Grit has become something of a buzzword amongst entrepreneurs and personal development gurus in the last few years. If you follow any aspiring entrepreneurs on social media, odds are you’ve seen some of them post some variation of the following…
Inspiring? - Yes. Realistic? - Perhaps not.
The idea of persevering against all odds has a certain romantic appeal. However, most ideas with romantic appeal tend to be overly simplistic. Personally, I find the idea of love at first sight very appealing. However, I have personally fallen in love at first sight with dozens of Victoria Secret models and so far none of them have agreed to date me, no matter how many acrostic poems I send them.
The concept of grit was popularised by Angela Duckworth, a Professor of psychology from the University of Pennsylvania, who defined grit as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals”. Her research has revealed that “grittier” individuals tend to have more success at school and in their long term careers. The conclusion that has been drawn from this research is that success is primarily a consequence of staying focused and refusing to give up.
The research on this is clear. Grit is critical to achieving your goals… except when it's not.
A recent study out of the University of South California found that people with high levels of grit are much more likely to persist with difficult tasks to their own detriment. In the study, participants were given a certain amount of time to solve as many puzzles as they could. However, what the participants didn’t know is that some of the puzzles were unsolvable. Grittier individuals spent significantly more time attempting to solve these unsolvable puzzles, and as a consequence, solved fewer puzzles overall than their less gritty counterparts.
This study emphasizes what should be an obvious point, but often isn’t. Grit is only useful when success is possible.
This point is especially pertinent for those trying to innovate. One of the most important determinants of success for any innovative venture is how well the innovation addresses a market need. While this should be obvious, there seems to be an increasing trend amongst technology startups to create things that nobody really wants. In fact, CB insights recently investigated the reasons for failure amongst 269 venture-backed startups. They found that, overwhelmingly, the leading cause of startup failures (47% of startups) was a lack of market need for the product or service being offered. This suggests that many founders are pouring their blood, sweat and tears into creating something that was doomed to fail from the start.
No amount of grit will make the market need your product or service. I have met numerous people over the years who have spent large amounts of time and effort pursuing business ideas that didn’t have the legs to get off the ground. Some of these people had the makings of truly great entrepreneurs who were oozing with grit and determination. However, they would have saved themselves a lot of time and money if they had just decided to quit early on and focus their efforts on pursuing a more viable idea.
In a recent podcast, Reid Hoffman (Founder of Linkedin and former COO at Paypal) advocated for the importance of quitting early:
“I believe you have to be relentless about pursuing a big opportunity but ruthless about killing your own bad ideas along the way.”
This quote seems to summarize the true relevance of grit to innovation. Grit works when you’re pursuing a big opportunity. It can help you bounce back from setbacks, deal with challenges and overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles. However, grit will not help turn your “Tinder for pets” app idea into a successful business. For that you’ll need a healthy dose of creativity to help you pivot to a new direction or generate new ideas altogether.
So next time you see an inspiring post on social media about refusing to quit, remember that sometimes giving up on an idea can be the smartest thing you can do.
Dr Joel Davies
PSYCHOLOGIST & RESEARCHER, SIL, SYDNEY
Joel is a Psychologist and researcher who has worked as an organisational development consultant for numerous large public and private sector organisations as well being the co-founder of technology start-up Cred Solutions. Joel completed both his Masters and PhD in organisational psychology at UNSW where he also lectures on innovation and organisational behaviour.