Hannah Pearson
By on April 2, 2014 in Career
Read time: 4 minutes | 1 Comment

It’s grit, courage and sisu that makes us successful

Thanks to Angela Duckworth’s TED talk, grit has been rapidly heralded as the new guarantor of success, rather than plain old intelligence. But what is ‘grit’ and is it really the golden ticket?

“Of course grit is important!”, my dad said.

Every week I call my parents, and the topic usually comes around to careers at some point; when you’re in your late twenties, it’s bound to. This time, I was telling him about a TED talk I’d just watched, by Angela Duckworth, assistant professor in Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, on how grit is a better indicator of success than intelligence.

Duckworth in the video defines just what she thinks grit is:

“Grit is passion and perseverance for very long term goals. Grit is having stamina. 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 very hard to make that future a reality. Grit is living life like a marathon, not a sprint”.

I’m sure that when you too watch the video, you’ll be convinced. After all, we all personally know someone who has worked hard and achieved success through sheer determination. But if grit is so obviously the key to success, then why aren’t we all, well, grittier?

Fixed versus growth mindset matters

That is where a growth mindset comes to play, a theory from a psychologist colleague of Duckworth’s at Stanford, Carol Dweck. She has the idea that people fall into two camps. One has a fixed mindset: they believe that they are of a certain amount of intelligence that cannot be developed any further, that their capacities are even predetermined.

The other camp are those with a growth mindset. These people see failure as an opportunity to learn how to succeed, believe that they can constantly improve themselves and think that the qualities you inherit at birth are merely the starting blocks for the race of life.

Duckworth states in a later essay that “grit is positively correlated with a growth mindset”. Believing that improvements are possible leads to a greater effort sustained over the long-term that creates a positive reinforcement loop.

Where the two mindsets show stark contrasts is when they’re confronted with challenges. A fixed mindset person may actually avoid situations where there is a possibility of failure or where they might doubt their ability. Their logic? If they fail at this challenge, they won’t see themselves as intelligent and nor will anyone else. A growth mindset person instead embraces the challenge, seeing it as an opportunity to learn, whether they succeed or fail.

When a leader has a fixed mindset, she may be setting herself up for failure already, despite her best efforts to avoid it. Managers who are afraid of failure and losing face may miss the bold moves that the company requires for success. Instead of being proactive, you become reactive, constantly on the look out to ensure that you don’t screw up and throw your very capabilities into question. The status quo is more comfortable than the unfamiliar.

Growth mindsets are brave

Which brings us to courage. Whilst we can see that a person with a fixed mindset acts out of fear of failure, in contrast a growth mindset person is brave: they have courage to endure obstacles and go on.

Although we’re often told that to succeed in a job, we need to find our passion, passion on its own is useless. We need the courage to pursue the passion, to practise it day in, day out, unrelentingly trudging along. Like a growth mindset, courage keeps your passion alive and as you succeed, your courage and passion grow in that positive reinforcement loop.

Sisu combines grit and courage in one

The Finnish term sisu sums up both grit and courage into one word. An untranslatable term, it roughly means:

“strength of will, determination, perseverance, and acting rationally in the face of adversity. Sisu is about taking action against the odds and displaying courage and resoluteness in the face of adversity. Deciding on a course of action and then sticking to that decision against repeated failures is sisu.”

And you can easily see how Finland came up with this quality, from the bitterly cold winters to its recent history of oppression during the 20th century. It’s a country with a heck of a lot of sisu.

So are grit, courage and sisu all sides of the same coin? It would seem so, terms overlapping, but whatever you call it, it is undeniably important to survival in the new working world.

Self-motivation will be our saviour

Back in 2009, the Harvard Business Review traced what they called ‘The Big Shift’, noting how new technologies had disrupted the traditional ways that business was being conducted. They concluded that the world is moving from a top-down, hierarchical structure to a bottom-up, participative one in which sustained learning is prized above all else.

There are three ways for individuals and businesses to survive this shift: access, attract and achieve. To access and attract mean learning to maximise resources and encourage collaboration.

The third, to achieve, is about pulling out from ourselves the performance needed to reach ours and our company’s fullest potential. In other words, using the inner resolve, perseverance and passion summed up in sisu.

I’d better tell Dad he was right.