July 31

12 lessons from Angela Duckworth on how to develop grit



I’m taking a walk with my dad. It’s tense. It’s also humid. Perspiration starts sticking to my shirt, making me feel uncomfortable. Maybe the sweat also comes from trying to explain to my dad why I want to spend US$10,000 on a public speaking training course.

He tries to talk me out of it.

Do you have the skill for this?

What do other speakers say about you skill in speaking? You have to see whether other professionals tell you that you have what it takes to reach the top, or whether you should just drop it.

I don’t know how to tell him that talent doesn’t matter.

But it’s grit that matters. Its the ability to push through difficulties, and to systematically improve at what you’re interested in, that matters.

As a 25 year old, it seems I’m being flippant with my money. I’m suggesting that I blow $10,000, so that I can improve on something.

Is the money something I can’t wait to get rid of? Why am I even gritting my teeth through speaking? Maybe it’s not something I can do?

Maybe that’s you too. You wonder if you’re being stupid by gritting through an activity by throwing more time, resources, and effort into it.

Why put yourself through all that stress?

But deep down, you know something. You have a dream.

And you want to achieve your dreams. That’s why you’re pushing so hard.

Because deep down, you know that no matter what happens, you’re going to push through with your dreams. Deep down, you know that your dreams is not for sale at any price.

It’s grit that will encourage you to hold on, when its easier to let go. It’s grit that will push you to do the work, when every single cell in your body tells you to give it up, because it’s easier. It’s grit that will push you to turn off Netflix, get in your chair, and do your work.

Today, you may be wondering how to build grit within yourself. Whatever you want to accomplish in life, grit will get you closer to it than anything else.

What’s grit, anyway?

Studied by American researcher Angela Duckworth, she defines grit as

Grit is passion and sustained persistence applied toward long-term achievement, with no particular concern for rewards or recognition along the way.

It combines resilience, ambition, and self-control in the pursuit of goals that take months, years, or even decades.

Leah Fessler, following an interview with Angela Duckworth

In other words,

Passion + Perseverance towards long term achievement = Grit

Here’s my story of why grit matters.

Why grit matters

A story of grit…

I’ve been speaking for 11 years now.

I started as a young 15 year old who regularly walked up to the microphone during dialogue sessions with principles and invited guest speakers to ask questions or to share a comment.

Before I got up to speak, I would feel very cold. I would start shivering. When I stood up, people would laugh. My school had come to know me as the joker who asked stupid questions and gave ridiculous comments. But ask me why I stood up to speak… and there was a reason.

I wanted to give voice to the concerns of others, and to present a view that people might not have considered before.

But along the way, I found myself plateauing. Moving to university, despite joining the public speaking society, speaking at every opportunity, I still felt I was not progressing.

Angela Duckworth, on the different plateaus that we have
Angela Duckworth, on the different plateaus that we have

It felt like the graph above. That I had come to this plateau, and I had no idea how to break out of the plateau. It was frustrating.

One evening, as I was standing and presenting in front of a group, the trainer remarked,

Are you interested in what you’re sharing?

Because it doesn’t seem like you are.

It was true. I had lost the interest, the fire, the zest for speaking.

I didn’t want to do it, because I wasn’t progressing. I didn’t feel like I was improving at all.

If anything, it felt like I was getting worse.

How was I going to grit through this plateau?

How about you? Why are you interested in developing grit? Because over and above all the how-tos, and quick tips you can deploy, pause and ask yourself,

Why is grit even important to you?
Why is what you’re doing even important to you?

If you have got that clear, let’s go.

Mind you, this is not easy. In fact, it’s probably going to take everything out of you.

That’s why it’s called grit. Grit isn’t just a noun. It’s a verb.

It’s you gritting your teeth, when going to have a relaxing day, like anyone else, is easier.

Here’s how to develop grit.

Whilst this is not a list of quick hacks, think of it more as a series of principles to encourage you to build greater grit.

The 3 step framework towards developing grit in adults
The 3 step framework towards developing grit in adults

There are 3 steps.

