How to Show More Grit at Work

Do you struggle to keep going when something feels hard? Modern Mentor shares the secrets to developing grit (and how it can help you succeed at work).

Rachel Cooke
5-minute read
Episode #648
The Quick And Dirty

Grit isn't something you're born with. It's the strength of will that keeps you going even during setbacks and failures. You can develop grit by taking these 4 steps:

1. Begin with passion

2. Practice deliberately

3. Tap into hope

4. Find your people

Michael Jordan. J.K. Rowling. Oprah Winfrey.

What do these names have in common? Fame and fortune, yes. But also, a tremendous number of setbacks, rejections, and failures on their resumes. Jordan didn’t make the high school varsity team. Rowling was rejected by 12 publishers who missed the magic of Harry Potter. Winfrey was fired from her first ever television anchor job. 

And yet these people kept going, somehow magically knowing that they would succeed in spite of the odds stacked against them. In hindsight, we’re glad they did. But in those moments of devastation, what is it that kept them from admitting defeat?

Angela Duckworth, Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, might point to "grit" as a leading force behind their sticking to it. Duckworth coined the term in her 2016 book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, and it’s been a buzzword in the professional world ever since. Companies want to hire and promote people with grit. And we all want to demonstrate it.

But what actually is grit? And how can you cultivate yours? Let’s tackle this together.

Grit is that will, commitment, and perseverance to keep pursuing excellence at something even in the face of setbacks.

What is grit?

“Grit is passion and perseverance for long-term goals,” says Duckworth. “Grit isn’t talent. Grit isn’t luck. Grit isn’t how intensely, for the moment, you want something…Grit is the quality that allows an individual to work hard and maintain focus—not just for weeks or months, but for years.”

In other words, it’s that will, commitment, and perseverance to keep pursuing excellence at something even in the face of setbacks.

How does grit drive your success?

Organizations want to hire and promote gritty talent.  In a discussion with CLO Magazine, Danielle McMahan, Talent Development expert, says “The organization looks for candidates who can talk about past challenges and how they changed outcomes by persevering.”

In the same article, Global Talent Management professional Maureen Whatley says “In discussions about people’s advancement, we look specifically at their track record…Have they been a consistently great performer? Grit is definitely something we look for when considering who to advance further...”

How can I cultivate grit?

If you’re striving to grow in your career, then grit definitely matters. So how can you cultivate it?

Step #1: Begin with passion 

Developing an ability to commit and persevere begins with your own motivation to do so. So, begin with something you care about improving. This doesn’t mean you have to suddenly strive for world peace or becoming CEO of a Fortune 500 company overnight. Focus instead on specific skills or capabilities that light you up – that you’d like to sharpen and develop. Maybe you’re an account manager and the job itself is meh. But spending time leading your team or using data to define campaign strategies excites you. This is what you focus on. Make it your mission to be the best darn leader or strategist that you can. Let this be your starting place.

Step #2: Practice, deliberately

Developing grit means practicing the thing that you're striving for. But not all practice is created equal.

In his Harvard Business Review essay, K. Anders Ericsson explains, “When most people practice, they focus on the things they already know how to do. Deliberate practice is different. It entails considerable, specific, and sustained efforts to do something you can’t do well—or even at all…[It] involves two kinds of learning: improving the skills you already have and extending the reach and range of your skills. And it’s grounded in your intention to learn and develop.”

Playing the piano mindlessly for an hour is traditional practice. Playing with intense concentration, focusing on changes in finger movement, rhythm, volume, and paying attention to the result you produce is deliberate practice.

Deliberate practice is different. It entails considerable, specific, and sustained efforts to do something you can’t do well—or even at all.

When I first started my business, I knew that sales was going to challenge me. But it was going to be critical to my success, so I committed to deliberate practice early on. In my earliest days, I set up as many calls as possible with people in my network. At the time I wasn’t focused on selling work, but rather on sharpening my ability to sell. I experimented with different techniques, told different stories, shared different case studies, asked different questions, and paid attention to how each variable served me.

I faced a lot of rejection in those early days – but I kept on going because I was motivated to build this skill. Today I’m not perfect, but I’m miles beyond where I began.

Now back to your starting point. What do you most need to sharpen, and how will you begin a deliberate practice of your own?

Striving to shine as a leader? Try putting a couple of one-on-one meeting with team members on your calendar. Use a few different techniques in engaging with them, and pay close attention to the response. Do they seem energized? If so, great! Keep doing more of what you're doing. If you notice them staring off into the distance or remaining unmotivated, change tactics. The bottom line is you need to be responsive and adapt your approach until you find what works toward your goal.

Step #3: Tap into hope

I’m a native New Yorker – a bit of a natural cynic. Optimism doesn’t always come naturally to me. But grit calls for a specific brand of hope. In her book, Duckworth says, “One kind of hope is the expectation that tomorrow will be better than today ... The onus is on the universe to make things better. Grit depends on a different kind of hope. It rests on the expectation that our own efforts can improve our future. 'I have a feeling tomorrow will be better' is different from 'I resolve to make tomorrow better.'”

The idea is that we have hope in ourselves. This, I found, I was able to get behind. One tactic that worked for me was to keep a journal of my progress.  I took notes on what I tried, what I learned along the way, and how my results started changing for the better. Seeing a slow track record of my own success gave me hope to keep going.

What’s something you might try to give yourself the gift of faith in yourself? As Henry Ford famously said, “Whether you believe you can or you can’t, you’re right.”  So try different approaches, track your progress, and believe that you can.

Step #4: Find your people

We can achieve more when we surround ourselves with people on the same mission.  The American Society of Training and Development found that we are 65% more likely to meet a goal after committing to another person. The chances of success increase to 95% when we institute ongoing meetings with their partners to track progress.

So who around you is also striving to stick with it and get better at something? I have a client determined to sharpen his public speaking skills. He’s found a few colleagues on a similar mission and they connect twice a month to practice upcoming talks with each other in a safe space. They coach, challenge, and cheer each other on. And the power of that collective helps keep them all on point.

So now, back to you. Where are you hoping your grit will start to shine through? Choose your passion, pick your team, track your progress, and start your journey today.


About the Author

Rachel Cooke

Rachel Cooke is a leadership and workplace expert who holds her M.A. in Organizational Psychology from Columbia University. Founder of Lead Above Noise, she has been named a top 100 Leadership Speaker by Inc. Magazine and has been featured in Fast Company, The Huffington Post, and many more.