Staff Picks

Grit to Great : How Perseverance, Passion, and Pluck Take You from Ordinary to Extraordinary

Sally Haldorson

September 10, 2015


How do we learn to have grit if excellence is held higher as a virtue than persistence?

Many years ago, I listened in as my father updated a long-unseen acquaintance about his children—my brother and me. I don't remember the exact context, but he summed the two of us up this way: my brother was the natural, while I had to work hard at everything.

I remember being viscerally affected when hearing this. Gut-punched. Sure, I was hurt because my father was somehow criticizing or doubting my abilities in comparison to my brother's, who had always had a reputation for untapped talent, but I was more taken aback by his assumption that I was working hard and then failing. I actually regarded my own work habits to be fairly inept. I knew that when things didn't come easily, my first instinct was to bail rather than put nose to grindstone. In other words, I felt like it was a choice that I didn't try hard enough to excel, not that I struggled to succeed. I suppose I didn't want to have tried, struggled, and ultimately fail. This explains my relationship with science pretty succinctly. (See this article in Time for more on why failure is particularly difficult for girls.) And why literary magazine rejection letters still hurt.

Which brings me to my Staff Pick for this week—Grit to Great: How Perseverance, Passion, and Pluck Take You from Ordinary to Extraordinary by Linda Kaplan Thaler and Robin Koval.

Well, actually, it first brings me to the novelist, George Eliot, who wrote:

Any coward can fight a battle when he's sure of winning; but give me the man who has pluck to fight when he's sure of losing. That's my way, sir; and there are many victories worse than a defeat.

Consider Eliot for just a moment. In the mid-1800s, she wrote one of the greatest novels of all time, Middlemarch, under a male pseudonym to avoid dismissal of her work, and was a successful professional editor and critic. She certainly knew something about struggle and persistence.

Anyway, George Eliot, and Thaler and Koval, have more than their use of the word "pluck" in common. In Grit to Great, the authors write:

Grit is about sweat, not swagger. Character, not charisma.

Eliot, and Thaler and Koval, are saying that effort counts. And the integrity that results from that effort will be worth the tribulations. And I think you can take this even further. Yes, they are saying that taking the easy way—taking any kind of shortcut around the mountain rather than scaling it—doesn't always pay off in the way we think it might. Jumping to the head of the line means we haven't learned patience, tolerance, and we haven't gotten 'hungry' enough to value the result. But they are also saying something that is important for many socio-economic groups to take to heart: Parents, yes, you might think you need to enroll your child in the 'best' preschool even before he or she is born to ensure a leg up the rungs of success, but really, if you can't? That's okay too. Teach your child to work hard, to be persistent, and that child can certainly still succeed, and even exceed. Children, you might think it's unfair that your parents can't send you to the best schools—or maybe you don't even realize you'd be good at being a student at one—but if you work hard, the grit and character you develop just might surpass the value of the line on your resume.

Thaler and Koval are hugely successful advertising executives who epitomize grit. Both grew up in the Bronx in middle class homes. Both attended public schools. Both started their careers out pretty low on the totem pole: Koval as a typist with an unused graphic design degree, and Thaler as a teacher and struggling artist. What they have accomplished in the ad world since joining forces is astonishing, noting that the current iteration of their company, Publicis Kaplan Thaler, "has more than $3 billion in billings and more than eight hundred employees."

And those successes? They attribute to grit. And the message of this book is that grit isn't snobbish. Grit doesn't belong to anyone.

[T]he great thing about grit is that working harder, smarter, more passionately, and longer is something we control, unlike the community we grew up in, the high school we attended, the money and resources our parents have, company politics, or the current state of the economy. It is attainable by each and every one of us. Even if we're not the smartest or most talented person in the room.

When I reflect back on the kid I was—regardless of whether my father was right about my brother and me—I wonder what the turning point toward developing grit was, since I'm pretty sure I have loads of it now. If at one point in my life I took pride in my lack of commitment or effort, I am the opposite now. And I think it took me until college to transform. Basically I squeaked into the private liberal arts college of my choice after sitting on a waiting list and truly waiting for financial aid to come through. I joke that I must have fit into a certain underprivileged demographic because my grades certainly didn't do the trick.

