The Path to Success is Paved with Grit

We must encounter frustration and failure to enjoy success.  Wait… what? It seems counterintuitive – both in the education world as well as the business world – to find both happiness and success through failure.  In the classroom, we work hard so that kids have the knowledge and skills to get the right answers. And the sum of all those right answers delivers good grades, a better college, and ultimately, a more successful life. In the business world, mistakes can be costly – both to the organization and to the individual.  There is enormous pressure to deliver the best products, strategies, and solutions.  No one wants to be credited with “the idea that tanked.” We earn respect through our victories, not our failures.  What is the old saying…

Carve your successes in stone and write your failures in the sand.

But, recovering from failure is more difficult than maintaining the status quo and should be a badge of honor.  Our attitude towards failure is essential to success in the real world. Failure happens all the time, and the only immunization is eliminating all challenges and risks from your daily diet – which is about as far from the tenets of innovation and creativity as one can get.  Those that don’t know how to effectively embrace and respond to failure are more likely to stay in the safe zone where mediocrity abounds.  Maybe they’ve chosen this path out of boredom, lack of vision.  Or maybe they lack grit.  Within any group of people – artists, musicians, athletes, students, doctors, you name the field – with similar levels of talent, IQ, and preparation, the single biggest predictor of who will become rockstars and who won’t is their level of grit.

Angela Duckworth introduced the concept of grit in a 2013 TED talk as the “key to success.”  She went on to win a Genius Grant from the MacArthur Fellowship, and her first book, Grit, examines the scientifically-based concept that success hinges on the level of one’s grittiness.

But, beyond success, our level of grittiness also has a direct correlation with our level of happiness and personal satisfaction.  If you want to be happy, you have to get gritty. Consider these four traits that have a direct impact on both success and happiness.


Resilience is defined as the capacity to recover quickly from difficulty.  But life is often messy and complex, and there is no single solution that applies across the board.  This means planning, preparing, and working toward your vision, but also continually embracing failure and experimentation when the orange cones of life present disruptions.

In his book, Resilience, Why Things Bounce Back, Andrew Zolli explains that resilience comes from a combination of optimism, creativity, and confidence that enables us to overcome the inevitable yet unknown obstacles along the way. It is this mindset to evaluate situations and persevere through challenges so that we have some control over our own destiny and can continually learn from both positive and negative experiences. When we view setbacks as opportunities to learn, we can bounce back smarter and stronger, and those disappointments actually enable us to bounce back with greater determination and a new perspective.

In an increasingly complex world, we can’t avoid shocks – we can only build better shock absorbers.


Melissa Hughes, Ph.D.
Melissa Hughes, Ph.D.
Dr. Melissa Hughes is a neuroscience geek, keynote speaker, and author. Her latest book, Happier Hour with Einstein: Another Round explores fascinating research about how the brain works and how to make it work better for greater happiness, well-being, and success. Having worked with learners from the classroom to the boardroom, she incorporates brain-based research, humor, and practical strategies to illuminate the powerful forces that influence how we think, learn, communicate and collaborate. Through a practical application of neuroscience in our everyday lives, Melissa shares productive ways to harness the skills, innovation and creativity within each of us in order to contribute the intellectual capital that empowers organizations to succeed with social, financial and cultural health.

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  1. Melissa – This piece really made the ol’ gears turn. What came to mind was the juxtaposition of perfection and failure. Perfection, as you point out, is unattainable. “Excellence” is a beautiful substitute because it indicates greatness with room for more greatness.

    “Failure,” on the other hand, connotes an end point. We hit the ground with a thud, and that’s it. What’s after failure? Deeper failure? Catastrophe? What’s the beautiful substitute for “failure” that simply means, as Edison points out, things didn’t work out as planned yet? Words matter.

    Grit is critical, as you point out, as the ladder that allows us to crawl out of the things-didn’t-work-out-yet hole. Somehow we need to help kids understand that when things don’t work out, it’s not the end.

    A great, thoughtful piece, Melissa.

    • Words do matter, Jeff! And as far as teaching kids goes, I’m in… but I’m a work in progress, too! Thanks for sharing your insights and your kind words.

  2. Thank you Melissa for this insightful article.

    It’s about time that we give much more thought to nurturing grit in our children because I deem it wrong to push kids into believing that they can achieve anything and everything. For starters, like all of us, children cannot give of what they do not have. So it is much kinder and actually much more empowering to help them build on their potential; rather that fill their minds with false hopes that invariably lead to a great deal of frustration and pain. Also children will only be open to learning if they are emotionally stable.

    Equally important is to guide and encourage them to stand on their own two feet and work to attain their goals rather than have them grow into entitled and needy young adults who demand instant promotion and constant appraisal and praise. I also think that we give too much importance to the kind of stellar entrepreneur success associated with the likes of Steve Jobs.

    I leave the last word to one of my favourite quotations:
    “We promise according to our hopes and perform according to our fears.” (Francois de La Rochefoucauld’)

    • Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Noemi! It’s so true that our children are not born with grit… we need to show them how to develop it and nurture them along the way. Also, I absolutely love the quote you share here. I’m borrowing that! Thanks for taking the time to read and comment!

  3. What Tom Dietzler said.

    Honestly, I can’t begin to come up with anything better, Melissa!

    I guess grit does sum up a lot of our lives — the will to go over trouble it, around it, under it, through it — whatever it takes to get “there,” wherever “there” is.

    Love the quotes, and I’m using one of them when I share this post on LI.

  4. Hey Melissa, this is rich and full of so much substance. As a proud Wisconsin native, I would be remiss if I didn’t quote famous Green Bay Packers football Coach Vince Lombardi on perfection: “Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence.” The learning aspects that come with failure and with trials are what make grittiness such a desirable trait. We want our own children to succeed, but if we shelter them from everything, we deprive them of the opportunity to find out about their own adaptability. How do they learn about things like bravery and courage and standing up for their beliefs? When things go sideways, we get to kick into another gear and look at a situation from another perspective and find out – maybe things that we didn’t want to, like, “dang this didn’t work here, but maybe this will have another application at some other time.” Thanks for another great piece about how making it go in this life is a process to be enjoyed, not endured…

    • Interesting how you use the Green Bay Packers as your model in a way…..cause we had how many years of failure there, Tom? 🙂 Well said…..

    • Not sure that the Packers are my model… they ain’t perfect (although their record is, this year, for now…) It’s just that Vince’s quote about perfection is really worth applying. I was a customer response coordinator at a large paper company for 9 years… we made 2,000 tons of paper a day. We had no illusions that we were always going to make every order perfect, but by continually, consistently drilling down to eliminate our biggest defects, we improved greatly over my tenure and we were able to have a very commendable complaint/defect metric. We chased perfection, and achieved near excellence. I know you were ribbing me a little… as the Packers have near religious status here, but the quote is a good one.

    • Thank you so much for your insights, Tom! I love the Vince Lombardi quote. I think I’m stealing it! I appreciate your time to read and comment!