If you’re an athlete, there’s real value in learning how to “grind it out.” However, we should optimize to be at least as equally efficient and measured as we are gritty.
I vividly remember a muggy 2002 spring training day in Port Charlotte, Florida. I had come to the realization on that Mid-March morning that my pop (power) was missing in action. The ball wasn’t jumping off my bat like it usually did. As I weakly impacted ball after ball, grunting helplessly and sweating through my 2nd Rangers dry-fit, I told myself I was going to hit until I “got it.” I was prepared to “grind” until balls began to whistle off the back of the cage or over the double wood wall at Charlotte County Stadium and into the alligator pond beyond left center field. I likely took 200 swings that morning, then played a shitty game, then dragged our hitting coach out on the field in the late afternoon as the sun went down, “working.” I was a gritty SOB.
Grit has been a popular word in baseball circles, management seminars, business classes and in life for several years now. It makes some level of sense. We value those with resourcefulness, the ability to not be shaken by obstacles while pursuing goals. This level of sheer persistence in spite of the odds appeals to our sense of justice – anyone can make it if they only work hard enough. It also reinforces an unhealthy narrative; more is better.
Malcolm Gladwell weaved us a compelling tale. He shared that 10,000 hours of practice is needed to become an expert in our field. Like grit, this makes complicated tasks seem less daunting because we’re working towards a fixed goal. Pick up a bass for the first time ever and try to play like Bootsy Collins. You’re not going to get very far. Yet the idea that if we just practice enough, every day, we’ll master anything we put our minds to puts us in the driver’s seat and gives us a reason to try.
Ultimately, we know this is only partially true. Talent and innate characteristics matter. Authors of a recent study on the concept were “quite clear that some people do reach an elite level of performance without copious practice, while other people fail to do so despite copious practice.” I will never be an elite horse jockey regardless of how many hours I practice it. Their research supports this conclusion:
More than 20 years ago, researchers proposed that individual differences in performance in such domains as music, sports, and games largely reflect individual differences in amount of deliberate practice, which was defined as engagement in structured activities created specifically to improve performance in a domain. This view is a frequent topic of popular-science writing—but is it supported by empirical evidence? To answer this question, we conducted a meta-analysis covering all major domains in which deliberate practice has been investigated. We found that deliberate practice explained 26% of the variance in performance for games, 21% for music, 18% for sports, 4% for education, and less than 1% for professions. We conclude that deliberate practice is important, but not as important as has been argued.
Now, of course, 18% variation matters. Tell any elite athlete he can (legally) improve his performance by 18% and you’ll have 100 takers out of 100. But persistence is only valuable if what we’re striving towards is a sensible goal, practiced intelligently. If I’m a hitter working on a mechanical adjustment in the cage that I just can’t get right, practicing the incorrect movement only makes me better at being worse. The hours I spent taking hacks now may result in additional unsavory habits I need to figure out how to undo. Continuing to persist in strategies that have been demonstrably ineffective doesn’t represent virtuous behavior; it represents wasted time.
In the absence of alternatives, most participants worked on the unsolvable trials until the end of the time limit; however, in the presence of alternatives, participants high in optimism or self-mastery beliefs who were not allowed to return to previous trials disengaged from the unsolvable anagrams nearly 4 min sooner than participants low in such beliefs. Additionally, optimists tended to outperform participants low in optimism on the subsequent solvable trials when these trials were said to test an aspect of verbal intelligence different from the initial set. These results suggest that people high in optimism and self-mastery are able to disengage from unsolvable tasks in order to allocate effort to solvable tasks.
Surprisingly, that optimism matters. We know that confidence has a significant impact on performance, but enthusiasm does too.
’We have empirical evidence that deliberate practice, while important, …does not largely account for individual differences in performance. The question now is what else matters.’ And there are many possible answers. One is how early in life you were introduced to the activity — which, as the researchers explain, appears to have effects that go beyond how many years of practice you booked. Others include how open you are to collaborating and learning from others, and how much you enjoy the activity.
That last one — intrinsic motivation — has a huge empirical base of support in workplaces, schools, and elsewhere. We’ve long known that the pleasure one takes from an activity is a powerful predictor of success. For example, one group of researchers tried to sort out the factors that helped third and fourth graders remember what they had been reading. They found that how interested the students were in the passage was thirty times more important than how “readable” the passage was.
This motivation is important to keep in mind. One of my earliest and most trusted coaches used to always preach to me to end on a high note. I’d be frustrated and wanting “just one more,” 7 swings might become 15 which might become 50. The increasing frustration, however, often saps our intrinsic motivation to get back in the cage the next day and the next. Not letting ourselves get outworked is critical, but only when we do so with a strong level of self-awareness. Simply, we can ask ourselves “would I be better served focusing my attention elsewhere in this moment? Is repeating this action helping me or am I just trying to be a “hard worker?” Of course, being honest with ourselves is critical. Grit may not be the ultimate determiner of success, but laziness is likely to result in failure.