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Why success requires more than just grit

Cognitive ability and the willingness to learn from failure are equally as important.

Why success requires more than just grit
[Photo: Juri Pozzi/Getty Images]

By now, you probably know that grit is good. The stick-to-it-iveness, perseverance, and determination that define grit are undeniably critical to success. But contrary to common belief, grit alone isn’t enough. Success comes from many factors. Grit is definitely one, but so are attributes like intelligence.

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Learning, optimism, empathy, and purpose are also crucial characteristics that we can reference to predict positive outcomes in work and life.

A recent study points this out, using evidence from over 11,000 West Point cadets. The study found that grit is significant, but so are cognitive abilities. While grit helped predict graduation rates, it was cognitive ability—not grit—which helped predict academic success and grades.

There is no shortage of studies on intelligence and cognitive abilities. This may be because it’s relatively easy to measure compared to other characteristics, though of course, bias still exists. But ultimately, success comes down to multiple factors. It’s tempting to center our focus on one particular thing and disregard the rest. After all, doing so makes our lives much more straightforward.

The thing is, the average person wants some measure of financial stability and career recognition for their contributions. But they most likely also want fulfillment through great relationships with partners, children, and friends. To live this kind of life, you need a range of other attributes in addition to grit and intelligence, and you need to learn to cultivate the following habits.

Learning from failure

You probably know that learning from failure is critical to success. A 2018 study published in Frontiers of Behavioral Neuroscience found examining failure reduces stress in future performance. A 2019 study published in Nature Communications also found that you learn the best (and the quickest) when you succeed only 85% of the time. That’s because if you succeed 100% of the time, you’re less likely to reflect and will probably keep repeating what has worked for you in the past.

When you don’t encounter failure, it might also be because there hasn’t been enough stretch or challenge. You can make the basket every time if the net is low enough—but the effort is minimal, and the learning is, too. But you learn the most when you can’t bank on success and when there is just enough level of difficulty to make you uncomfortable and to make you push yourself.

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Optimism

A study in the Indian Journal of Management found that there is a positive correlation between optimism, job performance, and satisfaction. A focus on the future and general positivity in the face of challenges relates to bouncing back from difficulties and taking a long-term view of the future. This is helpful because the problem you face at work today can seem less daunting when you take a broader perspective. When you’re going through your workday—whether it’s average or problematic—it’s essential to stay positive and upbeat to enhance your chance of success.

Empathy

No measure of success occurs in a vacuum, and you won’t get there without being able to relate to others. When you put yourself in others’ shoes, it becomes easier to see creative solutions to problems, and you’ll be in a better place to form robust relationships with the people you work with. Work is fundamentally social. The safety net colleagues offer when you’re down or the new opportunity coworkers facilitate based on networking form the context that cultivates success. Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Houston found empathy tends to encourage cooperation and reciprocity—which are both very important to social systems.

Purpose

Finally, success is partly based on striving for something and seeing ourselves as part of a bigger picture. In the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, researchers reported the presence of a goal contributed to better mental health and less stress and anxiety. A 2019 study in Health Psychology also found that a greater sense of life purpose people helped people make more positive life decisions and choices. Consider the work you do in the context of something greater than yourself. Resist the temptation to think of yourself as a cog in the wheel. Instead, picture yourself as part of a bigger picture that can contribute to others down the line.

Grit is an essential part of success. But if you want to live a life that is fulfilling, you can’t rely on hard work alone. Be sure to build knowledge, learn from failure, be optimistic and empathetic toward others, and stay focused on the future with goals and purpose. It is the combination of these characteristics that can help you cultivate the life you want.


Tracy Brower, PhD, MM, MCRw, is a sociologist focused on work, workers, and workplace, working for Steelcase. She is the author of Bring Work to Life by Bringing Life to Work: A Guide for Leaders and Organizations.

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