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Book Summary: Grit to Great – How Perseverance, Passion, and Pluck Take You from Ordinary to Extraordinary

If you think that your path is only determined by your intelligence or natural ability to learn quickly, think again. Grit is the new way to define how likely you are to succeed and identify what you need to work on to achieve your goals. Evolving views on this previously unsung character trait are changing how people learn and get hired. In this book summary, you’ll learn how grit separates the dreamers from the doers, and you’ll discover how to focus on growing your grit.

Book Summary: Grit to Great - How Perseverance, Passion, and Pluck Take You from Ordinary to Extraordinary

Why you should grow your grit to achieve your goals — and how to do just that.


  • Feel like you dedicate a lot of effort to your life or career but aren’t making much progress
  • Tend to get discouraged by trying new things that they don’t immediately work out
  • Wonder how leading entrepreneurs, athletes, and artists succeed in their industrie

Content Summary

Why Grit Matters
Ditch the Dream
Lose the Safety Net
Get into Wait Training
Bend Like Bamboo
No Expiration Date
Grit for Good
About the author
Video and Podcast
Read an Excerpt/PDF Preview


Leadership, Business Culture, Money, Investing, Motivational, Management, Self-Improvement, Self Help, Psychology, Productivity, Adult, Personal Development, Inspirational


People are naturally curious about what drives success stories. Whether it’s a natural knack for projecting business outcomes or an artistic ability discovered at a young age, there’s always one question about high-profile success: How did they do that?

The answer is through good, old-fashioned hard work — but with a twist. Emerging research shows that “grit”, or a combination of passion and drive, is the secret ingredient behind titans of innovation, including Apple and many professional athletes. Grit enables people to both take existing skills to the next level and acquire the drive to pursue something new.

Why Grit Matters

Though talent and education can give someone a head start, they’re only part of the equation: Having the drive to actually do something with your talents and skills separates people who have potential from those who excel. Notable achievers such as Steve Jobs and Michael Jordan were incredibly ordinary during their childhoods and early in their careers; they are two key examples of how relentless dedication leads to success.

New research shows that a combination of perseverance and passion are more valuable traits than innate talent or intelligence; this is the modern “grit.” Though grit may sound like a somewhat dated term, this personality trait is more relevant today than ever. Grit measures someone’s ability to do great work rather than just talk about it. It measures character and drive instead of charisma. The best part of grit is that you don’t need to be born with it because it’s learned. Over time, “gritty” people have learned the value of hard work and what it takes to succeed, and they’re happy to put in the effort to get results.

You’ve probably heard things about participation trophies and younger people’s sense of entitlement. It’s gradually become more normal for parents and educators to make every child feel they are exceptional. Though this is motivated by good intentions and boosts confidence, the reality is that it deemphasizes hard work and instead emphasizes the reward of getting by with minimal effort. Children who are told that they’re naturally good at something are more likely to neglect studying or practice.

Grit has four attributes:

  • Guts: Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there.
  • Resilience: Beat the odds and keep going.
  • Initiative: Being a self-starter.
  • Tenacity: Stay focused on a goal and work toward it.

Michael Jordan, one of the greatest basketball players of all time, summarizes his gratitude toward failure: “I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life, and that’s why I succeed.” In a field where natural talent is usually attributed to becoming a professional athlete, it’s important to hear his perspective on what it actually takes to make it.

The Talent Myth Psychologist Angela Duckworth runs a research program to better understand how to measure grit in children and how high grit scores contribute to their success. She developed a specific scale to measure grit, which also identifies the type and amount of assistance a child needs to achieve their goals. This research debunked the long-running theory that intelligence is the most important indicator for success; on the contrary, those with high IQs were accustomed to working less, so they were more likely to fail when asked to work on certain tasks outside their existing knowledge base. They were more likely to give up.

The changing conversation on intelligence versus grit affects one of the top tools for measuring academic success: standardized tests. Research such as Duckworth’s shows that high test scores don’t inherently mean that someone will be a great student or a high-performing employee. Google’s hiring process historically included submitting transcripts and SAT scores, but doing away with that policy has changed their workforce. Now, the tech giant is hiring a higher percentage of employees who didn’t even go to college.

