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Success: A Tale of Two Mindsets

“When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” This adage may be a bit of a misnomer, in the sense that dealing with the hardships of life is not as easy as it seems. Dealing with “it” would be the ideal and most obvious thing to do; however, do we have the characteristics to deal with unfortunate situations such as being rejected from graduate school or being dumped by a significant other? And if we do not have the characteristics, is there a way to acquire the traits to overcome difficult challenges to become successful in life?

Traditionally, success was believed to only happen to certain few, who were blessed with unique, innate characteristics, such as one’s I.Q., social intelligence, or good looks. However, in a study by Duckworth, Peterson, Matthews, and Kelly (2007), one prominent characteristic was found among most successful leaders across different settings: grit. Grit is defined “as perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Grit entails working strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity, and plateaus in progress” (p. 1087-1088). In other words, someone who is “gritty” approaches every situation as if it was a marathon (i.e., internal motivation) and has an end-goal for the task that he/she has taken on (i.e., external motivation). To validate their assumption about the power of grit, Duckworth and her colleagues examined the combination of these two dimensions across four different populations and found impressive results. In the first study, grittier soldiers (n=677) were more likely to complete an Army Special Operations Forces (ARSOF) selection course. In the second study, grittier sales employees (n=442) were more likely to keep their jobs. In the third study, grittier students (n=4,813) were more likely to graduate from high school. And in the fourth study, grittier men (n=6,000) were more likely to stay married.

After reading Duckworth’s manuscripts, I became a believer of the power of grit and wanted to know how could I become grittier. However, before I provide that information, I would like to address a few caveats regarding the results that were previously mentioned.

All research has shortcomings, and Duckworth and her colleagues have acknowledged the inherent limitations of their research. Firstly, a self-report questionnaire was used to measure grit. Though most psychological measures strongly rely on self-reporting, one of the biggest issues with self-reported measures is that they are prone to social desirability bias (Paulhus & Reid, 1991). Secondly, the wording of the questions of the Grit Scale can have a huge influence on how the measure examines grit. For example, each question is focused on identifying the respondents’ approach to goals, setbacks, and challenges. Though the wording uses present-tense verbs (e.g., I am a hard worker), more than likely respondents will reflect over historical moments when they were either hard workers or not hard workers. As such, the questions may reflect the respondents’ past perceptions rather than their present beliefs. Lastly, Duckworth and her colleagues underscore that the findings “do not shed light on how grit relates to other variables known to predict achievement, such as self-efficacy, optimistic explanatory style, and locus of control.” Although perseverance and passion may be characteristics that lead to success and achievement, it is quite possible that there are also other internal characteristics (e.g., optimism) or external factors (e.g., mentorship) that are associated with success and achievement.

Now, how does one become gritty? Duckworth believes that building grit is linked to a growth mindset. Pioneered by Carol Dweck, growth mindset is the idea that the ability to learn is not static; rather, learning is fluid and can be attained by mostly anyone. More specifically, Dweck (2008) postulates that individuals with a growth mindset believe that basic abilities are developed via perseverance and hard work. In addition, individuals with a growth mindset persevere through hardships because they understand that failing is a part of learning and is not eternal. As a result, a growth mindset makes learning more enjoyable and builds and fosters resilience. Alternatively, Dweck (2008) notes that individuals with a fixed mindset believe that their abilities are carved in stone and cannot be altered or improved, thus creating a constant urgency to prove their worth continuously.

Developing a growth mindset may be a difficult transition but it is not impossible. According to Dweck (2008), the goal is to “change from a judge-and-be-judged fixed mindset to a learn-and-help-learn growth mindset.” Listed are five ideas from Dweck’s book “Mindset” to help you develop a growth mindset:

  1. The view you adopt for yourself profoundly affects the way you lead your life.
  2. Do not believe that your qualities are carved in stone; rather, skills and knowledge can be acquired through experiences and challenges.
  3. “People in a growth mindset don’t just seek challenge, they thrive on it”.
  4. “The growth mindset does allow people to love what they’re doing—and to continue to love it in the face of difficulties”.
  5. “Those with the growth mindset found success in doing their best, in learning and improving. And this is exactly what we find in the champions”.

In sum, there are two things that you are guaranteed to experience in life: 1) hardships and 2) successes. In some cases, you may have to endure a hardship (e.g., cramming for an exam) to get to succeed (e.g., graduating from college). In other cases, you may succeed (e.g., graduate from college) and then endure a hardship (e.g., cannot get a job). Whichever the case, it is important to understand that every situation, whether positive or negative, comes to an end; everyone experiences setbacks; and never compare your successes/failures to others. We may not be able to control the situations we face, but what we can control is the mindset that we have as we endure hardships and celebrate successes.

Duckworth, A. L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M. D., & Kelly, D. R. (2007). Grit: perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Journal of personality and social psychology, 92(6), 1087.

Dweck, C. S. (2008). Mindset: The new psychology of success. Random House Digital, Inc.

Paulhus, D. L., & Reid, D. B. (1991). Enhancement and denial in socially desirable responding. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 60(2), 307.

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Written by Adolph

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Previously, Adolph was a Research Consultant for Pearson’s Research & Innovations Network, spearheading research projects regarding the effects of rapid feedback on standardized testing. His current research focuses primarily on evaluating moderating factors that reduce the behaviors associated with the acquisition and transmission of STIs and HIV among at-risk populations.

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Success: A Tale of Two Mindsets