Early in True Grit (the 1968 novel and movie adaptations) Mattie Ross encounters the man she intends to hire: Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn. Mattie has been warned that Cogburn, ageing, overweight and a drunk, is moreover a “crazy vagabond.” But when they meet, she recognizes he has the quality she needs to accomplish her mission. A 14-year-old girl, she needs help tracking down the man who killed her father. As she says to the baffled gunfighter, “They told me you had true grit and that is why I came to you.” She hired him, and in the end, they got their man.
The word grit has had an interesting journey, starting from greot, an Old English word for earth, sand, or gravel. From the early 19th century, the abrasive denotations of the word world began to connote positive personal qualities. “I admire your sand,” the town horse trader grudgingly admits to Mattie.
Angela Duckworth is a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. Her research focuses on the relationship between achievement and character: is there a missing link between IQ and talent, and ultimately success? Her findings suggested that one word conveys the, well, grittiness needed to achieve goals. Her 2013 TED Talk, “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance,” has attracted over 28 million viewers. Her 2016 book of the same name became an instant bestseller. As an executive recruiter, I sensed that her research findings could provide valuable insights into selecting the right candidates for executive positions. In fact, they are valuable lessons for anyone who wants to maintain their edge:
- Strike a balance between competence and confidence. Trust your abilities but work hard to improve them. Put aside your ego to listen to others.
- Find trainers/ mentors who will praise your accomplishments but challenge you to extend your boundaries.
- Practice deliberately to become a better version of yourself. Malcolm Gladwell says that mastery requires 10,000 hours of practice, which are not always fun. But mastery requires pushing aside complacency and boredom.
- Find a support group that can help you through the rough patches.
- Most importantly, never quit on a bad day. There are times when emotions blur objectives, when it is easy to simply slide off the wagon. But then you’ll have to live with the regret of not sticking it out to the end.
These are important personal standards. They are also character traits that executive recruiters are looking to discern in executive hires, those who need to have the grit to carry out formidable challenges.