Intelligence is not Enough for Success. Add Grit!

Grit is a single word that conveys more meaning than any one of its synonyms, such as determination,  perseverance, fortitude or “guts.” Grit is all of these things – as well as an essential ingredient for success.

Angela Duckworth, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, helped pioneer the study of grit. Her explanation of what grit is and how she came to research it is of value not only for individual career success, but for accomplishing any worthwhile goal:

I first got interested in grit after watching how my friends fared after college. Those who were less successful were often just as smart and talented, but they were constantly changing plans and trying something new. They never stuck with anything long enough to get really good at it…

Nobody is talented enough to not have to work hard, and that’s what grit allows you to do… It’s about picking a specific goal off in the distant future and not swerving from it.

Lehrer also noted compelling research by Stanford University psychologist Carol S. Dweck, culminating in her excellent book Mindset. Dweck found that a group of randomly selected New York City fifth graders praised for their effort and hard work improved their performance on a difficult test by 30 percent. Another random group who had been praised for their intelligence saw their scores drop by 20 percent. These kids in this group were also much more likely to lie about their actual score!

Dweck’s research is also quoted by Malcolm Gladwell in his classic 2002 New Yorker piece, The Talent Myth, debunking once and for all the notion that simply having high intelligence is synonymous with being successful. That bogus belief was at the core of Enron’s infamous systematic fraud and corruption:

People [at Enron] deemed “talented” [read: “highly intelligent”] were constantly being pushed into new jobs and given new challenges. Annual turnover from promotions was close to 20%…

[If an employee] had “talent,” he was given new opportunities, and when he failed… he was given still more opportunities, because he had “talent”… Yet if talent is defined as something separate from an employee’s actual performance, what use is it, exactly?

The talent myth assumes that people make organizations smart. More often than not, it’s the other way around. What if Enron failed not in spite of its talent mindset but because of it? What if smart people are overrated?

The importance of grit over high intelligence alone applies to analytics and business intelligence technology as well: The value of analytics/BI tools goes up dramatically when used to help achieve critical long term goals and not super-short term goals like “hitting the numbers.”

Case in point: Starbucks was nearly done in back in the late 2000’s, thanks in large part to the company eventually viewing the health of the company through the one distorted lens of comps (same-store sales). As long as comps were fine, the company was fine – or so they (very wrongly) thought.

For example, then-Starbucks Chairman Howard Schultz described how he saw piles of stuffed animals for sale during a cafe visit that had nothing to do with coffee. He demanded an explanation from the store manager, who proudly explained that the toys were “great for incremental sales and have a big gross margin!” The bottom fell out for Starbucks soon afterwards. Comps proved to be a lagging business indicator that finally cratered well after company mistake after mistake had trashed the trademark Starbucks customer experience, all in the name of improving comps.

Thankfully, Howard Schultz returned as CEO to Starbucks in 2008 and successfully got the company back to focusing on grit goals instead of obsessing over one tail-wagging-the-dog performance metric.

Of course, grit without intelligence will lead to working tirelessly in the wrong direction. How can organizations and people cultivate grit and intelligence, which in turn leads to truly valuable wisdom? Have a look at some of my other posts which I hope are useful to answer this key question, including cultivating mench leadership, smart use of analytics and big data and avoiding analytics that actually impair business insights.


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