What is “Grit”?

Why is it important?

More importantly, how can you determine if a candidate for employment has it?

Grit is, in my opinion, the single greatest determinant of whether or not an individual will be a successful hire. It does not matter what industry or role the candidate is being considered for. This is not to say it’s the only factor to be considered. Certainly, there may be requisite skill sets and other requirements for a candidate to have a reasonable shot at success. But the absence of some level of Grit should be a non-starter when looking for additions to any team. Before we get into why and how to identify whether a candidate has it, it makes sense to get our arms around how it is defined.

Angela Duckworth is widely considered one of, if not the world’s foremost authorities on this topic. She is the Rosa Lee and Egbert Chang Professor at the University of Pennsylvania and faculty co-director of the Penn-Wharton Behavior Change for Good Initiative. She is also the co-founder of Character Lab, a nonprofit whose mission is to advance scientific insights that help children thrive, and the author of the New York Times best-selling book, “GRIT: The POWER of PASSION and PERSEVERANCE.”

In her legendary book, Duckworth defines Grit as “sticking with things over the very long term until you master them.” She contends that Grit, as opposed to Talent or Intelligence, is the single greatest determining factor in exceptional performance over the long run, and I wholeheartedly agree.

Talent is much easier to assess and measure. Data points related to talent can be very informative regarding a candidate’s readiness to perform a specific role at a given point in time. However, more than talent alone is needed to indicate whether someone will exhibit sustained high performance in a particular role. How did this person acquire the talent? What will they do with this talent? These questions are just as important as if they have said talent. Was it something they were born with? Or did they acquire a high level of talent through hard work, determination, perseverance, and, most importantly, a willingness to delay gratification? Also, are they complacent in their talent? Or are they motivated to utilize it to accomplish extraordinary things?

Intelligence is yet another data point that is more easily assessed than Grit. It’s relatively easy to determine one’s level of intelligence, thanks to several fairly accurate assessments that have been developed over time. But is intelligence alone a great indicator of long-term, outstanding performance? The latest research indicates not. A large portion of the workforce is extremely intelligent but will only accomplish a little. Conversely, there are countless examples of individuals with a less-than-stellar Intelligence Quotient who always rise to the top of whatever field they are involved in. Seemingly, these individuals are willing to compensate for their lack of relative intelligence with an undying work ethic and dogged determination.

Now that we have a clear understanding of what Grit is and why it is so important, the only question that remains is, “How can we identify it in candidates for employment?” This is the $64,000 question. It is often perceived that this is not easily accomplished. However, suppose we know the types of behaviors that are illustrative of Grit. In that case, we should be able to craft some interview questions to identify whether an individual possesses this highly valuable characteristic. 

Here are some questions that may elicit revealing a response:

  1. What is the single most challenging situation you have faced, either personally or professionally? How did it shape you as a person and professional?
  2. Tell me about a project you worked on that took longer than expected or was much more difficult than anticipated.
  3. What’s the single greatest professional disappointment you have experienced in your career, and how did that impact you?
  4. If you were working on a project that was not going as planned and your performance was less stellar than you anticipated, what would you do?
  5. Can you share a long-term career goal you have set for yourself? What steps did you take to accomplish it?

Perhaps you are thinking, “I am not a Q & A type interviewer, I prefer more of a conversational approach to interviewing”. That’s ok; there’s more than one way to tie your shoes here. I have a close friend who happens to be a client. For the purposes of this exercise, we will call him “Jayson.” As a hiring manager, Jayson HEAVILY indexes towards candidates that have faced significant adversity in their life. If they were raised dirt poor and had to fight their entire way to success, he gloms on to them like a moth to a flame.  

Jayson is a high-performing commercial leader with a company currently a “Belle of the Ball” in Medtech. Top-notch candidates are dying for a seat at the table here. In hiring, he is often faced with sorting the “great” candidates from the “very, very good” ones—a good problem to have but a problem nonetheless. And he believes being a good storyteller is table stakes in his field. 

He starts every interview the EXACT same way:

“The first half of the interview is about me getting to know you, and the second half is about you getting to know me and the company. That said, I am a grown-up and can read a resume, so tell me your story.”

Interview debriefs with Jayson are AMAZING. Just this week, Jayson says to me, “Did you know he grew up in a trailer park, and his mom was a meth head!?!?!?”. My response? “No, Jayson, I did not. More importantly, how do you know that???” Jason replied, “I just asked him to tell me his story, and then shut up and listened.” Sometimes in interviewing, the less specific questions you ask will evoke very specific, and informative answers. The direction a candidate chooses to take a very general question can tell the interviewer volumes about who they are at their carbon base.  

I would be remiss if I did not address this topic from the candidate’s perspective as well. 

“They asked me to tell them about my biggest failure…I hate that question because I never know what to say.”  

I hear this at least once a week from candidates. 

If you phone it in on this question, you are missing a MASSIVE opportunity! With this question, the Hiring Manager is giving you the keys to the car. This is your chance to show him/her you are authentic and have the ability to be vulnerable. Both of which are very attractive traits in candidates for employment. 

We ALL fail. And if you are appropriately stretching yourself in your career, you may fail miserably at some point. Good hiring managers know this. They usually care little about the specific failure unless it involves illegal or unethical behavior. They are almost always more interested in what happened next. Did you give up? Transfer to a different role? Leave the company for something safe, where you knew you could do the job with your eyes closed? Or did you step back, autopsy the situation, course correct, and keep trying until you got it right? Big difference.  

Finally, I think it is worth mentioning that prevailing science does indicate that an individual’s Grit score can change over time. And maybe more importantly, people can influence their own Grit Quotient. The old adage, “the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior,” is often true in the short term but not necessarily true in the long term. Age, life experiences, maturity, and general interest in or passion for a given topic all impact our level of Grit.   

If you are interested in learning more about Grit, I highly recommend Angela Duckworth’s book. 

She also has constructed a 10-point questionnaire to give you your personal “Grit Score.” Here is the link: