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.

Makin’ a List, Checkin’ it Twice

Checklists, it seems, are not just for Santa.

I’d seen the book The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right by Atul Gawande back in 2009, propped up high as a must-read business book in airport bookstores and listed on the New York Times Bestseller List. The author is a surgeon, a professor at Harvard Medical School, a MacArthur Fellow and a staff writer for the New Yorker.  Hardly seems fair, but he’s also clever, charming and erudite on TV and the Internet (witness his TED Talk). And he’s written a mind-blowing book about the power and simplicity of checklists.

Dr. Gawande is a beguiling writer and storyteller, spinning tales about his own experiences in the operating room with humor and humility. Invited by the World Health Organization to create a “Safe Surgery Saves Lives” program, he traveled around the world building a team that researched how checklists synthesize what’s critical to safe and healthy outcomes before, during and after surgery. Dr. Gawande also visited Boeing to learn how checklists are a part of the culture of aeronautics, telling the now-famous story of the plane that landed in the Hudson River, piloted by Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, and everyone survived. Yep, there was a checklist.

Dr. Gawande also wondered, as I do when I look up at skyscrapers in Chicago, how on earth big buildings get built. So he turned to the construction team on the campus of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston where he practices medicine to learn more. Turns out that checklists are a crucial part of that dance between architects, engineers and all the professionals and trades people who contribute to the process of building a structure.

TheChecklist-bookshot-432x550Before you accuse me of being a plot-spoiler, let me just share that the stories he tells, and the results of Dr. Gawande’s research, are staggering. In his study of operating rooms using a checklist, the reduction rates of infection, the increased survival rates of patients and the avoidance of near-miss catastrophes are all results of adhering to the discipline of using a checklist. Do we resist checklists? Absolutely. Do we need them? It appears so.

This isn’t a book just for public health officials, or for pilots, or for architects and engineers. This is for anyone who has a complex job and who can’t rely on a memory that is notoriously fickle. While reading The Checklist Manifesto I thought of all the checklists I’ve created and abandoned… checklists for packing light (an oxymoron in my case) for a business trip, for “on-boarding” new clients, or for ensuring I bring everything with me to my speaking engagements. Why do I ditch them? Because I’m a lot like the people Dr. Gawande interviewed, even like Dr. Gawande himself: checklists seem absurdly simple and, well, kind of stupid. Like we can’t remember this stuff ourselves! Turns out, we can’t.

So I’m going to track down those checklists, dust them off and refine them according to the Checklist Manifestoguidelines. I invite you to do the same for whatever ambitious goals you’re trying to achieve. The checklist must be simple and able to fit onto one page. The items must be critical to the outcome. Consider it a work-in-progress: refine it, hone it and revise until it works for you. Then–and here’s the kicker–use it. Consistently, over time. Then measure the results and let me know what you learn. I promise to do the same.