GRIT—The Key to Entrepreneurial Success
What does it really take to succeed as an entrepreneur? What separates those who fail from those who fail and then prevail? Never has this question had greater relevance and importance than it does right now.
The transformation driving this question is global, mobile, and noble. The Great Recession spawned an unprecedented wave of interest in entrepreneurship among students and displaced workers. Hundreds of hot houses, business incubators, and entrepreneurship programs (both those affiliated with universities and those not) have sprouted up across the U.S., with the waves rippling throughout Europe, Asia, Australia, Latin America, and beyond. What was once unthinkably scary, has become for millions, the aspirational path to the Promised Land. I’m waiting for some social anthropologist to label the daring new army transforming the workforce, “Gen E,” for entrepreneur.
I suppose it’s only fair that I “fess up” and admit that A) as founder of the GRIT Institute, I’ve been formally researching the “fail versus prevail” question for 35 years, B) I am on faculty at the MIT Martin Center for Entrepreneurship’s Launch program, and C) I am the son of a venture capitalist, so this topic has long been percolating in my bloodstream.
In the corner of my father’s office he had “The Stack of Dreams,” the 4-foot high pile of business plans submitted by entrepreneurs, praying they would be among the one percent selected to have their dream projects funded. Over the years, whenever I asked my dad, “So how do you decide who to invest in?” he always said the same thing. “It’s not what’s on here (pointing to their professionally bound business plan), it’s what’s in here,” he’d explain, as he placed his hand on his chest.
Entrepreneurial heart, gut, mindset. Call it what you will. It’s GRIT. And now is the time to tap into the seismic shift in our understanding of what GRIT is all about.
GRIT Versus Risk-Taking
Entrepreneurship is all about risk-taking, right? That may explain why a lot has been said recently about some form of genetic and/or parentally-determined capacity for risk being the key driver of entrepreneurial success. But does having a taste for risk-taking truly predict or in any way guarantee success? Yes, risk-taking is partially genetic. Research supports that claim. And yes, some degree of risk is often required for an entrepreneurial venture to succeed. But no, risk capacity by itself is not an accurate or sufficient predictor of entrepreneurial success. Enter GRIT. GRIT eats risk-taking for breakfast.
GRIT, as a construct, is broader, deeper, and more robust than risk taking:
GRIT is your capacity to dig deep, do whatever it takes—especially suffer, sacrifice, struggle, and stumble—in order to achieve your most worthy goals.
Risk taking is less predictive of success in business than it is predictive of premature death. Ask any insurance actuary. That’s why certain personality profiles (high risk) bear greater, well, risk.
GRIT, on the other hand is predictive of entrepreneurial success. It makes sense when you piece together the research findings, along with a dollop of common sense. Recent independent studies show some or all facets of GRIT predict
- level of effort
- goal magnitude (the size of goals you set)
- goal completion (likelihood of crossing the finish line)
- problem solving
- optimism, and more.
A study by Gideon Markman, Ph.D., then with Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, revealed some facets of GRIT predict the level of innovation generated by entrepreneurs. In short, GRIT predicts and influences pretty much everything it takes for an entrepreneur to succeed.
Here’s the seismic shift: If GRIT is essential to entrepreneurial success, then we simply need to grow and show more, right? Not necessarily. I’ve asked close to 100,000 people worldwide this question: “When you think of the kind of person (entrepreneur) you want to be, and the kind of contribution you want to make, what matters more, the quality or quantity of your GRIT?” 100% answer resoundingly, “Quality.”
It turns out how well entrepreneurs pursue their goals—the quality of their effort—is as or more important than the quantity of effort they put into their pursuit. So let’s upgrade the conversation from grit 1.0 (quantity) to GRIT 2.0, assessing and strengthening GRIT, holistically.
Successful entrepreneurs are ideally mindful of the effect they have on others as they strive to bring their ideas to life. And in this enlightened era of “doing good while doing well,” the effect our efforts have on our communities and climate matter keenly. The true effect of our efforts defines the difference between Bad and Good GRIT.
Bad GRIT—Pursuing your goals in ways that intentionally or unintentionally have a detrimental effect on others. The entrepreneur that berates, burns out, or demoralizes his team is showing Bad GRIT, no matter how noble the quest may be.
Good GRIT—The inverse; pursuing your goals in ways that are ultimately beneficial to those around you and, ideally, to yourself.
No question, entrepreneurs who show Good GRIT are the ones people will go to the ends of the earth and give their all to help succeed.
Every entrepreneurial quest faces obstacles. And it’s usually rife with adversity. Despite our admiration for the “never say die” spirit, pounding away at obstacles continually is not always the best plan.
