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One trait of world-class leaders: Grit

Learn about top mid and lower level goals from Angela Duckworth, plus other strategies to build grit.
June 25, 2017


Social entrepreneurs are frequently told to never give up, even when they encounter rough patches. Acumen’s own manifesto reminds us that tackling problems of poverty “requires patience and kindness, resilience and grit: a hard-edged hope.”

Less often, social entrepreneurs are taught practical steps to actually develop grit. How do you summon the gumption to keep going, particularly when you’re tackling longstanding problems like homelessness or world hunger?
To uncover concrete ways social entrepreneurs can stay gritty, Acumen Academy sat down with Angela Duckworth, the MacArthur Genius, award-winning psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, and bestselling author of Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. She’s the world’s preeminent expert on how people can combine passion and perseverance to stay committed to their long-term goals.
After stints as a White House speech writer and management consultant, Angela decided to enter the classroom as a middle school math teacher in challenging school districts across the United States. She observed how problems of poverty influenced achievement. This inspired a lifelong mission to help low-income kids succeed. Through her research, Angela has figured out ways to cultivate grit herself — and to help others build a similar sense of persistence. In this exclusive interview with Acumen Academy, she shares three specific practices anyone working on tough social issues can use to build grit.

Practice #1: Envision your goals in a hierarchy

Much of Angela’s research focuses on how world-class experts approach long-term goals. For social entrepreneurs, maintaining a singular focus can be tricky. They’ll often need to pivot or adapt their approach or business model while still maintaining focus on a social mission. To set yourself up to be both gritty and entrepreneurial, Angela recommends envisioning goals in a hierarchy consisting of low-level goals, mid-level goals, and one top-level goal.
“At the bottom of this hierarchy are our most concrete and specific goals,” Angela says. These would-be things like returning a phone call to your business partner or completing the press release you started drafting yesterday. “These low-level goals exist merely as means to ends. We want to accomplish them only because they get us something else we want,” Angela says.
At the intermediate level are mid-level goals. These are the reasons why your low-level goals matter. To identify your mid-level goals, look at all your low-level goals and ask why you care about them. For example:
  • Why do you want to publish that press release? So your new water filtration device can achieve recognition and gain traction in local markets.
  • Why do you want to call your business partner back? So that you can finalize the distribution plan for your new edtech product.
If you keep asking why you care, you should uncover more and more mid-level goals. Eventually, you may stumble upon something where the answer is “just because!” That’s a good indication you’ve reached your top-level goal. “The top-level goal is not a means to any other end,” Angela says, “It is, instead, an end in itself. Some psychologists like to call this an ‘ultimate concern,'"
In Angela’s case, she’s identified that her ultimate concern is to use psychological science to help kids thrive. This means that any activities that do not fall under this broad rubric are ones that she should carefully scrutinize to determine whether they’re still worth pursuing. Of course, she also has a separate goal hierarchy that governs her life as a mother and wife.
If you complete a goal hierarchy for yourself, you can quickly diagnose whether you’ve encountered goal conflict. For example, you might find you have a bunch of mid-level goals that don’t correspond to a unifying top-level goal. Or you might have a few competing goal hierarchies that aren’t in any way connected with each other.
 “Grit is about holding the same top-level goal for a very long time,” Angela says. This means that you can actually change or abandon your low-level or even mid-level goals if you find a better way to achieve your top-level objective. In other words, you can quit some things and still remain gritty as long as quitting those things advances your one consistent long-term aim. Working through the process of building a goal hierarchy can be one concrete way to gain clarity on the objective you want to doggedly pursue.

Practice #2: Tell a smarter story about your failures

Another specific practice Angela recommends to build grit is to look closely at the story you tell yourself about that failure. The next time you encounter an obstacle — whether that is getting turned down by a funder or launching a product that flops — take a few minutes to reflect on the reasons why you think you failed. Jot down all the potential causes behind your failure. Now, look carefully at your list. Angela advises that entrepreneurs ask themselves two questions, based on the research on learned optimism conducted by her former graduate advisor, Martin Seligman:
  • Self-Reflection Question 1: Am I framing failure as temporary or permanent?
  • Self-Reflection Question 2: Am I framing failure in specific or pervasive terms?

Frame failure concretely. This will help you generate more optimism to keep going.

Angela’s research shows that if you want to be a gritty and successful social entrepreneur — sticking with a long-term, difficult goal like tackling world hunger or addressing global warming — requires you to stay hopeful. Specifically, you need to build the habits of a learned optimist, or someone who can look at their failures and see them as specific, temporary, and obstacles that can be overcome.

Practice #3: Never quit your hard thing on a hard day

“I definitely have bad days myself,” Angela says.  “But more often than I like to admit, I turn to my husband and tell him about all the bad things that happened." He listens. And he reminds her she can’t quit on a bad day.
Angela advises that others similarly take a deep breath and go back the next day. If you decide to pivot or shift your plans, do so at a moment when you have the time and space to reflect, rather than in the heat of a bad moment. This sounds intuitive, but doing so is hard, which is why you should remember her second tip: find a person who won’t let you quit. Seek out mentors, loved ones, colleagues and peers who can put your work in perspective and urge you not to quit.
When Angela looks at the habits of high-achievers, she says that the ones who stand out know not only how to tap into their interests and put in hours of practice to get their approach right, but also how to enlist others to help them stay optimistic and stick to their goals. In other words, you can’t maintain your grit in isolation. 

Find that person whose shoulder you can cry on.

They can help you sort through your lower-order goals and know which ones are OK to abandon so that you can still focus on achieving your higher-order goal. Once you find that higher purpose, the people in your corner should help you remain committed.” If you’re tackling hard social problems, it doesn’t help to bang your head against a wall or beat yourself up when you don’t get things right the first time. Building grit is not just about doggedly pursuing a goal, even when you’re miserable. To stay effective, you also need to stay optimistic. This means building a growth mindset that recognizes both you — and the people you’re working with — are capable of change.

Learn more strategies for cultivating grit in Angela Duckworth's Master Class on Building Grit. Register here.
Amy Ahearn Headshot

Amy Ahearn

Amy Ahearn is an Associate Director at Acumen where she builds online courses to inspire new approaches to tackling poverty. She holds an MA in Learning, Design and Technology from Stanford and is based in Acumen’s San Francisco office.