The Path to Success is Paved with Grit


A Google search on “fear of failure” will produce over 150 million hits.  It’s number 15 on the top 100 phobias list listed as atychiphobia.  It’s also one of the greatest barriers to success. People afflicted with severe atychiphobia consider the possibility of failure so intense that they often undermine their own efforts so that they no longer take any risks. At a more mainstream level, those who are afraid to fail also suffer from chronic depression, general unhappiness, and poor self-esteem.

It takes courage to overcome the fear of failing and sometimes the greatest enlightenment comes from defeat.

We’re taught at a very young age that the goal is to get the right answers.  And even though we know that we can learn much more from our mistakes, no one wants to be wrong.  Failure and disappointment come as a package deal and disappointment doesn’t feel good.  But courage and grit are a package deal, too.  It takes courage to overcome the fear of failing and sometimes the greatest enlightenment comes from defeat.  Gritty people aren’t afraid to fail, rather they embrace mistakes and recognize that it often takes mistakes to achieve progress. They find rewards in recognizing the root of their failures and turning them into successes.   It takes grit to be courageous, but courage fuels grit. Perhaps Thomas Edison was on to something when he said,

I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.


Gritty people are on a quest for excellence rather than perfection.  We tend to use the words excellent and perfect synonymously.  But as it turns out there is a big difference. Perfection focuses on the endgame with little patience for the process. Perfectionists view any outcome less than perfect as failure, and many times that perfection is simply their own perception of the ideal.  They strive for impossible goals with a relentless pursuit of an illusory prize. As with the fear of failure, perfectionists often suffer from chronic unhappiness, clinical depression, and low self-esteem as they constantly chase the rabbit. Moreover, perfectionists are often described as obsessive, anxious, rigid, and unyielding. These aren’t descriptors of successful, happy people.

The quest for excellence is motivating and far more forgiving than perfection. Excellence is an attitude that emphasizes progress, and progress implies the process of continual improvement. Tony Schwartz refers to this as the “growth conflict.”  Paraphrased, we strive for excellence as we continue to learn, grow, and change while also learning how to accept our own limitations and imperfections.  The distinction between perfection and excellence is important.  Michael J. Fox once said,

I am careful not to confuse excellence with perfection. Excellence I can reach for; perfection is God’s business.


Perhaps the most essential ingredient of grit is passion, and you can’t talk about passion without talking about purpose. Passion enables us to develop stamina and tenacity toward a greater purpose. It’s this symbiosis that creates meaning from chaos, finds value in effort, and cultivates happiness, personal satisfaction, and the sense that what we do really matters.  People who genuinely love what they do are motivated by their passion and a greater purpose.  They tend to be more satisfied with their work and more healthier psychologically and emotionally. Conversely, people who are unsatisfied at work are more likely to be dissatisfied with their nonprofessional relationships and experience distress in other areas of their lives.

Consider some of the people in today’s society that epitomize success – Steve Jobs, Michael Jordan, Oprah, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, fill in the blank – they have an unrelenting passion for a greater purpose.  They love what they do and they do what they love. Malcolm Gladwell identifies this as the most important factor for success.  He says,

Nothing happens without desire and passion. Without it, nothing else falls in place. It’s very hard to find someone who’s successful and dislikes what they do.

Grit may be the difference between those who go for the gold and those who just show up. Grit may also be the defining factor in how happy we are in the process.  As a student in the classroom or a student in the classroom of life, most of us want to enjoy the rich rewards of success.  Perhaps one of the best gifts we can give our students is to teach them how to get gritty and cultivate happiness as they strive for success. And to teach them that, we have to get gritty ourselves.

If you like this post, the best way to tell me is to share it with someone in your corner of the world.


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!