The Importance of Grit as a Tool for Entrepreneurial Success

We’ve re-discovered the value of grit. It’s once again popular to tout the revolutionary idea that people who don’t give up when they fail; who don’t shy away from the hard things in life; and who never quit on their dreams are more successful than the rest of the population. This theory was once relegated to feel-good graduation speeches and inspirational halftime pep talks in sports movies. Now it goes by any number of names in the mindset category: toughness, resiliency, determination, ambition, perseverance.

Often lost in the praise of grit is one key detail: how to get it. That’s what I’m about to share. I’m no Angela Duckworth, but I’ve come to four realizations that any would-be gritty entrepreneur eventually embraces. If you’ve got the guts to face and accept these facts, you’ll find (as I have) that your grit and determination in the face of adversity will increase.

Realization 1: Being Born Is Not Enough

Stephen Crane wrote a poem back in the late 19th century. It’s worth memorizing. It goes like this:

A man said to the universe: “Sir, I exist!” “However,” replied the universe, “The fact has not created in me A sense of obligation.”

A huge barrier to determination is the foolhardy expectation that some level of comfort, success or appreciation is owed to us as individuals. It’s not. This is the logical consequence of just about any philosophical position on the origin of humanity, and the faster you embrace it, the faster you can move toward a gritty, gratitude filled approach to life.

Realization 2: Grit Takes Practice

I wasn’t born gritty. And I’m still not as gritty as I intend to be tomorrow or the day after that. That’s because grit, like wealth, wisdom, love, musical skill or anything else worth having, is not a static commodity. It fluctuates throughout our lives.

Grit is about overcoming our default reactions and habituating earned responses. Our instinct is to fear pain and to quit in the face of it. As a child, you might practice grit during your 15th fall off your bicycle. Instead of crying and going inside, you get back on the bike instead. That’s a learned response. The pain eventually dissipates and life goes on. Similarly, you practice grit when your first company files for bankruptcy or your trusted partner double-crosses you. You wake up the next day. The sun is still shining and you start making moves again.

Realization 3: Failure Can Be Both Acknowledged and Reframed

No matter how many stories you hear about successful people and all their failures in life, failure is still a bad thing. Yes, Jack Ma was rejected from Harvard and couldn’t even get a job at KFC, but he did go on to found Alibaba. Yes, Michael Jordan was sort of cut from his high school team. But the implication behind the ritual retellings of these narratives is dead wrong. Failure is not a sign of pending greatness. People succeed in spite of their failures, not because of them. If you failed, you probably made a mistake, or more likely, several key mistakes. Rather than seeking solace in your failure by noting the failures of people you admire, you should make every effort not to repeat your mistakes.

Still, you will fail. To cope, you need a mental approach to process the failure. Failures in themselves never lead to success, but they do signal that you are doing something, which is, in fact, highly correlated with success.

The grittiest entrepreneurs are able to hold this dual mindset. On one hand, they abhor every failure and mercilessly eviscerate their own errors. On the other hand, they recognize that failure comes with action, and they reframe each failure in its most positive light, focusing on the learning that came from the failure, the character that developed and the changes that will create success the next time.

Realization 4: You Have to ‘Pound the Rock’ for a While

There’s a quote from 19th-century reformer Jacob Riis that I absolutely love. It has a powerful metaphor for the conviction that creates grit, and it’s apropos for any entrepreneur:

“When nothing seems to help, I go and look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow, it will split in two, and I know it was not that blow that did it, but all that had gone before.”

As an entrepreneur, you have to believe, regardless of apparent lack of evidence, that whatever you’re doing will eventually produce the results you are striving for. You need to be sure you are hammering on the right rock with the right tools before anything will happen, but you can’t be discouraged by the lack of immediate results. You have to know that the effort from each blow is having some effect that will ultimately culminate in success. And when you do finally have clearly identifiable success, you need to be insightful enough to look past the circumstances immediately preceding the success and see the entire process that led to the breakthrough.

In this time of renewed interest in grit as a tool toward success, I’d like to offer one final insight that has been the most recent stage in my journey: Grit is not just a means to an end. Grit is a desirable goal for its own sake. In fact, I have found grit to be one of the greatest payoffs of my time as an entrepreneur. As you walk your own path, may you find the same is true for you.

Derek J. Sine is the Managing Director at Vander Group, accelerating the rate at which people and product connect.