  1. Understand what’s within you – know your strengths, the mindset, and your feelings
  2. Unlock your skills – build the steps that will lead to greater grit within you, the pre-routine, and the post-routine
  3. Unleash your grit – regularly build the stages where you can grit through bigger and bigger challenges

Understand the grit within you

Know your strengths.

I’m at my first appraisal meeting.

I’ve taken a bath. Slicked my (little) hair back.

I paste a note outside my door, saying,

In a call. Do not disturb.

This is important. And I’m confident. Over the months, I’ve worked exclusively to my strengths. I’ve played to my strengths in speaking, writing and teaching.

I’m confident that I’m going to have a fantastic appraisal, and knock it out of the park.

But that’s not what happens. There’s little focus on strengths. There’s more focus on my faults.

On how I should improve my teamwork, my replying to messages, my availability…

I share this story because it’s vital to see how many bosses approach your development.

With clients I coach, over and over again, I’ve heard horrible experiences of bosses.

There are bosses who scream at them. They are bosses who say,

I don’t think I need to pay you this amount of money to do this.

It pains me to hear these stories, because each person brings hopes of making a difference into each job they go into. They want to do their best. And they want to do even better after doing their best.

Yet instead of focusing on strengths, bosses focus on weaknesses. When they get disappointed, they blame the staff. But this is natural! No one is perfect at everything!

What should one do instead?

One should waste as little effort as possible on improving areas of low competence. It takes far more energy and work to improve from incompetence to mediocrity than it takes to improve from first-rate performance to excellence.

And yet most people – especially most teachers and most organisations – concentrate on making incompetent performers into mediocre ones.


Peter Drucker, Managing Oneself, Harvard Business Review

But the superbosses, the ones who breed the best in class in their respective fields, have learnt to overlook a staff’s weaknesses and accentuate the person’s strengths.

Over the years, you’ve probably heard advice on why you should improve your weaknesses, so that you can become all-rounded. That’s a myth.

Being all-rounded will make you all-average.

Work exclusively to your strengths. It is when you play to your strengths that you will find it easier to build grit. Because you see yourself systematically improving, rather than banging your head against the wall, wondering why nothing changes.

Nothing changes because you are not interested in that particular area you’re trying to develop. Nothing changes because you’re not skilled at it too, and you probably would find it hard to be.

Understand your strength, use it, and grow it!


Stop before you start.

You’re human. You know that right?

You must think I’m kidding.

Of course I know that!

So, tell me, why are you trying to do everything? Before you start gritting your teeth, you need to stop the things that do not bring you closer to your goals.

When Warren Buffett, the billionaire investor of Berkshire Hathaway first met Bill Gates, he was asked by Bill Gates Senior what he thought was the biggest factor behind his success.


Bill Gates’ answer?


Here’s what you can do on a practical note.

Write down a list of all the projects you’re involved in, right now.

As productivity expert David Allen defines it,

A project is defined as something that will take more than a single step.

List your top priority project. Focus on it this week.

Then write down a list of things you will stop doing.

How to develop grit in adults
Do you have a stop doing list?

Rather than trying to advance bits of 10 different projects, focus on this one project.

When you do this, you find your grit muscle growing, rather than being overstretched.

Stick with what you know.

You don’t build grit by trying to know everything. You build grit by building more and more expertise in specific knowledge. Naval Ravikant, an angel investor that’s invested in the likes of Uber, Twitter and Yammer, refers to specific knowledge as:

what you were doing as a kid or teenager almost effortlessly. Something you didn’t even consider a skill, but people around you noticed…

The specific knowledge is sort of this weird combination of unique traits from your DNA, your unique upbringing, and your response to it. It’s almost baked into your personality and your identity. Then you can hone it.

Eric Jorgenson, The Almanack of Naval Ravikant

Sticking with your specific knowledge allows you to build greater passion when you’re depressed about your lack of progress, and perseverance in what you do because you begin to find gaps in your knowledge. You want to ferret out the answers, for no other reason than the fact that it’s fun to do.

