Inspired by the research of psychology professor Angela Duckworth, grit is widely considered an important predictor of success and performance. It has two main components: “consistency of interest” and “perseverance of effort.” It’s not just about being resilient in the face of failure; it’s also about having deep commitments that you remain loyal to over several years.
The idea that grit is fundamental to long-term success sounds sensible enough. Keep doing what you’re doing, stay on task, be passionate, don’t give up, and you will ultimately be rewarded.
I, too, tried to stay super-focused at several phases in life. Burning the midnight oil at medical school in my second year, spending inordinate amounts of time on clinical units at the beginning of my psychiatry residency, and excluding one of my favorite hobbies—music—from what seemed like an already too diverse life when I was one of the pioneers in the field of neurocoaching.
Collectively, we seem to have bought into this—indeed, it’s a hallmark of the American “bootstrapping” mantra. As alluring as this motivational concept may be, all that glitters is not gold. Glitter, though, it does, and we’re enticed by this.
Drawing the Curtain Away
Most of us have a profound longing for stability and long-term relationships, a resistance to change and an admiration of the kind of “character” that grit espouses.
In fact, humankind has a long history of valuing grit, beginning with the ancient Greeks. They regarded physical wandering as “uncivilized.” They would have been enthralled by the “stay put” mentality of grit. And productivity mavens of the Industrial Revolution were likewise arduously devoted to the hypnotic trance of line-worker thinking: the easy-to-imagine trudge that underscores the appealing simplicity of grit.
Regardless, with the current changes in the nature of work and the need to reclaim your much more interesting humanity, it might be time to snap out of this trance. In my opinion, it’s time for greedy grit to share the stage with “unfocus” so your full human power can be expressed. Here’s how.
1. Don’t sacrifice growth in the name of commitment.
Sticking to a long-term career plan puts you in danger of becoming irrelevant. People who have worked in multiple areas in business are far better suited to make connections across sectors. And those who have adapted their lives to the times are more likely to succeed. Even if you’re not an agile change agent, the hypnotic seduction of grit’s monotony has its limits.
At medical school, my performance soared when I added more to my day (sports, meditation, going out with my friends). During my residency, at the recommendation of my mentors, my thinking deepened when I spent more time talking to colleagues on park benches and when I went for a swim in Walden Pond. Despite the urging of mentors to choose between clinical work and research, I did both with equal intensity—sacrificing being “known” in either field alone for the gift of being known as a connector between human behavior and brain science.
After studying 88 independent samples representing 66,807 people, they concluded that grit might only have weak effects on performance and success.
The good news is that recent research shows that grit might have little to do with your success. In a 2016 paper titled “Much Ado About Grit,” psychologist Marcus Credé and his colleagues put the kibosh on the belief that grit is key in reaching your goals and achieving your dreams. After studying 88 independent samples representing 66,807 people, they concluded that grit might only have weak effects on performance and success. In fact, of the two factors that make up grit, only perseverance mattered.
Ongoing research also adds to grit’s questionable place in the psychological annals of success. In 2016, organizational psychologist Andrea Ceshci and his colleagues found that people who are exhausted exhibit counterproductive work behavior. Grit made this worse. (In this case, you probably need grit like you need a hole in the head.) Diligently sticking to the same career or methods of working throughout your life are probably not all they’re cracked up to be.
2. Dabble, detour and take some downtime.
If we accept that grit’s place in the psychological hall of fame is in doubt, what might take its place? A combination of unfocus and grit will optimize productivity. On its own, perseverance is a useful attribute. But in the same way that endurance athletes need to pace themselves for peak performance, perseverance for success must have “off” periods interspersed throughout.
There’s ample anecdotal evidence that dabbling, detouring and taking downtime are the missing ingredients for success. Were it not for their dabbling in the mathematics of Poincaré, Einstein and Picasso might not have made their biggest contributions. The theory of relativity might have gone undiscovered and the cubist movement in art uninspired.
When I made downtime a habit, I was able to see that brain science did not have to stay in the minds of academics; I could translate complex findings for leaders and people in the general public.
If Steve Jobs had not had his detour into a calligraphy class, the typography of the Macintosh computer never would have been born. And many innovations from Microsoft never would have seen the light of day had Bill Gates not made “think weeks” a biannual habit for downtime. Dabbling, detouring and taking downtime are all unfocus strategies.
When I made downtime a habit, I was able to see that brain science did not have to stay in the minds of academics; I could translate complex findings for leaders and people in the general public. I made this leap when many well-intentioned advisers told me that there would be no corporate appetite for brain science in learning (as opposed to the now predicted 25 percent adoption by organizations).
3. Sync up with your cognitive rhythm.
As psychoanalyst Ernest Wolf pointed out, fulfillment comes by living in harmony with the self’s life plan. Self-regulation requires both the “grit” and unfocus circuits to be active. When it comes to thinking, I call this “cognitive rhythm”—something we humans happen to be wired to achieve.
Unfocus activates much-needed parts of the “self” circuit in the brain that are beyond the reach of grit. While grit is like a spotlight that illuminates selective parts of yourself, the unfocus brain circuit is like a floodlight that highlights more of who you are. Tinkering with an idea, doodling or even daydreaming (of a particular variety) all metaphorically turn on the floodlights for greater self-connection and self-control.
You need to resist grit’s monopoly on your psychology. It might promise better self-control, but it doesn’t deliver.
Daydreaming helped me realize that people could benefit from knowing more about their beautiful brains and that I could launch my consulting and coaching practice, NeuroBusiness Group, to deliver these perks. And many of the ideas in my books have come from daydreaming, too. With daydreaming, you feel more in touch with subtle elements of who you are.
In her earlier work, Duckworth pointed to the value of self-control in achieving success. She did, however, notice that self-control and grit were two separate things. Yet I have to wonder how Duckworth imagined humans might achieve the kind of resolve that grit requires without self-control. Was her definition of “self” limited to the concrete and very incomplete sense of self that grit summons? With grit alone, your brain would likely wobble to the finish line, half-identified and half-empowered.
It’s natural to be impulsive, distracted, guilty or insecure from time to time. But you need to resist grit’s monopoly on your psychology. It might promise better self-control, but it doesn’t deliver. So change your mind, change your job or methods, or change your life from time to time. You’ll have a greater chance of success, and your brain will thank you for the energy.