Dr. Damian Vaughn

BetterUp's Chief Programs Officer

Posted in: Peak Performance


To be Great, Grit Isn’t All That Matters

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To be Great, Grit Isn't All That Matters

For years, psychologist Angela Duckworth has been hyperfocused on studying grit, which she says is “the single trait in our complex and wavering nature which accounts for success.”

Grit is conceptualized as applying focused attention, resilience, perseverance, and dedication (in the form of time and effort) to a deliberate practice. It’s hard to imagine anyone would disagree that you need grit to excel. But to think that grit is the only and most important explaining factor for greatness is unfair. To understand what sets elite performers apart from each other, we need to account for additional variables beyond grit.

Grit is the price of admission at elite levels of performance.Click To Tweet

There’s no question that when you compare everyone in a given population, grit is a key factor, but it doesn’t explain differences at the elite level, where one would assume every individual has comparable levels of it.

Grit is the price of admission at elite levels of performance. It factors into how one would break through to the top, but it doesn’t answer the question, “how do you stay?” To raise the bar and maintain peak performance, we have to look into flow. Flow is what keeps elite performers on their edge, without falling off. And while it can be elusive, it’s a scientifically-backed path to sustainable performance, and the secret sauce of anyone who strives to become a GOAT (Greatest of All Time).

Getting gritty

Grit = passion + perseverance

There’s no question: if you don’t have grit, you’ll never have a chance to become elite. Grit is what pushes great performers to reach the edge of their ability; it’s what helps them show up and persevere, despite incredible odds.

But grit can quickly become an obsession, and a dangerous one at that. Professor and researcher Robert J. Vallerand found that obsession can actually undermine sustainable high performance. To suggest that your passion should become your obsession is to push someone off of a cliff.

Obsession can undermine sustainable high performanceClick To Tweet

So what separates gritty people from other gritty people? The answer lies in flow. While grit brings us to our edge, it’s flow that continually pushes the edge out, and keeps sustainable performers from falling off into the abyss.

The Power of Flow

Flow is the optimal psychological state for becoming one with what you do. It has been linked to enhanced performance, creativity, and well-being. Flow states are experienced when you perceive your skills to be matched to a high challenge. Another pre-condition for entering and sustaining flow involves having a clear goal for action and feedback relative to your performance that is also clear and immediate.

Research shows that the experience of flow itself becomes its own reward. A person seeks to replicate the experience only in new and different circumstances. Through the continual experience of flow, you can realize a dynamic upward spiral of personal growth.

By mastering challenges in an activity, you can develop greater levels of skill. And in turn, the activity will cease to be as involved as it was before. But in order to continue experiencing flow, you must identify and engage in progressively more complex challenges. This is how flow becomes a mechanism for growth in the pursuit of greatness. We create potential in flow experiences by rendering it present and growing it simultaneously.

Entering a state of harmonious passion

“Warren Buffett has always said the measure [of success] is whether the people close to you are happy and love you…It is also nice to feel like you made a difference — inventing something or raising kids or helping people in need.” — Bill Gates

To answer how you would ensure that flow is happening, we have to go back to Robert J. Vallerand’s passion research, which he embarked upon in 2004. Vallerand’s research linked flow ability with passion. We now know that individuals who express flow by way of harmonious passion have a more harmonious integration (otherwise: flow that keeps them from descending into a state of obsession, and burnout).

Unlike harmonious passion, obsessive passion is characterized by gritty people that derive such an excessive amount of their self-esteem from their work that they are unable to “turn it off” when they should. Their minds are ruminating on work issues even when they’re in the presence of significant others outside of the office. With this lack of control, obsessive passion has been linked to lower flow experiences. Over time, these individuals’ performance becomes less and less sustainable.

Individuals with a harmonious passion for their work identify with their work and become deeply engaged with it, but not to the extent that they neglect other aspects of their life.

On the flip side, individuals that maintain harmonious passion are also gritty, but they have a more complex sense of self.

How does this play out?

Individuals with a harmonious passion for their work identify with their work and become deeply engaged with it, but not to the extent that they neglect other aspects of their life. Having control over their passion, they can more easily enter flow at work and experience time with their family at home or a dinner conversation with friends to bring equal intrinsic rewards.

Developing the ability to become fully immersed in flow requires a level of wisdom and maturity, but it’s a skill that can also be developed with the help of a coach.

Remember, if grit has gotten you far in life, it can (and will) become a vice at some point in your career. To keep yourself continually pushing without over-extending, it’s critical to work on developing the skills needed to help you enter a state of harmonious passion. Only then will you become unstoppable. 

Original art by Theo Payne.

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