Dumb GRIT is illustrated by this type of statement: “Because I never, ever, ever, quit!” That was the veins-bulging-in-his-neck answer a 46-year-old entrepreneur gave me when I asked, “Given that your marriage has been destroyed, your kids won’t talk to you, and your health is in the dumps, not to mention the fact that two arguably superior products have now received funding, why do you keep hounding investors to fund yours?”
Entrepreneurs who beat their heads against the wall trying the same thing over and over often demonstrate Dumb GRIT. In fact, nearly all entrepreneurs have had moments when they did that. It’s part of the journey. How quickly you notice and change tacks can be the difference between just failing and failing then prevailing.
That’s why Smart GRIT is your propensity to reassess and reroute as needed in order to achieve your goal. Dumb GRIT is stubborn. Smart GRIT is a mash-up between agility and relentlessness.
So, clearly the Smarter, Gooder, and Stronger GRIT an entrepreneur shows, the greater his/her chance of success. And, let me be clear, GRIT is something that can not only be measured, it can be permanently, holistically, and measurably improved.
It begins with understanding your own, personal G-R-I-T.
Most of us think of Growth as the type of mindset popularized by Carol Dweck’s (Stanford University) exceptional work. But when it comes to GRIT, research reveals that Growth is actually that plus your propensity to rise above the immediate situation, to seek fresh ideas and insights as a way to improve your approach and chances of a successful life.
Entrepreneurs are notorious for putting their heads down, cranking on a task for endless hours, or hacking away at a problem or design in hope of achieving their breakthrough. Many of those countless hours and trial-and-error cycles can be saved by putting Growth to work.
Ask yourself, “What additional, new, fresh insight should I seek to enhance my long-term chances of success?”
But in the world of GRIT, Resilience is about much more than bouncing back. It is your capacity to be strengthened and improved by adversity. So, the ultimate quest is to become more “response-able.” Response ability is your ability to respond optimally to whatever happens the moment it strikes.
Entrepreneurship is among the most adversity-rich pursuits one can choose. That’s why, as research supports, there is arguably no single greater differentiator in entrepreneurial success than one’s capacity to not just handle but, ideally, to harness whatever adversity a person faces.
Here is some advice for building your Resilience: every time you face any adversity, ask yourself, “How can I respond better and faster to this adversity? How can I harness this adversity—truly use it—so that I will be able to look back and say, ‘Thank goodness this happened; we’d never be where we are now if it hadn’t!’”
We all know people who consistently pursue the wrong goals or go after their dreams in less than effective ways. This is the bane of wannabe entrepreneurs. They may have oodles of Tenacity and Resilience, but lack the Instinct to pursue the right goals in the most effective ways. This tendency burns through their cash and hope in equal proportion.
Over time, that pattern can lead to a tragic life. That’s why Instinct, your gut-level propensity to pursue the right goals in the best possible ways, is so critical to true GRIT and to every entrepreneur.
I always remind people that relentlessness is powerful, but refined relentlessness is unbeatable. That’s why knowing when to step back, reassess, and change strategies, if necessary, is key to long-term effort, energy, and success.
Here are some questions you should ask yourself when you want to tap your instinct: “Is this still the right goal? Is this the best possible version of the goal? If not, how would I refine the goal to make it even more compelling and worthy? Is my current plan the best way to get there? If not, how can I refine and improve my approach to at least increase my chances of a successful life?”
When we hear the word “grit,” most of us think of persistent, unrelenting effort. Whenever I ask my entrepreneurship students at MIT what it takes to succeed as an entrepreneur, inevitably they shout out words like “relentless, persistent, never quit,” and “tenacity!” And it’s true, Tenacity is essential. My observation working with tens of thousands of entrepreneurs on six continents is that almost anyone who accomplishes something truly noteworthy goes through a period of perceived zealotry, meaning the people closest to them begin to question their judgment. However, Tenacity is more than just persistent, unrelenting effort. It is the ability to make that one additional, beyond-any-reasonable-expectation effort that creates the breakthroughs the rest of us get to admire and enjoy.
There is a difference between raw and refined, or strategic Tenacity.
Ask yourself, “If we were to give this one more wholehearted effort, where and how should I go for it to most dramatically enhance progress and success?”
I can’t complete this rant about Entrepreneurial GRIT without positing this challenge: If you want to judge the importance of anything, remove it. Imagine the gritless entrepreneur. The end result is a dreamer, with no prospect for success. But the entrepreneur who employs exceptionally Smart, Good, Strong GRIT, across all dimensions, who has what I call “Optimal GRIT,” has an uncommon chance of success and is the one for whom my father, or any other investor, writes the check to make that dream come true.
Stay tuned for future blog posts as we delve deeper into GRIT, and the science behind it. In case you missed them, you can read my previous posts here.
About the Author
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.