That first semester at college? It was a smack in the face. I had no idea how to write a research paper, because my country school had never required one. I didn't really know how to read research anyway. And, even more staggering, I had never in my life used a highlighter, and I certainly didn't know how to pick out what was important enough amid a bunch of text I didn't understand to highlight it. Fortunately I was housed in a dorm of over-achievers that first year, kids who were a part of The Great Conversation. That particular program had one simple goal: read as many texts by as many great thinkers as you can fit into a year of study. Clearly I need to thank the person that placed me in that dorm, because living among these AP students who already knew more at 18 than most of the adults I'd ever known, made me turn up the speed on my learning treadmill. I wanted to be like these people who knew about the great books, the great writers, the great historians, and how to read and think about them. It's the best thing that could ever happen to me, and while I didn't join that program, I was motivated to "keep up" and whatever natural grit I had was engaged.

But now? I'm happy to tout myself as a hard worker. In fact, it might be one of the first things I tell someone. I work hard. I stick with it. I can stay all day. I'm gritty, and at some things, occasionally, I'd say I'm... pretty darn good.

Bottom line, you don't need to be a Mensa member to be a success in today's competitive work world, whether you're pursuing an entry-level job, a managerial position, a big promotion, or the venture capital to strike out on your own. You need grit.

While Thaler and Koval certainly discuss instances of failure and hardship that challenge successful people, they acknowledge, like Eliot above, that grit is developed not just from getting scrapes, but by believing you can stand up again.

But positive influences, too, help us develop grit in our lives: gratitude for what we have, an innate sense of generosity, and a desire to give something back to society. Such influences can strengthen our sense of grit through the simple act of doing a job well that we enjoy, and that motivates us to be our best.

Much of Grit to Great is anecdotal and includes biographical stories that range from Colin Powell to Dave Thomas of Wendy's, but it also includes Thaler and Koval's own challenges and successes. I was particularly enamored by how they both arrived at careers in advertising, because, they write, "[n]either of us had advertising on our dream list when we set out in life."
Both had a time in their lives when they thought they would be artists. Koval was an art major; Thaler loved the stage. Neither of them found true fulfillment at those pursuits, learning that some of the skills they each had that led them to creative work could be better and more satisfyingly put to work in the workplace. "A dream is only a mirage if it doesn't lead to an opportunity to make it a reality," they write, and I can very much relate.

Before I went to college, I dreamed of being a fiction writer. In college, I began writing creative nonfiction, but still imagined that someday I would strike upon an idea around which to build a novel. After college, I sold books, I temped in offices, and didn't write much at all. Eventually I decided that I needed another jumpstart to get back into the writing groove, so I applied for grad schools, took out more loans, moved to a new city, and began to write short stories. When I graduated with a Masters in Creative Writing, I did what I had done when I left college: I sold books. It was important for me to get a job because my husband had supported me through grad school and now he wanted to get his teaching license to teach science. (Some of you will know that is ironic if you read the beginning of this review carefully!) I have been selling books for that same company for 18 years now—and trust me, I've needed to employ some grit over the course of my career—and at the same time, I get to do some writing and a lot of reading and even more thinking. Even better? I then get to apply those ideas—in real time—to my job as the manager of this company.

Sometimes I wonder why I tend to write about my Staff Picks by focusing on my own personal experiences, and I think Grit to Great is actually a perfect example of a business book that calls out for personal reflection. You may be someone who has yet to find your niche. You may have a child, student, friend, who is struggling to find their niche. And there is a risk that their expectations or their hardships might drain them of their "pluck," but a book like this can help build confidence and conviction that your time may come as long as you keep working at it.

In other words, grit speaks to our capacity for hope—and whether you see the world through the lens of a glass half full or glass half empty.

A mere 135 pages, Grit to Great would make an excellent gift from a manager to a new employee on the first day of work because it would set a clear expectation for hard work over instant success. It would also make an excellent gift to any new parent who needs to be reminded that 'helicopter parenting' could do more harm than good to the development of a child's character. And the book would also make an apropos gift for yourself if you feel like 'where you are at' isn't where you would like to be, but the work that awaits to get there feels untenable. Grit to Great will remind you that reaping rewards only comes after pushing the plow.

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