Book Review: Grit to Great

Grit to GreatI was initially put off by the title of this book, because I loved “Good to Great” by Jim Collins, and this seemed to be an attempt to capitalize on the popularity of Collins’ book. But, after a few pages, I realized this book is about individual success rather than organizational success. GRIT is an acronym for guts, resilience, initiative, and tenacity. In other words, people who work hard and don’t give up will eventually succeed.

Thaler and Koval are both advertising whiz kids who created a hugely successful agency through hard work and…well, grit. So they know whereof they speak. The book is designed to be an inspirational self-help book, and in that regard, I think it succeeds admirably. It is filled with fascinating stories about people who were not blessed with particular intelligence or talent, but who succeeded by showing grit. The stories are the backbone of the book, along with the “Grit Builder” suggestions at the end of each chapter.

However, I found myself arguing with the authors throughout the book. “What about luck? Isn’t that important for success?” They don’t address this directly, but I think they would answer, “You make your own luck by hanging in there and keeping at it. Eventually you will succeed.” And then I would argue, “But what about discrimination?” They don’t deal with societal and cultural barriers. The people whose stories they describe didn’t let those things become barriers. But then I mentally asked, “But there isn’t room at the top for everybody. How do you deal with that?” I think they would say, “We don’t. We’re just giving you the formula for success. You can take it or leave it.” Fair enough. I can buy that.

The authors think it is time for some good old common sense about the value of hard work. They say: “It seems as if we are getting soft. Grit is about sweat, not swagger. Character, not charisma. Grit has been equated more with methodical stick-to-itiveness and survival than any secret ingredient to success…Grit is the result of a hard-fought struggle, a willingness to take risks, a strong sense of determination, working relentlessly toward a goal, taking challenges in stride, and having the passion and perseverance to accomplish difficult things, even if you are wallowing in the most difficult circumstances.”

They don’t think too much of the self-esteem movement, which they claim has undermined “the natural grit that this nation of immigrants brought with them in building a new life in a new land.” In fact, they make a point to tell readers “You’re nothing special,” and “Don’t flatter yourself that you are super-talented.” Just get to work, and you can succeed if you stick to it.

The stories of people who have succeeded in spite of not being naturally great were really fun. Some I was familiar with, such as how Michael Jordan was cut from the school’s basketball varsity team as a sophomore and went home to practice and practice until he became…Michael Jordan. Other stories were of people not so well known, such as Marin Alsop who became the first woman conductor of a major orchestra, even though she had been told women couldn’t be conductors. Or Eleanor Longden, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia and yet managed to get a PhD in psychology through amazingly hard work and the support of her doctor and her mother.

Some of their “Grit Builders” include: become an overpreparer; add a half hour a day to apply yourself to whatever you want to master; if Plan A doesn’t work, embrace Plan B; and an excuse a day makes the goals go away, so just do it. We know all these things, but it’s good to be reminded of them, especially when the way forward seems especially bleak.

This would be a good book to read on a plane. It’s short, clearly written, and is designed to help you buck up when you are discouraged or dreading that next meeting.

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