One essential reason why grit is becoming more important is that it reflects character, and character is not a fixed quality; rather, it grows and evolves with new challenges and experiences. When someone knows the importance of not cutting corners, it shows in their work, and they’re able to develop a track record of sticking to this value. Grit leads to success by driving people to prepare, welcome challenges, and dedicate extra time to honing skills.

Ditch the Dream

Whether it’s a beach house or a certain number in your checking account, everyone uses dreams to picture success. Though this can be motivating in the short term, the reality is that fantasizing about success encourages a loss of motivation and causes more anxiety when you don’t meet those goals within a certain timeframe. You’re actually worse off by fantasizing about an ultimate goal because spending time on an idealized version of your future can trick you into thinking you’ve already reached your goals. Therefore, it’s more crushing when you find yourself in a position where you still have a lot of work to do.

Instead of dreaming of the ultimate outcome, focus on what the next step in your progress looks like. If you’re an aspiring filmmaker, your goal can be finishing the rough draft of a script. If you are starting your own business, it can be getting your first three clients. The first step is always the hardest, but starting with something that seems small will motivate you significantly more than spending time on success fantasies. Find a goal, start it, and stick to it. Then, evaluate what comes next.

Lose the Safety Net

People are taught to go into denial or fear in worst-case scenarios. From natural disasters to underperforming at work, the instinct is to avoid even picturing worstcase scenarios because they’re so awful. But if anything, you should plan for disaster to teach yourself to stop avoiding fear. Living a life dictated by fear or discomfort does not lead to success, and step one is to face rejection. Put yourself in a position to fail on a small scale, so you get used to the feeling and don’t feel crushed each and every time it happens.

Impostor syndrome haunts the tech industry, especially for women and people of color who are typically the minorities on their teams and in their entire field. This feeling may create a need to compare yourself to other people, which can be psychologically exhausting and impede progress. People with impostor syndrome will do things like dismiss their accomplishments or contributions, feeling like it’s just a matter of time before they are “found out” for doing something wrong. Taking control of your impostor syndrome requires tackling self-doubt. Ask yourself to define the problem, identify the worst-case scenario, and evaluate whether that scenario has a chance of happening. In most cases, it’s just an emotional response that creates a feeling of possibility where there is none.

To really get rid of the safety net, stop making excuses. Excuses are the enemies of your goals. If you find yourself stating excuses for why you didn’t do something or why the results were subpar, stop and use it as an opportunity for evaluation. Instead of resorting to excuses, simply ask yourself how you would do things differently next time.

Get into Wait Training

As a culture, people are obsessed with overnight success stories that show someone beating the odds or redefining an industry as an outsider. Such people are hailed for breaking down barriers and breaking down doors. But while it makes great stories, instant success is the outlier, not the norm, and it definitely isn’t a reliable game plan.

Achievement is all about playing the long game and delaying gratification. Learning to resist giving into temptation is important: Your priorities need to change to find success, and you need to stick to them for as long as it takes. You must also balance impulse and reason and learn not to go after what feels good during that exact moment.

In the 1990s, lawyer Mike Lewis took on Big Tobacco. Despite overwhelming evidence dating back to the 1960s that tobacco was linked to lung cancer, cigarette manufacturers refused to take responsibility. Devastated by a friend’s death from lung cancer, Lewis did something a little radical: He decided to sue companies for taxpayer money spent on treating smoking-related illnesses in his home state of Mississippi. Lewis and his colleagues filed their suit in May 1994 and held a press conference to make a statement to the tobacco industry: “You caused the health crisis, so you pay for it.” Lewis was immediately ridiculed by the state governor, and both state and federal government offices told him he didn’t have a case to fight. It took years, and Lewis’s colleagues dedicated their lives to the case without the guarantee of reward — but in the end, they won. After four years, they reached a settlement and Big Tobacco companies had to pay out billions of dollars in a legendary victory.