Warren Buffett is famous for saying that he sticks around his circle of competence.

You don’t have to be an expert on every company, or even many. You only have to be able to evaluate companies within your circle of competence.

The size of that circle is not very important; knowing its boundaries, however, is vital.

Over time, you know what has happened to Warren Buffett. He became one of the richest man on earth just by sticking to what he knew.

It’s your choice. You can follow what contemporary education says about trying to improve everything.

Or you can choose the few things that you know inside out, and keep growing that base of knowledge.

If you stick to what you know, growing your specific knowledge, you will grow in grit.

Stop trying to juggle everything!

Look inwards.

Each time I sit at the desk to start an article, it’s difficult not to observe what others are doing. Like mom, watching Netflix outside.

It may be hard for you to grit through what you’re doing, especially when you think about what you are putting yourself through. Why are you wasting your weekends on developing your skill, when others are having fun?

Why are you trying to push yourself to your limits?

Sometimes, there’s no reason. Sometimes, it helps to stop looking outwards, comparing, and to start looking inwards instead.

Just focus on what you need to do.

Ignore the feeling

We tend to think that we need motivation before we start gritting through our work. But you don’t. Motivation starts after. It’s commitment that pushes you to sit down at your desk, to do the work, whether or not you like it.

It’s the habit of doing the work, rather than the motivation to feel good enough to do the work. There are going to be days when you hate what you’re doing.

If you quit, no one is going to stop you. It’s only you who will be lying on your death bed, wondering,

What if?
What if I had taken more effort to build up what I was great at, and interested in?

Ignoring the feelings of tiredness, lack of passion, or poor motivation that come up, involves recognising it first.

Each time these feelings or thoughts appear, tell yourself,

I notice that I’m feeling low motivation/frustration.

I notice that I’m thinking that I’m never going to make it.

This puts distance between yourself and the feeling. This concept of defusing is adapted from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, from Russ Harriss’ book, The Happiness Trap.

Rather than fusing with the emotions and thoughts you feel, realise that it’s outside of you. You don’t have to react to it.

You can respond to it.

Know your baseline

Know where you are at, before even trying to exceed where you are at. If you don’t know where you’re starting from, you won’t even recognise the progress that you’ve made.

For whatever skill you’re looking to develop, is there a specific list of competencies that you should reach. Take that, and assess yourself against that. That will help you to determine your start point.

When you have assessed yourself, take time to determine one particular area that you want to focus on. Focus on ONE! This will keep your practice focused, rather than scattered across areas.

As you systematically grow, you will find yourself being better able to grow more deliberately.

Know your baseline level of skill

Unlock the grit within you

Build routines that ramp up to the practice

If you want to ignore the feeling, build habits that inspire grit. Think of it like an on-ramp to the work that you need to do.

For example, a skill that I’m building is writing. Every morning, it’s difficult to find the motivation to write. Somedays, I want to smash the computer. I do not want to write. But I know that these are feelings. They matter. But sometimes, feelings are nutters.

So I started a series of on-ramps.

It starts with a gratitude list. Then after that, it’s a quick letter to celebrate myself. To tell myself why I love myself, the qualities I see in myself, and how I’ve demonstrated them in the past.

This builds the confidence to write.

Similarly, build your own routine that builds a gentle ramp to your eventual practice habit.

Celebrate your progress

Grit is hard.

Celebrating each milestone you reach is vital to recognising that you’ve grown from your journey. You aren’t just torturing yourself, but you’re actually developing real skill.

Have input measures

You might focus on the end goal, without looking at the input that leads to the output. You don’t expect to be a world class performer without being a world class practicer. Therefore, rather than writing down output measures you want to attain, write down the work you will do to reach those goals too.

For example, as a speaker, you might have an input goal being,

To write a speech each week.

As you focus on these input measures, you will realise that you live for more than just the eventual outcome. Even if you don’t reach the outcome, you celebrate the journey along the way, as you do the work that leads to the outcome.

