“Grit” first became an HR obsession in 2016, when sociologist Angela Duckworth published her ground-breaking work, “Grit: The Power of Passion and Persistence.” In this book, she draws on her extensive research examining the key to predicting success among subjects as diverse as Chicago public high school students, West Point cadets, spelling bee contestants, sales representatives, and new teachers. Her surprising finding was that neither intelligence nor talent was a significant predictor of success. Instead, the number one predictor of success was “grit.”
So what is grit? It’s the ability to focus on long-term goals, put in the necessary hard work, persevere in the face of obstacles, and not only to bounce back but to also learn from failure or defeat. It’s endurance, perseverance, determination. It’s a commitment to cultivating a “growth mindset,” embracing challenges as an opportunity to learn, and seeking out and accepting feedback – even when it’s negative – as an important component of growth and learning.
And it’s more important than ever in today’s economy. The pace of change differs by field (computer programming skills obtained in school, for example, can be outdated within a year), but all experts agree that we are now in a world where life-long learning will be required to stay employable over the long term. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that the average worker today has 10 different jobs before the age of 40, and nearly all workers can expect to be laid off at least once in their lifetime. Learning new skills, staying up to date in one’s field, navigating career and job changes, and bouncing back from a spell of unemployment – all these require grit!
Employers are looking for candidates who embrace change and have a “growth mindset.” They’re looking for team members who can roll with the punches – whether that’s executing a market expansion despite limited information, responding rapidly to the market entry of aggressive new competitors, or navigating a round of downsizing or outsourcing. Plus, as Duckworth’s research shows, “grit” is the number one predictor of success –and this shouldn’t be a surprise in the business world. No one wants to hire a salesperson who gets discouraged after a few unsuccessful sales calls!
Employers screen for grit in a variety of ways. They may look for evidence in a resume or cover letter, or they may ask interview questions like, “Tell me about a time when you failed” or “Tell me about how you responded to a challenge.”
Be prepared to answer interview questions about how you dealt with adverse situations. But don’t tell the recruiter about the time you failed algebra – and then stop. The most important part of these questions is the part that’s left unsaid: the real (silent) second half of the question is, “And how did you learn and grow as a result?”
So, if you failed algebra the first time, talk about how you found a tutor, studied three hours a day – and then got an A when you re-took the class.
If your mind draws a blank when you’re asked this question during a mock interview (you are doing mock interviews, aren’t you?), think back to your internship experiences. Did you have a project that didn’t go as you’d hoped? What did you do to get the project back on track, what did you learn, and how did you apply those learnings to your next project?
Don’t limit yourself to academic or professional experiences, either. Think about a passion project that was particularly challenging: Did you write a book? Succeed in tracing your family’s genealogy back to the 1600s? Tutor a fellow student and help raise her grades from, say, a D to a B?. Or maybe you’ve persevered despite some personal challenges: Are you the first in your family to go to college and, if so, how did you achieve this? Just be sure you don’t divulge any health problems or discuss your marital or parental status.
It may sound daunting, but consider everything you do as practice for the future. Embrace failure as an opportunity to learn, and learn that it’s okay to fail as long as you don’t give up or quit. Devote time everyday to practice and learning, and reflect on your progress or reasons for failure. That requires patience, which in today’s “What are you going to do for me now?” world is hard to maintain, but focusing on the longer term can help you develop that attitude that is such an important ingredient of resilience.
Know that the stamina of pursuing (and completing) a degree is already a great ingredient that will serve you well in your career – and a demonstration, in and of itself, of grit. Now complement that by seeking out the biggest, most daunting challenges you can, whether that’s through a project-based course, an internship, a student club, or a personal passion project. Lead a campus blood drive (and aim to increase donations by 25 percent!), start a tutoring program, compose a musical, develop a business plan for a struggling small business. And if you fail, know that it’s only a stepping stone to your next success.
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