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The Short, Happy Life of Grit, and Its Lesson for Thought Leaders

You’ve doubtless heard of the Gartner hype cycle that describes how technologies and strategies rise swiftly to a “peak of expectations,” and then precipitously slide into a “trough of disillusionment” before attaining a “plateau of productivity.”

But as something is rising, one rarely thinks of the looming trough. For a thought leader, it can be embarrassing when the slide begins, especially if he or she has not prepared for it.

Case in point: Grit.

Back in 2007, Angela Duckworth (and several co-authors) published a scientific article, “Grit: Perseverance and Passion for Long-Term Goals,” claiming that passion and perseverance – what Duckworth called grit – were the most critical predictors of success in any endeavor. And in 2009, in the Journal of Personality Assessment, Duckworth announced that she could measure grit, objectively, on a scale, and so, using her scale, could anyone else.

Like most scientific articles, this one gained only moderate attention until Duckworth a) won a MacArthur genius grant in 2013, b) followed that with a TED talk (now closing in on 9 million views), and c) in 2014 was advanced seven figures by Scribner to write a book on the topic, which came out this May.

Over the last year, the notion of grit as the sine qua non for success has become accepted wisdom, a truth so obvious we all wonder why we didn’t think of it first.

Naturally, publications clamored for Duckworth. In a February 2014 interview in strategy+business, she advised companies to examine resumes “for evidence” that job applicants have “been gritty.” This past April, in a New York Times interview, Duckworth boasted: “My lab has found that this measure [grit] beats the pants off I.Q., SAT scores, physical fitness and a bazillion other measures to help us know in advance which individuals will be successful in some situations.”

A bazillion is a lot.

But talk about smart, effective thought leadership marketing! TED talks. Books. The Times. Talk about an easy-peasy solution to . . . well, to everything!

But hold on. Last month, another scientific paper came out, and this one got a lot of attention, fast. “Much Ado About Grit,” by authors at the Iowa State University Department of Psychology, and the University of Alabama School of Management, argued that Duckworth’s data was “misleading;” the impact of grit was “exaggerated,” and not only is grit nearly identical to conscientiousness (which, says one of the paper’s authors, psychologists have known about “for decades,” and therefore it “doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know”), but conscientiousness “is not something that’s necessarily open to change, especially in adults, whereas Duckworth . . . suggests that grit is.”

In other words, grit may not be a solution to anything.

Duckworth, honorably, is not digging in to defend her position. (She is, after all, a scientist.) She confesses she somewhat misstated her outcomes (not intentionally); she doesn’t disagree with the new article’s characterization of the measurable relationship between grit and success as “modest,” and allows that she now thinks of grit as a “member of the conscientiousness family.” She is revising her grit scale, but still thinks it can be predictive of success.

Is this awkward for Duckworth? I imagine, a bit. But this is how science works. One proposes something; someone else points out flaws; flaws are fixed, or not. Hopefully, something new, a synthesis, emerges.

This is not, however, how thought leadership generally works.

In thought leadership, solutions often are presented as the one and only. All innovation needs to be disruptive, or why bother? The future of education obviously is Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs), and if you don’t develop an Internet of Things business strategy tomorrow, you might as well hang up an “Out of Business” sign.

Now all these things may be somewhat true, but it’s unlikely that any of them are totally true. And while thought leaders should be passionate about their ideas, this is the reason why the Bloom Group insists (sometimes tediously) upon a section devoted to “key barriers and how to overcome them” when we help firms craft compelling content.

That section serves two functions. One, it addresses reality: Implementing a solution in the real world is never simple. If it was, everyone would have done it already. And two, paying attention to barriers reminds thought leaders that their solutions are never the only possible ones. Ideas, like people, are competitive. Useful ideas tend to emerge over time through synthesis.

By acknowledging these truths, and incorporating them in their writing, thought leaders can ensure that their trough of disillusionment will not be quite so deep, and therefore may speed their ideas’ journey toward the happy plateau of productivity.

And just maybe still get a seven-figure advance from Scribner’s.