GRIT — The Holistic Upgrade


This post is the fourth in a series of six that focuses on the science of GRIT, and how it may be the definitive factor in closing the skills gap in America, by delivering what employers crave. In case you missed them, you can read my previous posts here.

I remember being stunned. It was nearly 15 years ago. There I was, at the National Prayer Breakfast, one of the largest gatherings of world leaders ever assembled. And, one by one, different leaders from different regions of the world got up to speak about the world’s greatest challenges and concerns. Just as the next Prime Minister of Tanzania finished his comments, one of the people at my table leaned over and said, “In all due respect to this exceptional man, I think he missed the point. The greatest threat is not the Taliban’s or Al–Qaeda’s growing numbers. It is their grit!”

His comment stopped me in my tracks. At the time, my PEAK Team and I were in the early stages of our research on grit—before we evolved it to today’s version, GRIT. And, up until that point, we were professing a “more is more” philosophy of grit. We believed A) grit is highly desirable, and B) therefore, everyone can benefit from more of it. We now realize how fantastically flawed those assumptions can be.

What if we gave the world’s bullies, jerks, psychopaths, and sociopaths more grit? Haven’t the most successfully evil people in history shown incredible grit? In fact, wouldn’t it be fair to assume that their mis-directed grit fueled much of their infamy? Like it or not, in its basic form, grit has a dark, even dangerous underbelly. Those who have been most successful at waging harm, hardship, and horror have likely shown tremendously strong grit. It is, without peer, the single element that spawns the greatest human-induced suffering. Dark intentions without grit remain largely unrealized fantasy.

Enough of dark. Let’s talk of light. Light is what educators strive to bring to their students. Enlightenment is what great leaders, teachers, parents, and institutions spark in us all. What separates dark from light? Not the quantity, but the quality of one’s GRIT. In fact, when asked which matters more when it comes to equipping their students to contribute positively in the world, quality or quantity of GRIT, 98 percent of educators respond definitely, “Quality!” The truth is, you need both.

GRIT CubeI now think of GRIT holistically, three-dimensionally, like a cube more than a single continuum.

Two of the sides of our GRIT Cube are the standard extremes Weak and Strong. These describe the magnitude or quantity of GRIT. Quantity describes the intensity and duration of your efforts. In other words, quantity describes how much. Quality comprises the remaining four of the six sides. Quality describes how.

I find the qualitative aspect of GRIT both humbling and inspiring. Here’s why. We’ve all experienced, and likely all demonstrated Bad and Good GRIT. Bad GRIT is when you intentionally or unintentionally relentlessly pursue your goals in ways that are harmful others, and/or yourself. The key word here is “unintentionally.” While you have no doubt encountered people who intend harm, I assume most of us don’t. Yet, can you honestly say how you go after your goals, your relentless efforts to get certain things done never aggravate, upset, frustrate, impinge, marginalize, or compromise others? Do your pursuits ever wage unintentionally negative consequences?

I happen to believe that what my PEAK team and I strive to do—have a deep, positive, enduring impact on people’s lives and humanity overall—is noble and worthy of our best. But, when I go after it in ways that cut others short, burn them out, ruin their weekend, or waste their time, I’m demonstrating Bad GRIT. It’s not intentional. In fact, I’m told it’s understandable. But it’s neither essential or optimal.

Educators who become inflexible and close-minded in their approach, or put sticking to their syllabus above growing their student’s minds, often demonstrate Bad GRIT. Likewise, students who emotionally beat themselves and everyone around them to shreds every time the pressure’s on, demonstrate unnecessarily Bad GRIT.

Good GRIT, as you may have guessed, is the exact opposite. Good GRIT is about relentlessly pursuing your most important long-term goals in ways that are ultimately beneficial to yourself and others. When your efforts inspire others to do and be more, when an educator invests long hours of sacrifice to create that mind blowing lesson or experience for his/her students, or when an adversity-besieged student shows through action not words what’s truly possible, that’s Good GRIT. Good GRIT elevates what Bad GRIT decimates. The extent to, and way in which we put all we know about character, emotional intelligence, and humanity to practice, determines the difference.

As powerful as the oppositional continua of Weak versus Strong, and Bad versus Good truly are, I’ve come to believe that arguably, the single most potent factor on whether one enjoys, engages, re-enrolls, and remains in school is how Dumb or Smart one’s overall GRIT truly is. Dumb GRIT is relentlessly pursuing the same goal in essentially the same, ineffective ways. Missing class because you wandered aimlessly for hours around campus looking for the classroom or trying futilely to decode the course catalog is Dumb GRIT. Asking others for help, seeking alternatives, re-routing and trying a fresh approach is Smart GRIT.

Smart GRIT means going after the right, most worthy goals in the most effective ways. Colleges that expect to remain viable and survive doing essentially the same things are unintentionally accelerating their demise. As tuitions rise, accountabilities intensify, and enrollments drop, it will be the leaders who step back, re-assess, re-route, even re-invent, who have the best shot of not just weathering, but harnessing the storm. Smart GRIT not only saves immense time and effort, it can spell the difference between failure and success in achieving worthy goals.

Given how essential all this is to basic human existence and contribution, at some level isn’t it education’s moral imperative to help students grow Stronger, Gooder, and Smarter GRIT? And, as we all hopefully strive to have our unprecedentedly crowded and interdependent world better for our existence, shouldn’t all of us aspire to grow not just more, but greater GRIT? I’ve been excavating the science of human endeavor for 35 years, and thus far, I have discovered no more potent or important path to personal greatness than that.

Stay tuned for future blog posts as we delve deeper into GRIT, the science behind it, and what educators and employers can be doing now to help individuals dramatically fortify their career path and life goals.



About the Author
Dr. Paul G. Stoltz

Dr. Paul G. Stoltz

Paul G. Stoltz, Ph.D., is considered the world’s foremost authority on the science and method of measuring and strengthening GRIT. His methods and teachings are used at Harvard, MIT, Cornell, Stanford, Carnegie Mellon, and by top organizations in 63 countries.  Selected as “One of the Top Ten Most Influential Global Thinkers” by HR Magazine, “One of the Top 100 Thinkers of Our Time”, by Executive Excellence. He is founding director of the GRIT Institute, and the Global Resilience Institute, conducting research in 29 countries, as well as Founder and CEO of PEAK Learning, Inc., the global research and consulting firm, since 1987. Featured in the world’s top media—Fortune, Forbes, Success, Business Week, Financial Times, Wall Street Journal, Asia 21, Fox, ABC Nightly News, NBC, CBS, The Today Show, and multiple appearances on The Oprah Show—Dr. Stoltz’s top priority is applying his vast experience and research within higher education, specifically to students in their first year of college. Developing effective strategies toward college completion – and sustainable employment – has never been timelier.