Not every win will be on the same level as taking down Big Tobacco, but that doesn’t make them any less of a win. In addition to celebrating the big wins, learning to celebrate the small victories along your journey helps you develop the endurance you need to reach those big goals. Admire your progress as you go to encourage you to keep working toward something bigger. It’s also important to focus on practicing discipline in small ways If you need a place to get started, begin with a classic: Make your bed every morning. This simple task functionally changes your mindset because your first completed task of the day that creates a sense of accomplishment and encourages you to keep checking things off your to do list all day.

Bend Like Bamboo

Things are not always what they seem. The bamboo plant is a prime example of this: Even though the outside of the plant is very hard, the hollow interior makes bamboo incredibly flexible. It can wave gently during an afternoon breeze as well as withstand tropical storms that cause damage all around it. Its adaptability makes bamboo the perfect example of grit.

Some planning will help you plot your path to success, but you need to be adaptable because nothing goes exactly as planned. To be adaptable, you must learn not to be discouraged by change. This makes optimism is a key component of adaptability. Optimism helps navigate setbacks because it allows you to see them as temporary and changeable. Knowing how to challenge your own perspective will keep you moving, even while facing difficulties. If you find yourself becoming discouraged by one or more changes, stop before your thought process starts to spiral: What can you do to change what is currently happening, and how do you plan to do that?

Adaptability is determined by your mindset. Carol Dweck, a psychologist at Stanford University, splits mindsets into two groups: fixed and growth.

  • A person with a fixed mindset believes traits are determined by genetics and usually thinks they can’t do anything about difficulties when they arise.
  • A person with a growth mindset believes traits and abilities can be expanded with dedication and work and is not discouraged by obstacles.

When you become aware of which mindset you are in, you develop more skills to pivot and change instead of having your current mindset determine your destiny.

No Expiration Date

As people get older, they assume that their abilities naturally weaken, including their ability to change and learn. Phrases like “old dogs can’t learn new tricks” encourage this perspective. But grit is not determined by age. Your brain operates like a muscle from the time you were born, and without exercise and practice, it grows weak. But there are always opportunities to grow your grit, no matter your age.

This obsession with age and building success while you’re young is changing how people view their careers. Work culture is obsessed with young success. People in their twenties assume they’ll never be successful because they aren’t moving up in their career quickly enough, despite not even being 25% into their entire career. There’s a glamor attributed to retiring early or following the example of someone you admire on a “30 under 30” list. But there are many examples of people who found new, successful careers at an older age, including comedian Ken Jeong, a medical doctor who decided to seriously pursue acting in his late thirties.

Ageism limits potential. On a neurological level, you are not born with all your gray cells: You are capable of growing billions and billions more as you age, as long as you stimulate your brain throughout your life. Newton’s first law of physics states that a body in motion will stay in motion at the same speed until intercepted by an outside force. Keep this in mind instead of stopping and starting when it comes to developing new skills or working toward your goals.

Grit for Good

Work doesn’t feel like work if it’s something you enjoy, especially when it benefits your community. Being able to see tangible, positive impact is an important part of finding what motivates you.

Further, working to help others has outstanding effects on your mental and physical health. Adults over the age of 50 who volunteered a couple hundred hours per year are 40% less likely to develop hypertension than their peers who don’t volunteer. Practicing acts of kindness and going out of your way to help people benefits your well-being, which helps you keep going when you feel like you don’t have the motivation you need.

As the keeper of potential, grit makes a significant contribution to whether people are motivated to go out of their way to help others.


Among gritty people, the satisfaction of hard work is universal. Grit enables people to see the value in their effort rather than just look for the quickest way to get the job done. As a recently coined term for the combination of passion and drive, grit is becoming increasingly more important for measuring a person’s potential. From changing perspectives on academic success to changing how people get hired, grit is the key to ending up where you want to be.

Here’s how you can grow your grit:

  • Stop fantasizing or idealizing the product of success; instead, focus on creating visions of what it will take for you to start succeeding. Dream about the steps you need to take, not the finish line.
  • Don’t just embrace failure as an idea; put yourself in situations where you’re destined to fail on a small scale, so you get comfortable with it. Also, get accustomed to thinking on your feet while embarrassed or flustered.
  • Challenge your perspective by embracing a growth mindset and believing that you’re in control of your path.
  • Celebrate your small victories.
  • Don’t think of age as a limitation or a hurdle. You can grow your grit at any age.

