Small Business Blog: The Smartest Don’t Always Succeed

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Photography Business Institute
Photography Business Institute

I recently read an article on grit by two of my favorite authors, Chip and Dan Heath, in Fast Company magazine. It got me thinking about how grit (the perseverance and passion for long-term goals) relates to the successful entrepreneurs I know. We’ve seen it before – the overnight success story whose overnight success really took 10 years of hard work that nobody saw. That hard work was likely due to their gritty personality.

It turns out grit is a greater predictor of high achievement and success than talent, IQ and conscientiousness in some pretty cool studies by University of Pennsylvania PhD Angela Duckworth. Basically, her findings suggest you don’t have to be the most talented chef, photographer, plastic surgeon or personal trainer to achieve substantial success. That’s good news! Instead, what you need is to deliberately set extremely long-term objectives and not swerve from them, even in the absence of positive feedback.

As an entrepreneur, especially in a creative field, that can be hard. We’re always off chasing the next shiny thing. But what Duckwoth’s findings suggest is that it’s this consistency in goals and interest, aka grit, that is a better predictor of high achievement. As a distance runner I can relate. It’s not sexy to get out there and put one foot in front of another day after day, mile after mile. But what I know is that after 20+ years of running, I’m pretty darned good at it, due to my sheer persistence.

Duckworth has studied groups of successful people, from finalists in the National Spelling Bee, to West Point Academy recruits, highly successful investment bankers, lawyers, doctors and college students with high GPAs. Her studies ask these groups to self-assess how much these statements relate to their behaviors:  I finish whatever I begin. I have achieved a goal that takes years of work. I have overcome setbacks to conquer an important challenge. I am a hard worker. I am diligent. I often set a goal but later choose to pursue a different one. New ideas and new projects sometimes distract me from previous ones. I become interested in new pursuits every few months. I have been obsessed with a certain idea or project for a short time, but later lost interest.

Those who rank high on the grit scale are 35% less likely to be frequent career changers. They, well, grit it out in good times and bad and it pays off. Even more good news, Duckworth’s studies have shown that grit increases with age and education. It’s not something you are genetically predisposed to or can’t change.

With the group of National Spelling Bee finalists, she found that while those who were higher in grit actually had lower verbal intelligence, they were just as likely to have made the finals as those with higher verbal intelligence and lower grit. The difference was in their study habits. The grittier finalists put in the hardest kind of work – isolating what they don’t know and working ONLY on that rather than continuing to practice what they are already good at.

Think about the implications of this in your small business. Is there something (like maybe marketing) that you know if you mastered could help you achieve greater success yet you prefer to practice your craft instead? Be deliberate about what you practice. And dedicate yourself to mastering it. Know that it won’t happen over night, nor is it supposed to.

Duckworth found that you can achieve more than others of equal intelligence by maintaining effort and interest over years despite failures, adversity and plateaus in progress. The advantage is stamina. It’s in viewing achievement as a marathon, not a sprint.

Keep plugging away, small business owners. But make sure you’re plugging away at a deliberate goal that isn’t changing. To learn more, watch the Ted Talk featuring Dr. Duckworth and a synopsis of her findings.

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