Good luck if you have no grit: highlights from the 99% Conference

Bestselling author Jonah Lehrer lays out how Bob Dylan, Beethoven, and Einstein achieved success.
Written by Sonya James, Contributor
Jocelyn K. Glei behind the scenes at the 99% Conference (photographed by Parris Wittingham)

NEW YORK CITY – “In essence, Twitter is the new marshmallow,” writes Jocelyn K. Glei, Editor-in-Chief of 99%.

For the annual 99% Conference, Glei lined up a crew of creative industry thinkers and makers to speak about what it takes to not only have great ideas, but to execute them effectively.

Over the two-day event authors, artists, educators, CEOs, entrepreneurs, and designers unraveled how we can avoid the marshmallows of today.

Remember Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel’s Marshmallow Test? In the late 1960s researchers famously experimented on a group of children (I swear this ends well).

A marshmallow (or other sweet delight) was placed in front of each child. Then the researchers said something along the lines of, “You can eat the treat now, or if you wait 15 minutes we will give you another one.”

The researchers showed up again when the children were in high school. Those who refrained from eating the treat were, in essence, having a better go at it.  These early displays of self-control lead to higher grades, less addiction, and being generally better behaved.

But self-control is actually an outdated measure of future success. If Twitter is the new marshmallow, what character trait keeps us from glancing down at our phones? How do we get the air quotes off "that novel we’re writing"? How do we stop refreshing our email or browsing acquaintance's photos on Facebook?

According to author Jonah Lehrer, we use “grit”.

Jonah Lehrer at The 99% Conference (photographed by Parris Wittingham)

For a bestselling author known for writing on neuroscience, Lehrer is surprisingly chic. He stood in front of the 400 or so attendees with a hip young Brandoesque confidence.

“What defines the 99%? “ Lehrer asked the crowd – and no, not the financially suffering 99%.

Lehrer is referring to the Thomas Edison quote “Genius is 1% inspiration, and 99% perspiration – “ which Behance, the company behind The 99% Conference also referenced (before an international movement re-articulated the equation).

“When you look at highly successful creative people – those epicreators on the far right side of the bell curve,” Lehrer said, “Bob Dylan, Pablo Picasso, Steve Jobs – and you ask yourself, “What makes them special? What makes them different from you and me?” At first glance, the answer isn’t clear.

You can give them an IQ test and it turns out they’ll look pretty normal,” Lehrer continued. “They are not really smarter than the general population. You can give them a battery of old-fashioned personality tests, Myers-Briggs and all the rest. Once again, they’ll look pretty normal.

Instead what psychologists have begun to discover in recent years is sure enough, they are different from us. And the character trait that sets them apart is a character trait called grit.

Stubbornness, persistence, single mindedness. Grit is the stubborn refusal to quit.”

Above any other measure, a person’s level of grittiness will reveal their ability to execute ideas and sustain long-term goals.

University of Pennsylvania professor Angela Duckworth coined the term grit by taking the marshmallow experiment an essential step further.

In 2005, West Point military academy found itself in a tricky situation. Five percent of its new attendees were dropping out. Why were so many kids quitting? Yes it was tough training, but the academy’s submissions process was extensive.

West Point did a slew of tests trying to figure out how to foresee which candidates would succeed. Nothing worked.

In stepped Duckworth.

Duckworth came up with a simple, three-minute, twelve-question survey. It covered two domains: how single minded are you? And, how do you react to the inevitable frustrations and failures along the way?

For the first time in West Point history, success rates were predicted accurately.

“Grit allows us to practice the right way, which is not the fun way,” Lehrer said.

Since 2005, Duckworth has shown in field after field that grit is the single best predictor of success.

“Which entrepreneurs are going to make the most money three years out of business school? The ones with the highest levels of grit,” Lehrer added.

Example after example shows that grit – this uncompromising stick-to-itiveness – trumps the grandeur of a genius idea every time.

“Grit allows us to keep on going,” said Lehrer, emphasizing each word.

On one hand, it is heartening to know that hard work pays off. On the other hand, Lehrer did not seem to notice the elephant in the room.

Is grit something you are born with?

If the answer is no, perhaps other speakers at the 99% Conference can offer some solace. Keith Yamashita will tell you what your superpower is – and I promise, everybody has one.

[Images: 99%; Parris Wittingham Studio]

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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