“Success is going from failure to failure without a loss of enthusiasm” and “Never, never, never give up” – Winston Churchill

Why do some people succeed and others fail? We spend so much of our lives focusing on cognitive learning to build IQ, knowledge, skills and capability but we don’t consciously work on the trait that truly propels us towards success: grit.

In her 2013 TED talk, Angela Duckworth Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, revealed that grit is a very strong predictor of success. Duckworth defines grit as the passion and perseverance to work towards long-term goals. Grit is having stamina and resilience, not just for a month, but years.

We often think when someone is good at something they have a natural or innate ability - you either have it or you don’t. But the truth is, success is less about ability and more about attitude. Sheer persistence, determination and the willingness to work hard at something for a long time without giving up is what really matters.1

Why Maths is a Strong Indicator of Future Success

Maths has been found to be a strong predictor of future income. Not so much for the numeracy skills it give us but rather how it teaches us to think and be tenacious. Maths is a linkage of skills such as logic, reasoning and probability and it is an effective way to learn problem solving and discipline. These skills are highly valuable in the digital/innovation economy.

Being good at Maths is also a proxy for certain character traits. What we’re seeing in the corporate world, and in life, is the predictive power of five character traits: conscientiousness, hard work, diligence, effort and persistence. In Western society we over-play the importance of innate talent and underplay the importance of hard work. The fundamental difference between the high performing Maths countries is a psychological one. In the countries that are best at Maths such as Japan, China, South Korea and Singapore, if you fail at something it just means you need to work harder and get more help. In Western society that’s our attitude in sports, but not so much at school or work.2

Success is not so much ability as attitude. You can master something like maths if you’re willing to try. So success is a result of doggedness and persistence, of working hard over the long term.3

Success is Not a Straight Line

Duckworth’s research found that high performers process feelings of frustration, disappointment and boredom differently. Where others took these as signals to quit, high performers did not because they know life has its ups and downs. It’s as if high performers are conditioned to believe that struggle was just part of the journey.

On a day-to-day basis, grit looks like this:

  • The ability to overcome setbacks, to keep persevering and influencing others even when the odds seems stacked against you.
  • “Not batting an eyelid” when things change unexpectedly. The ability to lead team members through change calmly and reassuringly.
  • Understanding that success is not a straight line. There are ups and downs and goal posts move all the time. It’s essential for employees at all levels, but particularly leaders, to accept this with grace.
  • Not quitting just because something is hard.

There’s a long list of successful individuals who failed not just once or twice but repeatedly before eventually making it big. J.K. Rowling’s first Harry Potter manuscript was rejected by 12 publishing houses. It’s also been said that KFC founder Colonel Sanders was rejected 1009 times before finding a taker for his special herbs and spices recipe.

Lastly, I’d like to share one of my favourite quotes from the baseball movie “In a League of Their Own.” Here’s how Coach Jim Duggan (Kevin Costner) tells Dottie Hinson (Gina Davis) not to quit baseball:

“Of course it’s hard. It’s supposed to be hard. If it was easy everyone would do it. Hard is what makes it great.”

  • 1.“Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance” by Angela Duckworth, Random House, 2016
  • 2.Office Hours Podcast by Dan Pink: Interview with Amanda Ripley, 10 November 2013
  • 3.“Outliers: The Story of Success” by Malcolm Gladwell, Penguin Books, 2009