Researcher Angela Lee Duckworth studied West Point cadets, National Spelling Bee contestants, teachers in tough schools, and sales peoples, asking who would succeed and why.
“In all those very different contexts one characteristic emerged as a significant predictor of success,” she said in a popular TED Talk. And it wasn’t the usual suspects. What was it? “It was grit.”
Duckworth defines grit as “passion and perseverance for very long-term goals . . . sticking with your future, day in day out. . . .” I call that persistence.
We’ve all had dreams about the future that haven’t come true. We’ve probably let some of those dreams die. But what if we could develop the grit and persistence required to revive those dreams and achieve them?
We can. And it’s simpler than you might think. Here are six techniques proven by research and practical experience that can help you break through to have your best year ever.
1. Find your “why”
No one perseveres unless they care. To maximize our persistence, we have to pursue goals that really matter to us.
That doesn’t mean we always find these goals fun or even that they’re our idea. They just have to be personally rewarding. Researchers sometimes call these “autonomous motives.”
Think about parenting or getting fit or hitting a major professional goal. All of these challenges will test our perseverance. The trick is to connect with what’s at stake. Why does it matter?
If we don’t stay connected to your why, as one study put it, “the infusion of goals with energy may be distressingly temporary.” In other words, chances are good we’ll burn out and bail.
But, as another study found,
[A]utonomous goal motives will result in greater objectively assessed persistence toward an increasingly difficult goal. … [I]f individuals strive with more autonomous motives, they will be better equipped to overcome challenges in goal pursuit.
Finding our why is the first step to developing the persistence we need to attain our goals. This forms one whole section of my new book Your Best Year Ever: A 5-Step Plan for Achieving Your Most Important Goals.
2. Believe the possibility
To accomplish anything, we have to believe we’re up to the challenge. That doesn’t mean it will be easy or that even know how we’re going to accomplish it. Usually we don’t know. It just means we believe we’re capable.
Every goal has obstacles. When some people have trouble getting over obstacles, they doubt they have what it takes.
Others just work harder. What’s the difference?
According to Heidi Grant Halvorson, researchers label the first group “entity theorists.” They think their abilities are set in stone. You’ve heard people say this: “I’m just no good at x, y, or z.”
The second group are called “incremental theorists.” These are the possibility thinkers. When they can’t seem to get over an obstacle, they don’t blame it on themselves. Since they believe they’ve got what it takes, they just look for new approaches to the problem.
“This gritty attitude pays off in a big way,” says Halvorson, “leading to far greater long-term accomplishments.”
So what’s your mindset? Developing persistence requires possibility thinking.
What if that’s not you? The good news is that we can become possibility thinkers by gaining confidence in our abilities. One way to do that is to get some wins under our belt.
3. Set your targets
So let’s say we’ve found our why and believe we’ve got what it takes. It’s time to address the goals we’re pursuing.
I’ve always recommended going after goals that push us into the discomfort zone. Why?
Research shows a direct link between the difficulty of a goal and our enthusiasm and performance. And the emotional payoff of attaining big goals rewards our persistence. It becomes self-perpetuating.
The trick is setting milestones that are squarely inside your comfort zone. Big, risky goals can also feel daunting. If we chunk them up, we can get some wins under our belt. And those wins can keep our energy up for the big goals. How?
According to Christopher Bergland, when we accomplish small tasks and hit deadlines, our brains give us a hit of dopamine and we feel good.
The more we train our minds toward accomplishing the small goals, the more persistence we’ll display for major long-term accomplishments.
4. Measure your gains
When we set big, challenging goals it’s easy to see how far we have to go and lose enthusiasm. We can start criticizing ourselves and get dispirited, can’t we?
Something I learned from Dan Sullivan has helped me rethink this problem. Dan talks about measuring the gain and not the gap.
If your goal is to write a book, pay off your mortgage, build up your retirement — whatever — it can be daunting to look up and realize how far you still have to go.
That’s the gap. But look at the gain. See how far you’ve already come and let your progress inspire your perseverance.
This another reason setting milestone is helpful. Not only do they help break up the big goal into manageable chunks, they give us something to measure — forward or backward.
And here’s a plus: If we get good at measuring the gains, we’ll not only cultivate persistence. We can also sustain momentum.
5. Build your team
We have a very powerful myth in our culture — the myth of the self-made individual. I’ve got news for you. There’s no such thing.
Success requires help, usually lots of it. After the surprise success of The Hobbit, J. R. R. Tolkien was asked to write a sequel. But when he began writing The Lord of the Rings he couldn’t make any progress.
So how did he finish what became one of the best-selling books of the twentieth century? The constant encouragement of his friends — especially C. S. Lewis, who kept him focused and energized.
There are two kinds of relationships that we need to develop to help us persist in the face of adversity:
- Mentors. Everyone needs a guide, preferably many. These are people with experience and maturity who can counsel, inspire, and challenge us. These relationships can be personal or virtual. They can even been literary through biographies, histories, and great novels.
- Peers. We also need a circle of co-travelers, people who are at our level struggling with their own goals. Facing the world with friends and colleagues gives us confidence. It also provides us insights and solutions we wouldn’t have considered on our own.
Building a team of mentors and peers will help us persist toward even the most daunting of goals. We all need community, especially when the going gets tough.
6. Celebrate your wins (especially the small ones)
In the Genesis story, it says that God looked at everything he created and called it good. But he didn’t wait until the whole creation was finished. He did it at each stage. It’s a good model for us too.
I firmly believe in celebrating our wins. I recently took my whole company on a Caribbean cruise to acknowledge a major win. But it’s important to pause and celebrate the small wins too.
When we celebrate reaching our milestones, we stay emotionally engaged for the long haul. Bergland says it’s “about harnessing your reward circuitry and tapping your dopamine pipeline.”
All I know is that’s exciting. And I want more after every win.
Winning helps keep us in the game. That means we need to be serious about celebrating our wins. And the bigger our goals, the more important it becomes to celebrate small victories.
So forget about talent, brains, and all the rest. The real question is are you tenacious? Do you have grit? Because when the dust clears, only the persistent are still around to claim the prize.