Grit: An Essential Element in Academic Success

Grit: An Essential Element in Academic Success

Talent is something, but talent alone is not everything.

There may be people who have more talent than you, but there’s no excuse for anyone to work harder than you do.

Coach K’s quote has long been a favorite of mine, and I have had it pinned at the top of my Twitter profile for several years as reflective of my own personal philosophy that a strong and abiding work ethic will take you a long way in life. As I have been privileged to mentor and develop students and faculty alike over the years, my consistent message is that talent is something, but talent alone is not everything. In a recent book, author and former McKinsey consultant Angela Duckworth has termed this ability to demonstrate unusual hard work and passion, and the perseverance to see goals through to their end, as grit. In thinking about this extraordinary drive to succeed, I thought about whom I would consider to be the “grittiest” person I know.

The answer was easy. The grittiest person I’ve ever known is my friend Jackie Stiles. Jackie is a college women’s basketball coach and has been inducted into both the national High School Hall of Fame and the College Basketball Hall of Fame. For 16 years, until just this past year, she held the national record for most points scored in women’s college basketball and as a player led her team in an unexpected rise to the NCAA women’s basketball Final Four playoff tournament.

Yes, Jackie is undeniably very talented, but there are countless talented basketball players. What distinguished Jackie from the pack was her highly disciplined training routine, which included a daily regimen of her now legendary 1,000-baskets-a-day drill. Not shots, but baskets made. After I got to know Jackie, I watched some of her famous routine on YouTube and was inspired by her unwavering commitment to work ethic and discipline in her training.

Jackie is part of a successful coaching team now at her alma mater and is much beloved. However, her story of grit doesn’t end there. Earlier this year Jackie suffered a major health setback when she was diagnosed with ocular cancer and had surgery to save her left eye. In true Jackie Stiles form, she had a stationary bike brought into her hospital room to miss as little training time as possible. That is grit. I’m happy to say that today Jackie is on the road to a full recovery and is using her experience to inspire others to face difficult circumstances with determination and perseverance.

Twitter post about battling cancer from Jackie Stiles' page

So what does athletic grit have to do with academic grit? Actually, a lot. Both require talent as a necessary, but not sufficient, component to unusually high achievement and success. I believe the distinguishing element in both athletic and academic success is grit. Having traversed that road from doctoral student, through tenure, to full professor, I’ve observed the role that grit plays at each of these stages, both in myself and in others.

Doctoral programs in business are highly competitive and typically admit a small number of students, who then spend four to seven years earning their degree. These are all talented and smart people, some with near-perfect GMAT scores. Yet there is considerable attrition in doctoral programs, often after several years invested. Apart from life circumstances that sometimes divert students away from completing a doctoral program, the thing that often deters students from degree completion is the inability to simply persevere through the years of hard work.

In the faculty world, a similar phenomenon can be observed—faculty are not able to gain traction in their scholarship and publications and as a consequence struggle to progress through the tenure process in an efficient or effective manner. It is almost never for lack of talent that one fails to publish. Rather, it’s commonly an inability to prepare a plan and stick to it in a disciplined manner to advance an impactful scholarly research record.

Because developing an effective plan is often not intuitive, I offer the following concrete action steps for both doctoral students as well as faculty on the tenure and/or promotion track to lay the groundwork for success. This action plan is built on the exact principles that Jackie Stiles displayed that embodied grit earlier in her athletic career and today.

  1. First and foremost, create a formal, written business plan for how you will successfully complete your goal (e.g., obtain your doctorate, gain tenure, or be promoted). Jackie keeps meticulous records of her workout plans and goals and records her progress daily. Your plan should Identify major milestones, supporting objectives, and timelines. Pin the plan to your bulletin board and regularly revisit it to see if you are on track. It’s fine to revise your plan as time goes on since few of us have crystal balls that inform us of the unforeseen events that will undoubtedly arise. Perfection is not the goal; discipline is the goal. Without discipline, your chances of a successful outcome decrease considerably.
  2. Build a strong network of relationships. Attend academic and social events and get to know people who are working in your area, even if it means you have to walk into an event where you know virtually no one in the room. Have courage and extend yourself. You will grow by pushing yourself outside your comfort zone. Don’t skip the conference reception—that’s often where you will meet people who may be future colleagues or coauthors.
  3. Keep a regular daily routine that reinforces discipline, but at the same time gives you permission to have down time. Working 24/7 is not sustainable in the long run and will endanger your health and your relationships.
  4. Set a specific goal to write a certain number of pages of original work every day. Writing well is a necessary skill for success in academia. The more you write, the more comfortable you will become with the process of articulating your ideas and finding your particular style and voice. If you are a doctoral student you will usually have assignments that will provide a context for writing, but if you don’t have a given context, write on something in which you are interested in pursuing as a research topic in the future. Faculty should write on current research projects.
  5. Last, move your research agenda forward. For faculty on the tenure and/or promotion track in particular, your success will often depend on this momentum. Your business plan should contain multiple research projects at various stages. Five to seven active research projects is a good goal, with your portfolio containing a continuum from early-stage projects to projects under revision for resubmitting. Finding this balance can be hard in the early stage of your faculty career since you sometimes have very substantial teaching responsibilities right at the start of your new faculty position. For this reason, both having a plan and building relationships with others are important steps in the process.

Multiple other variables will factor into whether or not you are successful in creating a research portfolio that will have impact, and that will ultimately enrich your academic career. Some variables will be out of your control. But you can create a plan for success and determine to persevere. You will have setbacks. Expect them and choose to keep moving forward to the very best of your ability. Talent got you in the door. Now it’s up to you to have the grit to reach your goals.

Stephanie BryantFollow Stephanie Bryant on Twitter @StephMBryant.