About the author

Linda Kaplan is an acclaimed author, speaker, and advertising leader. Kaplan was behind several advertising campaigns that are iconic parts of American pop culture, including “Kodak moments” and the Aflac duck. She was the first woman to win the Clio’s Lifetime Achievement Award and was inducted into the American Advertising Federation’s Hall of Fame in 2015. She co-authored The Power of Nice and The Power of Small with Robin Koval.

Linda Kaplan Thaler is an Advertising Hall of Fame luminary and creator of many of the industry’s most iconic campaigns, including Kodak Moments and the hilarious Aflac duck. Linda was the co-founder and CEO of the Kaplan Thaler group, which quickly became one of America’s fastest growing ad agencies. She is currently Chairman of Publicis Kaplan Thaler, and the coauthor of several national bestsellers, including Bang! Getting Your Message Heard in a Noisy World, The Power of Nice, and The Power of Small. She lives with her family in New York City.

Linda Kaplan | Website
Linda Kaplan | Twitter @lindathaler2
Linda Kaplan | Facebook @LindaK.Thaler
Linda Kaplan | LinkedIn
Linda Kaplan | Email

Linda Kaplan

Robin Koval is a bestselling author, renowned public speaker, and marketing strategist known for leading campaigns that generate social awareness of advocacy efforts. In addition to writing and speaking, Koval works in youth tobacco prevention as president and CEO of Truth Initiative. She holds a bachelor of fine arts degree from Syracuse University and an MBA from Baruch College.

Robin Koval is the CEO and President of the Truth Initiative, the national public health foundation dedicated to achieving a culture where all youth and young adults reject tobacco and the creators of the award winning and life-saving truth® youth tobacco prevention program. Robin is also a leader in the world of advertising and marketing. She is a co-founder of the Kaplan Thaler Group, creators of the Aflac Duck and many other well-known campaigns, and was CEO of its successor, Publicis Kaplan Thaler. She is the co-author of three other best-selling books: The Power of Nice, The Power of Small, and Bang! Getting Your Message Heard in a Noisy World. Robin lives with her husband in Washington, D.C.

Robin Koval | Truth Initiative
Robin Koval | LinkedIn
Robin Koval | Twitter @robinkoval

Robin Koval


It is not native intelligence or natural talent that makes people excel, it’s old-fashioned hard work, sweat equity, and determination.

In Grit to Great, Linda Kaplan Thaler and Robin Koval tackle a topic that is close to their hearts, one that they feel is the real secret to their own success in their careers–and in the careers of so many people they know and have met. And that is the incredible power of grit, perseverance, perspiration, determination, and sheer stick-to-it-tiveness.

We are all dazzled by the notion that there are some people who get ahead, who reach the corner office because they are simply gifted, or well-connected, or both. But research shows that we far overvalue talent and intellectual ability in our culture. The fact is, so many people get ahead–even the gifted ones–because they worked incredibly hard, put in the thousands of hours of practice and extra sweat equity, and made their own luck. And Linda and Robin should know–they are two girls from the Bronx who had no special advantages or privileges and rose up through their own hard work and relentless drive to succeed to the top of their highly competitive profession.

In a book illustrated with a cornucopia of stories and the latest research on success, the authors reveal the strategies that helped them, and countless others, succeed at the highest levels in their careers and professions, and in their personal lives. They talk about the guts–the courage–necessary to take on tough challenges and not give up at the first sign of difficulty. They discuss the essential quality of resiliency. Everyone suffers setbacks in their careers and in life. The key, however, is to pick yourself up and bounce back.

Drawing on the latest research in positive psychology, they discuss why optimists do better in school, work, and on the playing field–and how to reset that optimistic set point. They talk about industriousness, the notion that Malcolm Gladwell popularized with the 10,000-hour rule in his book Outliers. Creativity theorist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi believes it takes a minimum of 10 years for one’s true creative potential to be realized. And the authors explore the concept of tenacity–the quality that allows us to remain focused and avoid distraction in order to get the job done–an increasingly difficult task in today’s fragmented, cluttered, high-tech, connected world.

