The Secret of Success

My daughter Kitty recently shared a link to a TED Talk with me, a presentation by a woman named Angela Lee Duckworth. Dr. Duckworth, once a McKinsey consultant, left the world of management consulting with one of the country’s most prestigious firms to go teach math to seventh graders in the New York City public school system.  She observed that her students who succeeded were not always the ones with the highest intelligence quotients or those who came from what we would consider good homes. Her interest in these factors led her back to school to receive a Ph.D. in psychology at the University of Pennsylvania where she now teaches. Her platform and her research are based on the theory that the biggest indicator of success is “grit.”

Several impressions washed over me when I listened to her Ted Talk entitled “The Key to Success: Grit.” First, I was bowled over by the idea that this talented young woman would leave a job at McKinsey, replete no doubt with a significant salary, a healthy expense account, bonuses, stimulating assignments and a career ladder that reached to the sky, to go teach seventh grade math.

Upon hearing that, I had a flashback: In seventh grade, we had a biology teacher named Joyce Something. I remember her as being rather serious and drab, but during  the year she got engaged. She changed right in front of us: her eyes sparkled, her once unkempt hair was now tied with a bow. And during one class, the boys started teasing her about getting married, focusing specifically on the honeymoon. She ran out of our classroom in tears.  I remember raising my eyes to the ceiling and uttering this prayer: “Dear God, please let me never teach seventh grade.” So my admiration for Dr. Duckworth wasn’t just that she left consulting for teaching: she left to teach seventh graders.

My next observation was that Dr. Duckworth’s scientific research was a direct reflection of what my dad always told me about success. However, he didn’t use the word “grit.” His version was “stick-to-it-iveness.” All the brilliance in the world, he said, can only be harnessed if we’re willing to do the work. My dad, too, was a professor, but I think his counsel on stick-to-it-iveness was based less on his experience in academia and more as a direct result of being raised as the youngest of six on a farm in Nebraska during the Depression. My grandmother was a Methodist minister and part-time gas station owner, widowed by the time my Dad was 10, a woman who did everything she could to make ends meet for her children. If our religion as a family was Methodism, our mantra was hard work. I’ve learned as a business and career coach who helps people and companies with strategic planning that all the brilliant strategies and ideas in the world don’t amount to anything without action, without execution. And that takes grit.

Lastly, I thought of a quote I’ve heard over the years attributed to Calvin Coolidge. “Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence,” he said. “Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”

In fact, Angela Lee Duckworth says grit is often inversely related to talent, and she implies that follow-through trumps talent any day of the week.  “Grit is sticking with your future — day in, day out, not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years — and working really hard to make that future a reality,” she said. This sobering insight gives me new determination and inspiration to commit to following through, doing what Gregg Levoy in his remarkable book Callings: Finding and Following an Authentic Life calls “the pick-and-shovel work” that it takes to achieve our dreams.  For a calling to manifest into success, it looks like we have to do the work. I figure that Dr. Duckworth, Calvin Coolidge and my dad can’t all be wrong.

The Tenacity Gene

This week I heard a great interview on National Public Radio with an author named David Epstein who wrote a book called The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance. There are some wonderful insights Mr. Epstein shared about the book, but the one that really caught my imagination was a story about the success of sled dogs who help win the Iditarod race in Alaska.

Four-time Iditarod champion Lance Mackey couldn’t afford to breed fast dogs. Instead, he bred dogs that were slower but would “just go and go and go,” according to Mr. Epstein. These dogs had the drive to pull the sled all the time, never wanting to stop. He says these dogs have been bred for motivation and for “work ethic,” something that’s kind of funny to think about when you’re considering sled dogs–but there it is, supported by science. These dogs are pulling longer, not faster.

This story brings new meaning to the old Aesop fable of the tortoise and the hare. And I can’t  help thinking about it when it comes to our own work habits. My most recent habit is to focus more deeply on follow-up and follow-through. I know that networking is only as good as the follow-through, so I’m holding myself accountable for new habits in connecting with people.

I receive a business card and follow up with an email, written expressly for that person and highlighting where we met or what we may have talked about. I remind them they’ve given me permission to add them to my “Golden Rolodex.” I thank them for their time and offer an open invitation to be of service to them in any way I can. Then I go to LinkedIn and write a custom invitation to stay connected via LinkedIn, too–referencing my earlier e-mail. I ask for nothing in any of these communications–this is just my way of reinforcing we’ve met and laying the groundwork for future connections.

This takes time and I feel a little like a sled dog, plodding my way through the snow. But I know that these investments of time and custom connections are critical to building relationships that will last. Whether or not I have the tenacity gene, I’m working on my tenacity muscle, accomplishing what Gregg Levoy in his book Callings calls “the pick-and-shovel” work of making connections. And I feel stronger every day, building the skill to just “go and go and go.”