And that slow, inch-by-inch progress? It's called winning.
A version of this article appeared in the March 2011 issue of Fast Company magazine.