Written in the same short, concise format as The Power of Nice and leavened with the natural humor that characterizes Linda’s and Robin’s lives–and books–Grit to Great is destined to be the book everyone in business needs.

* * * * *

It is not native intelligence or natural talent that makes people excel, say Linda Kaplan Thaler and Robin Koval–it’s old-fashioned sweat equity and hard work. And that claim is backed up by new research from MacArthur Fellowship Award winner and University of Pennsylvania psychologist Angela Duckworth, among others. Not everyone is blessed with exceptional intelligence, or wins the gene lottery. But the good news is that you can excel beyond your wildest dreams in your career and your personal life–success is within your grasp–through the right attitude and determination.


“You don’t need to be brilliant or incredibly talented to become hugely successful. But what you do need is to read this book. Grit to Great teaches us all how to develop our grit quotient so almost any goal is possible.” –James Patterson, bestselling author, former CEO of J. Walter Thompson

“An insightful guide to achieving success in work and life, filled with real-life stories, tools and techniques that can help us all live with more passion, perseverance and resilience.” – Arianna Huffington

“You need GRIT to get great, and this book succinctly tells you how to do it. There’s no sugar coating: Thaler and Koval tell it like it is because they’ve used grit to achieve great success themselves. I recommend it.” – Mark Sanborn, bestselling author of The Fred Factor

“Grit to Great reminds us that every day is an opportunity to set new goals and challenge ourselves in different ways. With grit, no matter our age or whether we’ve accomplished prior goals, there are countless reasons to keep moving forward and enormous, often unforeseen rewards to be reaped in the process.” – Nancy Brown, CEO, American Heart Association

“Don’t walk, run to get your copy of Grit to Great. It’s chock full of good sense, insights, and useful advice that can make just about anyone feel they can succeed.” – Diana Aviv, President and CEO, Independent Sector

“Losing weight and staying fit are hard work. Grit to Great helps give you the tools to make your goals a reality and be the best you can be.” – Florine Mark, President & Chairman of the Board of The Weight Watchers Group, Inc.

“In Grit to Great, Linda and Robin offer the insight, knowledge, and life lessons that can help propel you to the next level. Their determination to succeed has had direct tangible benefits for many iconic brands, including Aflac. Their ‘grit’ has led to another remarkable book that lays out in straightforward fashion what it truly takes to be successful.” – Dan Amos, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Aflac

“Thaler and Koval have written a very valuable book. Their insights and anecdotes on the importance of hard work, perseverance, and character provide timeless lessons that will resonate with their readers – from the senior executive to the summer intern.” – Gail McGovern, President and CEO, The American Red Cross

“In Grit to Great, Linda Kaplan Thaler and Robin Koval remind us that it takes much more than a diploma or high pedigree to be successful. It takes equal parts hard work, determination, pluck, and a willingness to confront adversity and failure head-on. . . Grit to Great is a celebratory tribute to the great American success story.” – Abraham H. Foxman, National Director of the Anti-Defamation League

“Looking for a real secret to success? It’s not just who you know. It’s about determination, tenacity, hard work and, above all, grit. Grit to Great by Linda Kaplan Thaler and Robin Koval combines solid, usable advice with engaging stories to create a near-perfect handbook on how to succeed.” – Keith Ferrazzi, author of the #1 NY Times Bestseller Who’s Got Your Back and Never Eat Alone

“Grit to Great is packed with wisdom and lessons on how develop the power of perseverance, tenacity and fortitude that ultimately leads to success. The insights here will stay with you long after you finish reading!” – Marshall Goldsmith, author of the New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestsellers Triggers, and What Got You Here Won’t Get You There

“Grit and tenacity are absolutely essential to success, and that’s why I’m so excited about Linda and Robin’s new book, Grit to Great. Grit is what made America great, and it’s what will make you be the person you truly want to be, in any area where you really want to succeed. I’ve read it and I’m recommending it to all my friends. I know the authors, and they not only wrote the book on grit, they live it. It’s going to change your life.” – John Maxwell, author of The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership and other bestsellers

“In Grit to Great, Linda and Robin have written what is sure to be another bestseller. It’s a simple, well-written, inspiring read that will get you going on your own journey from grit to great.” – Andrea March, Co-founder, Women’s Leadership Exchange

Video and Podcast

Read an Excerpt/PDF Preview

Chapter 1: Why Grit Matters

The difference between a successful person and others is not a lack of strength, not a lack of knowledge, but rather a lack of will.

