The other afternoon I was at my desk observing my seasonal visitors. Mouths agape, all five house finch chicks were boisterously positioning themselves to be ready when their mamma arrived back at the nest with their next meal. Their jostling to maintain a competitive spot required that they work hard and they certainly kept at it.
The hungry little birds’ persistence and determination reminded me that I needed to return to the tasks before me. They also got me thinking about the qualities that innovators and entrepreneurs need to succeed in a highly competitive environment.
Like the finches, entrepreneurs need to be driven -- not necessarily by hunger but by some deep-in-the-gut motivation known and felt by them alone: Call it grit or courage. They need persistence -- the capacity to move on from failure, even multiple failures, toward their goal. They also require determination -- a mind-set focused on acquiring the material, intellectual and cultural resources necessary for realizing their ideas.
1. Show true grit. In a word, to be successful, entrepreneurs need grit. Angela Duckworth of the University of Pennsylvania and research colleagues from the University of Michigan and West Point defined “grit” in a 2007 paper 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."
The individual with true grit approaches these tasks as a marathon; his or her advantage is stamina. Whereas disappointment or boredom signals to others that it's time to change the trajectory and cut losses, the gritty individual stays the course.
2. Don’t worry, be happy. To this excellent definition, I would add that an essential component of grit is optimism. To use Duckworth’s metaphor, only a marathoner optimistic that he or she will finish does. For innovators and entrepreneurs, optimism is especially critical because it’s what keeps them going -- what makes them gritty -- during moments of stress or failure.
Virtually no one, after all, creates anything unless he or she has a positive view of the future: otherwise why bother with coming up with anything new? Seeing failure for what it is, a temporary condition, enables entrepreneurs to move on to new solutions.
3. Shift and pivot. Those with the most grit also understand that perseverance does not mean monomania. A person who perseveres pursues his goals with passion but does not let single-mindedness turn into obstinate refusal to accept reality.
“You can persevere to the detriment of your idea,” said Brandon Kessler, founder and CEO of ChallengePost, in my book Red Thread Thinking. “So perseverance is not necessarily believing that your original vision is the only vision. If you love your baby enough, you will be flexible enough to learn and listen, but still be dedicated to making the business a success. If you stick to an idea and it’s not a good one, then your business will die. So perseverance means the ability to shift and flex.”
Tune in. So, someone is gritty, optimistic and flexible. Now what? Well, think again about those hungry birds; they take flight with eyes keen to discover nourishment and alert to external threats. They learn about the good and bad in their environment. They persevere by paying attention to the world round them. So should we all.