Why do some people keep going when others stop? Why do some people persevere through struggles when others give up? Why do some grow from their mistakes when others wilt? These are questions that people have struggled to answer, or at least answer well, for quite some time. Countless studies and tests have been done in an effort to determine not only why people react differently when they run up against the proverbial wall but how others can learn from their example. Angela Duckworth, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, has an interesting take on that question.
She calls her answer “grit,” and it’s a pretty simple concept at its most basic level. She defines it as “perseverance plus the exclusive pursuit of a single passion” and believes that it is an underrated and often misunderstood element of why some people are more successful than others.
Duckworth developed her understanding of the term by talking with accomplished people in a variety of fields, looking for traits that they shared. Ultimately, she concluded that what distinguishes high performers from others is the way they processed emotions like frustration, disappointment, and boredom. In short, the high achievers “had been conditioned to believe that struggle was not a signal for alarm,” and thus cause to move on to some simpler task.
If helping others experience such success were really as simple as telling them to persevere in the face of difficulties, then our world would have a lot more successful people in it. Chia-Jung Tsay, of University College London, helps bridge this gap. His research found that, though many people said that they believe effort and industriousness are more critical to success than natural ability and intellect, most actually hold the opposite view. The majority hold “the naturals” in higher regard than those who found success more through hard work and persistence.
Consequently, most of us are terrified to let others see that our success was difficult to come by. And for good reason—if they truly knew of the countless failures, would they still be as impressed by the eventual victory? Our first response might be to argue that they would, and perhaps even more so because of what it demonstrates about our character. Duckworth and Tsay’s research shows, however, that such a conclusion is more a conditioned response than an accurate one—it may be what we want to believe but, at our core, it’s often not.
As The Atlantic’s Jerry Useem writes, all of that is why the best career advice is perhaps, “Try hard enough and you can do just about anything, as long as you don’t seem to be trying very hard.” That’s hardly encouraging and seems to go against the ethos of our culture. However, it’s how most people think at their most basic levels.
There is a better way though. Duckworth, for example, started circulating every letter of rejection she receives from peer-reviewed publications in an effort to let the researchers and students with whom she works understand that failure is an inevitable part of her profession and that it is in no way an excuse to give up. Useem characterized it as holding “your failure up to others and [saying], in effect, this is what success looks like.”
God did something similar for us in crafting the Bible. Scripture’s pages are filled with examples of people who failed miserably on the path to advancing his kingdom. Often times, their greatest mistakes were the impetus for their most important successes. Because Scripture is not silent about Peter’s denial of Christ and the shame he felt when confronted with it after the resurrection (John 18:15–27, 21:15–19), the power of the Holy Spirit’s influence in his life at Pentecost is all the more astounding (Acts 2:14–41). Because David could still be considered a man after God’s own heart and the greatest of Israel’s earthly kings (1 Samuel 13:14) despite his sins of adultery, murder, and the neglect of his family (2 Samuel 11:4, 11:14–15, and chapter 13 respectively), we can better understand that there are no sins God cannot redeem in the lives of those committed to seeking his forgiveness.
The testimony of Scripture is that there has only been one perfect person in the whole of human history. As such, our mistakes are inevitable. All have fallen short of the glory of God and will continue doing so this side of heaven. That doesn’t excuse our failures, and their inevitability is in no way cause for laxity towards God’s standards for our lives. However, the great thing about God is that he can bring meaning out of our mistakes and redeem them for his kingdom.
So don’t let your mistakes and failures prevent you from continuing to pursue God’s purpose for your life. Sometimes part of that purpose will be to provide comfort and encouragement to others going through a similar struggle. Seeing how God brings you through the trials you face can encourage others to trust him for the difficult times in their lives as well.
As Christians, we should have more “grit” than anyone else we encounter today because we know that we will never come up against a failure or trial that has not already been overcome by our Lord and Savior (John 16:33). That’s good news. Let’s live like it.