—Vince Lombardi

Steve Jobs. Colin Powell. Michael Jordan. All famous individuals who excelled in their fields, and whose names have become synonymous with excellence and achievement. But apart from that you are probably unaware of any similarity between them. After all, what does one of the most transformational pioneers of the personal software industry have to do with leading troops into battle, or guiding America’s foreign policy? And what do the exploits of the greatest basketball player of his generation have to do with Silicon Valley or the Pentagon? But these three overachievers share one very surprising trait. All three were so ordinary growing up that virtually no one predicted their future greatness. They were all easily overlooked and dismissed, their talents grossly underestimated.

Steve Jobs had a 2.65 GPA in high school and never completed his first year of college. As a high school sophomore, Michael Jordan went home in tears after his basketball coach decided he wasn’t good enough to make the cut for the school’s varsity team. The future secretary of state and chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff trudged through high school with a very ordinary C average, and scant self-confidence. Not long ago, Colin Powell told an interviewer, “I never thought I would be someone important. I was just a pretty average kid with average grades in an average home. There was nothing special about me.”

So what was it that changed the course of Powell’s life? How is it that countless successful people don’t display obvious special gifts, talent, or genius early on? How do you catch up in the game of life when you aren’t blessed with perfect scores on your SAT or an Ivy League education or a family fortune to give you a head start?

Emerging research suggests that there is far more to success in life than a country club pedigree or natural ability and sheer talent. Passion and perseverance, it turns out, matter more than talent or intelligence when it comes to being successful. For most of us, the corner office or professional kudos is the result of hard work, rather than exceptional genes. The endgame, it turns out, belongs to the truly diligent, not the merely talented. It belongs to those who have grit.

Grit is a somewhat old-fashioned term, resurrected from a previous century. But it is enjoying a remarkable renaissance these days. Why? Because it seems as if we are getting soft. Grit is about sweat, not swagger. Character, not charisma. Grit has been equated more with methodical stick-to-itiveness and survival than any secret ingredient to success. Which is too bad, because for so many, grit is the secret to success. Grit is the result of a hard-fought struggle, a willingness to take risks, a strong sense of determination, working relentlessly toward a goal, taking challenges in stride, and having the passion and perseverance to accomplish difficult things, even if you are wallowing in the most difficult circumstances.

Perhaps what we love most about grit is that you don’t have to be born with it. It can be learned. In fact, perseverance and the value of hard work have been, since the time of the Greek philosophers, always considered to be core elements of raising and educating the next generation. Aristotle, writing about the virtues of hard work, said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then is not an act but a habit.” Our Founding Fathers, with their great admiration for the classical philosophers, embraced these tenets. From the revolution to the westward expansion, through the industrial revolution, up through the end of World War II, the belief that raising strong, resilient, and self-reliant children was each parent’s responsibility was part of our cultural DNA. But then something changed.

Don’t Flatter Yourself

Since the late 1960s, two generations have been raised under the banner of the self-esteem movement, in which psychologists have told parents and educators that praise will give their children more confidence, which will help them be successful. At the height of the craze, the California legislature established a self-esteem task force for the state’s schools and in 1989 issued a report that persuaded schools nationwide to nurture their students’ self-esteem as a way of eliminating social problems and academic failure. But guess what–it hasn’t worked.

The result has been that children get a trophy even when they lose. In some sports, coaches don’t even keep score anymore. Grade inflation from elementary school through college has become a major issue, and although American students rank low on skills, they are at the top of the world in believing they’re good at math. Millennials’ sense of entitlement in the workplace, where twenty-somethings expect to be swiftly promoted even in their first jobs, has become the stuff of HR department lore. As have “fluffed up” performance reviews from supervisors afraid to give a little tough love to staff for fear of demoralizing them.