You won’t always reach your goals. But you can make an effort to always reach what you promise yourself to do.

If you define your success as what you do, rather than what you get, you can be a success today. Define success based on your action, rather than your achievement. This ensures that your self worth doesn’t come from external factors, such as whether someone awarded you a prize or not. But it comes from internal factors, such as whether you did the work or not. And that matters too.

Have output measures

EVERY SUCCESSFUL BUSINESS FOLLOWS A FORMULA FOR achievement, and that formula starts with setting goals.

In fact, people who write down goals earn nine times as much over their lifetimes as people who don’t, says Dave Kohl, professor emeritus at Virginia Tech and a well-known business consultant.

Yet, 80 percent of U.S. residents say they don’t have goals, 16 percent have goals but don’t write them down, and only 4 percent write down their business and personal goals.


Sustainable Agriculture Network

Isn’t that amazing?! That those who write goals earn NINE times more than those who don’t?

Having someone you are aiming towards makes the journey of grit easier. You have the eyes on something greater. Your goals keep you focused.

Practice with purpose.

“As a colleague of mine likes to joke:

some people get twenty years of experience,

while others get one year of experience . . . twenty times in a row.”


Angela Duckworth, Grit

You’ve seen it in your office. The elderly lady who’s been there for a long time. And you wonder when she will ever go. Or you wonder why she doesn’t seem to be that much better than you are, even though you’ve just joined.

Now you know why.

It’s down to how they do their work. If you want to build grit, practice with purpose and intention. Don’t just put in the hours.

Practice doesn’t make perfect.

Practice makes permanent.

Secondly, be conscious about when you’re performing, and when you’re learning. Why?

Because they are not the same. When you’re learning, you’re allowing yourself to make mistakes to become better. When you’re performing, you’re trying to be as error free as possible. You’re possibly being assessed, whether it be by a crowd or otherwise.

You’re performing when you’re using your skill to reach a particular cause. You’re learning when you’re getting ready to perform. After each performance, reflect on what you’ve done well, and how you can do better.

This helps you to grow from each performance, rather than making it just another performance.

Know when you’re swapping between the learning and performance zone, and reflect on each time you perform.

Therefore, whenever you practice, know what you’re practising for. Don’t just practice for the sake of it.

It helps to write down a quick sentence about what you’re aiming for in your practice.

When you start practising with greater purpose, you build grit. Because it doesn’t just become another stupid day at the racetrack practising. It’s no longer another pointless day. But it becomes something that has a reason.

Unleash your grit

Go outside your comfort zone

How effort counts twice, from Angela Duckworth's book, "Grit", pg 90
How effort counts twice, from Angela Duckworth’s book, “Grit”, pg 90

Notice in the equation that effort counts twice. The effort to regularly go outside your comfort zone, doing what is discomforting, is what will challenge you to build greater and greater grit.

Today, what can you do to look for bigger and bigger stages to challenge yourself? If you see an opportunity you don’t feel ready for, go for it. Don’t wait to grow ready. You will be ready when it comes.

And if you aren’t, you’ll learn from the process.


When I first started speaking, I never expected myself to speak regularly in front of crowds. I simply wanted to get what was on my chest, off my chest. But one afternoon, after a speech, a man came up to me.

I was crying as you were speaking.

Thank you. That was the most moving story I heard today.

Sometimes, grit is ugly. You’re in the trenches, everyday, at your computer, typing, working, and wondering when you will ever get the result you crave. The success you want.

But one morning, as I sat in the toilet (don’t ask me why inspiration seems to come to me in the toilet!), it struck me.

It was impossible that you would not succeed, especially if you were consistently putting in this level of effort into what you do.

That’s grit. It’s doing the work, because you love and are good at the work.

It’s not depending on external validation for your own celebration of your success. It’s realising that you will grow, whatever the grief it causes, whatever the grit it takes. Because you have a gift that’s waiting to be shared with the world.


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  • Thank you for this great article! There were so many practical examples of grit that helped me to grow in my own journey! Thank you!

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