So hard work and grit bring success? You don’t say…

Self-motivation and the Courage to fail are keys to success

I love the word gritty. Great word. Or grittier, grittiness, grittiest, grittylicious. I love my literature gritty, my sports heroes, my movies, my favorite historical leaders, my preferred works of art, my bars, and my women. This tendency or allure is probably because I have also lived in a gritty fashion. I certainly played sports with grit, which would explain the physical impairments including three back surgeries and a knee surgery.

According to Psychologist Angela Lee Duckworth, students who work harder day-in and day-out are more likely to succeed. Sounds like common sense right? She explains how talent, and this goes for athleticism or musicality or artistry or writing, and specifically her point- I.Q., does not determine success. Being gritty does. The TED talk is six minutes long, and her speech is very well done.

Whatever it takes.

I was what some would call “odd” when I was young (don’t say it). I was the kid out back shooting hoops with gloves on in the middle of a snow storm because we were playing our grade-school rivals the next morning. I was terrible with girls and math, but I could shoot a basketball and throw a football, which was what I usually did whenever confronted  by one of the two outside of school. Hey – my dad always said to stick with what you are good at. I just wish I would have turned that “weirdness” or grit, towards academics in high school.

Gritty is a term in sports left for the little guy with less talent. But that is a false view. Don’t be fooled by special talent. There are plenty of equally talented folks at any given time who you will never know of because of their lack of grit. The Michael Jordans, Steve Jobs, Albert Einsteins, Serena Williams, Dwight Eisenhowers, and J.K. Rowlings of the world ALL worked mind-boggling amounts to get where they did. The greatest writers, musicians, and painters to come through the ranks are often described as crazy; but maybe they mean gritty. Sure, there are different levels of natural ability, but the talent winners all worked an inordinate amount at their craft and persisted.

And most importantly, they failed.

Go ahead…


What sets them apart is the fact that they weren’t afraid to put themselves out in front of the world even when failure was more than possible. They used their defeats as building blocks for their success. Michael Jordan shot 50% in game-winning situations. That is a very high percentage. It also means he failed 50% of the time. But I promise you his failures were why he made the other half. Nothing brought Jordan’s grit home for me more than when he attempted to play baseball. It was probable that he would fail and most will tell you he did fail- as if that is a bad thing. 

jordan bsaeballJordan leaving basketball for baseball is equivalent to a successful web developer quitting his job because he loved sculpting ashtrays in high-school and wanted to follow that passion. I will never forget watching Sports-center one night and seeing Jordan standing, talking with the hitting coach while watching a teammate take batting practice. Michael turned and asked him, “What time will you be here tomorrow?” The coach laughed. “Well, the coaches will be here at 530 am.” Michael glared at him. “See you then.” 

The percentage of those who take big risks is low. Most refuse to jump on board of an initiative at work for example, unless they know beforehand that the project is likely to succeed. They don’t want their names attached to failed projects or initiatives, a failed enterprise or a public misstep. My goodness, look what we do to those who do. It’s no wonder. We all know that greatness is never born taking the safe paths in life, yet most of us still take them.

Lisa, why?

So many companies or education programs leave little or no room to fail. Teachers and employees are scared to try anything different because of rigid and impractical accountability standards. Think about what we are creating. Without room to fail, there will be little room to grow. The most successful individuals failed and failed often. Muhammad Ali lost five times and is still regarded as the greatest. Steve Jobs had a number of bad business moves including the Apple Lisa. But Lisa, in all its glory, was another step towards the Mac Air and the Ipod and the Ipad and Apple-TV and all of the great products Apple is known for. So, thank-you Lisa.

In a February 2013 Smithsonian Magazine article titled Why the Best Success Stories Begin With Failures, the author being interviewed, Seth Fiegerman, said this;

“I think the big takeaway is failure and setbacks, far from being uncommon, are in many ways essential.” and “…few successful people were child prodigies, and prodigies don’t necessarily find success. Most people don’t stick to it.


Could you imagine an ad like this today?
Hmmm. Sounds legit…”

Let me ask you. Do you think Ernest Shackleton and the crew of the Endurance would have attempted the Trans-Antarctic voyage had they been told they could not fail. I doubt it. And this may be one of the greatest failures of mankind (sorry Marie Curie). After becoming stuck in the ice and watching their ship slowly be crushed in an ice death-squeeze, these men survived nearly two years in the most awful conditions while facing non-stop challenges. It was ludicrous how much they had to overcome, yet somehow, no one died, and they all endured. Thanks to them, we all learned what the human spirit was capable of. These guys camped on ice, had to sleep in the freezing cold water at the bottom of the lifeboats, ate seal blubber and penguins as often as they could kill them, were pummeled by blizzards and storms, performed amputations on their fellow-men, and the expedition team had to hike and climb across the mountainous island for 36 hours straight.

Oh, I’m sorry. You were complaining that it’s Monday or how dumb the new company policy on vacation time is or something? And please continue with your diatribe on why the new initiative is a loser…


Perseverance, patience, determination, a will to learn, passion, and courage; these are highly underestimated human values today and are usually considered secondary to experience, charisma, intelligence, schools attended, and tenure. The story of Endurance exemplifies how weightless those primary traits are without the fuel of the secondary ones, and reinforces Angela Duckworth’s findings as well.

Duckworth also points out that failure does not have to be a permanent condition and that effort can change it.
Please read that last sentence again. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

If you grab a hot pan-handle for the tenth time, I probably can’t help you. But here is my attempt anyway – “The handle is hot when the pan is on the stove. Quit touching it. That’ll be $175.”

But if you had a business initiative or a marketing idea or a novel or a painting that somehow fell within the parameters of what you had already defined as failure- I am going to guess that your next attempt will be better. Come on, we know this. Failure is the root of all success. So it is imperative, as Duckworth says, “That we are gritty about getting our kids grittier.”

So before you go having your employees or teams read the same old tired books on achievement and management and leadership, maybe have them read about that big failure that was the Endurance, and show them what we are really capable of.

Endurance; Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing. endurance2

The Endurance, after being crushed.
Could the ship’s name be more suitable?

Published by Dave Mainelli

Small business owner, former International franchise business consultant, musician, father, husband, and writer. Served on the B.O.D. for Red Hen Press and Fine Lines Literary Magazine, an MFA in Writing from the University of Nebraska, and a teacher for Wayne State and Iowa Western. A short story collection, 'How To Be Lonely' due out January 2021.

2 thoughts on “So hard work and grit bring success? You don’t say…

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