The fact that so many of us think we are exceptional has thoroughly permeated pop culture. As the main character in the 2004 children’s movie The Incredibles said, “They keep inventing new ways to celebrate mediocrity.” The seventh-place ribbons adorning the walls in Meet the Fockers were comedic, but not too far from the truth in our “everyone is special” culture.

Unfortunately, the whole self-esteem movement has been a flop, undermining the natural grit that this nation of immigrants brought with them in building a new life in a new land. And there is the beginning of a backlash.

You’re Nothing Special

In his famous commencement speech, which quickly went viral, English teacher David McCullough Jr. told the Class of 2012 graduates of Wellesley High School (an affluent Boston suburb), “You’re not special. . . . Contrary to what your U9 soccer trophy suggests, your glowing seventh-grade report card, despite every assurance of a certain corpulent purple dinosaur, that nice Mister Rogers and your batty aunt Sylvia, no matter how often your maternal caped crusader has swooped in to save you–you’re nothing special.” McCullough said Americans have “come to love accolades more than genuine achievement. No longer is it how you play the game, no longer is it even whether you win or lose, or learn or grow, or enjoy yourself doing it. Now it’s ‘So what does this get me?’ ” He urged the graduates to read, and concluded, “The fulfilling life, the distinctive life, the relevant life, is an achievement, not something that will fall into your lap because you’re a nice person or Mommy ordered it from the caterer.”

After reviewing fifteen thousand studies that the self-esteem movement generated, author Kay Hymowitz wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “High self-esteem doesn’t improve grades, reduce anti-social behavior, deter alcohol drinking or do much of anything good for kids. In fact, telling kids how smart they are can be counterproductive. Many children who are convinced that they are little geniuses tend not to put much effort into their work. Others are troubled by the latent anxiety of adults who feel it necessary to praise them constantly.”

In a 2012 study using eye tracking, researchers Bradley Morris and Shannon Zentall asked kids to draw pictures. Those who heard praise suggesting they had an innate talent–as opposed to those who were praised for their effort–were twice as fixated on mistakes they’d made in their pictures.

What this tells us is that children who are outperformed may give up rather than fight to improve, and those who do win may not feel compelled to keep trying as hard if even the losers get praise and a trophy.

Everyone could benefit from being taught to strive–the US Department of Education is now encouraging the teaching of grit and resilience among all students.

Meghan Dunn agrees. She is the founding principal of Riverdale Avenue Community School PS 446, located in Brownsville, Brooklyn. Many of her students are from low-income homes. She believes grit is their path to success. She instills grit by pushing her students out of their comfort zone–taking city kids camping, having them play chess or a team sport–and learning how to take losing in stride. She encourages students by teaching problem-solving skills, asking, “Well, what do you think?” or “What would you do?” She encourages parents and guardians to make sure that their kids finish whatever they start, even when it gets hard, and to let kids do things for themselves. She tells parents not to do the packing for those camping trips, because if they do, the students cannot find what they need and cannot figure out how to repack. To Meghan, forgetting a flashlight is not a life-or-death experience, but a teaching opportunity, so that when kids get older they know how to think and plan ahead. She believes it is the small things that teach kids grit–having chores and responsibilities, and an adult to offer support.

Bob Deutsch, a PhD in cognitive neuroscience, has a unique perspective on the role of grit in shaping our lives.

“There are different levels of grit,” Deutsch told us. “It’s not a unified, generic, all-or-nothing concept. There’s a million people who have grit, and there’s a million who don’t. But of those who don’t, at least eighty percent could have grit.” In other words, it’s a trait that can be developed, a skill that can be learned when a person is exposed to the right kind of training, experiences, and practice.

We would argue that it was grit that enabled “Air Jordan” to go on to dazzle his high school JV team and ultimately become, well, Michael Jordan. How does Jordan sum up what it took to become the best player in basketball history? “I’ve missed more than nine thousand shots in my career. I’ve lost almost three hundred games. Twenty-six times, I’ve been entrusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life, and that’s why I succeed.”

