The Thin Line Between Success and Failure
We all know how to succeed, but why does the divide between success and failure seem so far apart sometimes?
Why are some people great at what they do and others just average? Why are some people successful and others aren’t? Is it how we measure success, natural ability, talent, or skill? Is it luck? Most coaches know the answer to these questions, and deep down, most people know the answer; we don’t want to answer it honestly. The answer is simple, effective, and time-consuming. But before we answer, let’s look at some examples of success.
In Angela Duckworth’s book Grit, she could identify—and even predict—the key marker for why some people succeed and others do not. Duckworth analyzed cadets admitted to the West Point Academy, spelling bee champions, salespeople, musical geniuses, and a professional quarterback. No matter the field of accomplishment, Duckworth concluded there were two ways their determination played out. “First, these exemplars were unusually resilient and hard working. Second, they knew in a very, very deep way what they wanted. They not only had determination, they had direction…It was this combination of passion and perseverance that made high achiever special.”
Duckworth’s research on West Point Academy cadets particularly intrigued me because one of my former track and field athletes is in the Academy. It made me think back on her days as an athlete with us and if she exhibited any of the signs Duckworth discusses in her book. In Grit, Duckworth made a “Grit Scale” test that rivaled The Whole Candidate Score, which the Academy uses for admissions. Duckworth’s Grit Scale Test was a more reliable predictor of who made it through the first year of the Academy and who did not. “In fact, cadets with the highest Whole Candidate Scores were just as likely to drop out as those with the lower,” Duckworth found.
So when I thought back on my athlete who ran track and field for us, she fit Duckworth’s descriptions almost precisely. She was not the fastest nor most naturally skilled athlete on our team. What she did have was the trust in her coaches to do everything asked of her and more. Though track and field wasn’t necessarily her life’s goal, she took it seriously and made it a point to be the best she could be. She rarely missed practices, learned from the people who were better than her and trained with them, and pushed herself to her limits. She never won any prestigious awards nor reached the top of her sport, but she developed grit.
The first month she was at West Point, her mom asked me to pray for her and told me she was having doubts about persevering through the grueling process of Beast—an intensive seven-week training regiment. Now, she is in her third year at West Point. She contributes her perseverance to all the attributes I saw she possessed and exhibited as an athlete in high school. She knew, and knows, profoundly what she wanted out of the process. She’s a hard worker, and she has direction.
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For many, it’s straightforward why they don’t experience success. They lack one of grit’s two major contributing factors. Either they don’t know what they want out of a process even if they work hard, or they know what they want but aren’t willing to persevere through adversity. To no surprise, Duckworth found that “Some people are great when things are going well, but they fall apart when things don’t.”
If you haven’t caught the answer by now for why some people are successful at what they do and others aren’t the simple and effective answer is grit. There’s much to parse in the ways grit develops and the different ways it can show up. But for now, consider some of these questions from Duckworth’s Grit Scale Test:
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