Military psychologist explains why grit matters as much as intelligence

“Grit is the flame in which talent grows.”

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Many of the traditional steps on the academic or professional ladder revolve around intellectual aptitude: standardized tests, SATs and ACTs, college GPA, the MCAT or GRE... the list goes on.

But in the last few decades, researchers have suggested people underestimate the power of non-cognitive attributes like motivation, attitude, and especially grit.

Without grit — defined by psychologists as the “perseverance and passion for long-term goals” — people may be unlikely to push past adversity and excel in their chosen field.

Michael Matthews is a psychologist and professor who has spent decades studying the concept of grit.

“We should never ignore talent,” Matthews tells Inverse. “But grit is the flame in which talent grows.”

This week, Strategy explores why grit matters, how to strengthen it, and how to move beyond “aptitude myopia” — overemphasizing intellectual traits while undervaluing non-cognitive attributes.

I’m Ali Pattillo and this is Strategy, a series packed with actionable tips to help you make the most out of your life, career, and finances.

Why grit matters

In a world searching for the “keys to success,” many researchers study CEOs, award-winning scientists, or politicians. Not Matthews. In much of his research, the psychologist studies a unique subset of the population to better understand leadership, success, and failure: West Point cadets.

West Point, the United States military academy, offers a fascinating testing ground to observe what happens when people are pushed to their physical and mental limits. Gaining admission to West Point is extremely challenging. Once you’re in, succeeding at the academy requires withstanding tremendous pressure to perform academically and physically.

How cadets survive and thrive at West Point offers lessons for other fields and industries, from finance to healthcare.

Studying this hyper-competitive environment has shown Matthews that grit can push individuals ahead of the pack, bounce back from failure, and help them achieve their goals.

“Grit is the flame in which talent grows.”

In a 2019 study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Matthews and another veteran grit researcher, Angela Duckworth, analyzed 11,258 West Point cadets over 10 years.

They looked at a vast mixture of traits — physical fitness, IQ, GPA, training completion, graduation rates, and grit.

While cognitive ability predicted grades, their physical ability and grit predicted graduation rates. Interestingly, the more cognitive ability cadets possessed, the less physically able, or “gritty,” they were.

The research, along with a series of other studies on grit, don’t suggest intelligence is insignificant, or that grit is the sole key to success. Instead, the findings suggest passion and perseverance help people overcome adversity over the long haul.

Talent alone isn’t enough to excel; sustained and focused application of that talent, in a field you care about, makes the difference.

How does one cultivate grit?

Grit requires a few key components to manifest: an activity you’re passionate about and a relatively long time scale (weeks or months), Matthews explains.

To get gritty, you need to be “deeply interested” in an activity, he says, where you've got the “fire in your belly” to really keep at it.

“A person has to find that environment where they are challenged, which stimulates their passion and their interest and allows that to spiral upward in a good way,” Matthews says.

Grit may seem vague, but when it’s put into action, you’ll feel it. Matthews cites Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow as a marker of grit, where peak enjoyment, focus, and performance combine to create an optimal experience.

Flow happens when you are totally absorbed in the task at hand, exhilarated and enjoying the moment, and lose your self-consciousness.

Experiencing flow or applying grit aren’t necessarily short-term phenomena.

“Looking at the long term, for grit to really manifest itself, it needs to be in the context of something that evolves over a long period of time,” Matthews says “I think on the short end of that might be weeks, but on a realistic end, for many people, it might be months and years.”

If you never or rarely experience flow in your current situation or profession, Matthews says it is worth considering making a change. Try different activities and self-reflect on what makes you feel that exhilarating sense of flow — from writing to rock climbing.

“Sample around and try different things within the organization,” he suggests. “And don't be afraid to leave the field or leave the organization and go do something else.”

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