For Colin Powell, the son of Jamaican immigrants, it wasn’t until he attended the City College of New York that he found his calling–in the Reserve Officers Training Corps. ROTC gave him the structure he needed and he soon became commander of his unit, launching his historic career.

For Steve Jobs, getting fired in 1985 from Apple, the company he founded–and the failure of his subsequent venture, NeXT Computer–set the stage for one of the most remarkable business comebacks in history. As he confessed in his commencement speech at Stanford University, “[I]t turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.”

Michael Bloomberg, the three-time mayor of New York City whose $30 billion fortune makes him one of the richest people in the world, summed up the essential concept of grit when he explained his secret to success in an interview with New York magazine.

“I know what hard work is all about,” Bloomberg said. “I still come back to what my strategy always was and will continue to be: I’m not the smartest guy, but I can outwork you. It’s the one thing I can control.”

We feel the same way about grit and hard work ourselves.

Get a Bronx Attitude

We both grew up in the Bronx–a place that for generations has been synonymous with grit. We grew up in hardworking families of modest means.

Robin’s father had a small taxi business; her mother was a bookkeeper. Her parents instilled the value of hard work in her from an early age. When Robin would get a grade of 96 percent, her mother would say, encouragingly, “Next time, get one hundred.” Robin attended Syracuse University with the help of scholarships and work-study jobs. When her fine arts degree in graphic design failed to land her a dream job in the white-shoe boys’ club of Madison Avenue, she learned to type and got an administrative job in an ad agency. She watched others around her advance as she typed–badly.

“Inspired, I went back to school for an MBA, determined to work my way up to that corner office I craved.” And she did. Robin says, “While I may at times have resented that my achievements have come less easily than others’, today it is one of the things I value most in my life.”

Linda came from a middle-class family; her parents worked tirelessly to put food on the family table. Linda honed her comedic instincts and wit at that table, hoping for some of the adulation her brilliant brother received. Like the rest of her family, she attended the local public City College of New York, and then struggled as a teacher, performer, and songwriter for years, before finally landing a job in advertising. She spent the next seventeen years using her talent, tenacity, and perseverance to create notable campaigns and jingles for Kodak (“Kodak Moments”), Burger King, and Toys “R” Us, among others. Although Linda would agree her natural ability took her a couple of rungs up the ladder, it was her ability to bounce back after endless client rejections, and thousands of rewrites, that took her the rest of the way.

In 1997, Linda was the chief creative officer at a now-defunct New York ad agency and had been working on the Clairol business when another client asked her to resign Clairol because he felt it was in direct conflict with one of their hair care brands. With the backing of Clairol’s then CEO, Steve Sadove, Linda decided to resign as well and open a small boutique agency out of her home, with Clairol as her first client. Knowing Linda was first and foremost a creative copywriter, Sadove suggested she meet with Robin, who was an executive vice president and group account director at a rival agency. Robin, as it turns out, had been looking to move to another agency.

Over a shared bran muffin, Robin and Linda agreed to join forces.

And so the Kaplan Thaler Group was born with six employees on the seven-hundred-square-foot third floor of the brownstone where Linda and her family lived on Nineteenth Street in the Chelsea section of Manhattan, with Clairol’s Herbal Essences as our first account. (Remember the ad with a woman having an orgasmic experience washing her hair? Yes! Yes! Yes! That’s the one.)

None of us had run a business before. The furniture was rented. We had no high-speed copier; we borrowed Clairol’s on our way into meetings. But the one thing we did have in huge quantities was grit. We worked tirelessly 24/7, with more determination and passion than perhaps we even realized we could muster. And it paid off. We quickly won more business from Clairol, and within that first year, the Kaplan Thaler Group went from having one client to $80 million in billings, including clients such as the Red Cross and Toys “R” Us. The staff bulged to twenty-four. Every single one of us had to haul out one bag of trash at the end of the night because there wasn’t enough money to hire a commercial garbage service. There were not enough chairs for everyone, creating an unusual incentive for people to get in early. In nice weather, staff would work on the roof. Often, presentations would be assembled on the floor.