Talent Versus Grit: Why Some Agency Careers Stall While Others Soar

April 19, 2017

When it comes to career success, what matters more: talent or grit?

It’s a question brilliantly explored in a fascinating book called “Grit” by Angela Duckworth, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and 2013 MacArthur genius grant winner.

Duckworth has studied grit for much of her professional life, and offers a wide spectrum of studies and anecdotes to back up her assertion that grit will take you a lot farther that mere talent. Actor Will Smith is among those who agree. Says Smith, “The separation of talent and skill is one of the most misunderstood concepts for people who are trying to excel, who have dreams, who want to do things. Talent you have naturally. Skill is only developed by hours and hours and hours of beating on your craft.”

Duckworth expands on Smith’s statement by adding, “…Skill is not the same thing as achievement either. Without effort, your talent is nothing more than your unmet potential. Without effort, your skill is nothing more than what you could have done but didn’t. With effort, talent becomes skill, and, at the very same time, effort makes skill productive.”

There you have it: According to the leading researcher on the topic, effort matters more than talent. I could offer countless examples of people I’ve worked with over the years who have been short of talent and long on grit, but have built very successful careers in our industry. Conversely, I have seen almost no long-term success stories among those in our business who have loads of talent, but no grit. That said, the superstars in our industry almost always have both.

So what are the traits of someone who has real grit? Duckworth offers four:

  • Interest: This is all about passion. It’s about curiosity and loving what you do
  • Practice: This is about the constant drive get better
  • Purpose: This about feeling that what you are doing matters.
  • Hope: This is about optimism. It’s the drive to keep going even when the going gets tough.

Over the years, I’ve come to believe that people who have a history of job-hopping on their resumes are likely less gritty than those who have stayed at jobs for longer periods, and I tend to look less favorably on those candidates. It’s not an absolute, of course, but Duckworth’s paragons of grit suggest that there’s something to that. The grittiest and therefore most successful people I’ve worked with in my career are usually the ones who have done the least job-hopping. They fight through tough times rather than fleeing. They are constantly trying to improve and they are completely bought into the culture and the idea that what they are doing has value. And they are deeply passionate about their craft. And while they appreciate rewards such as more money or bigger titles, in the long run, they are looking for something deeper and more meaningful than those things.

For those struggling to find a toehold in their career, Duckworth’s book offers all sorts of great advice for becoming a grittier and therefore a more successful person. It can be done, she assures us. And she offers some terrific advice for parents who want to raise grittier and more successful kids.

It’s worth a read. Consider it part of your constant drive to get better.