Grit vs. Talent

What do you really need to succeed?


For 14 laps, this is the way it went: Andrew led and Noah followed. The dozen or so other competitors in the state championship 3200m field gradually sloughed off the back, unable to sustain the relentless pace the duo set. For Andrew, they were irrelevant. His focus was singular. For years he’d heard about Noah. Noah was fast. Noah was shifty. Noah was talented.

Noah was also his teammate.

Now there were 400 meters remaining. Two laps on an indoor track. Andrew hadn’t slackened for so much as a step, but Noah moved up on the outside. Andrew tried to keep his emotions in check. His vision of winning a State title was predicated not on his talent, but his grit. It was his desire, his singlemindedness, his devotion to the task that kept him in the race. He was the one running 75-mile weeks, darn it. Now was the moment of truth.

According to our cultural narrative, this is the moment Andrew finds a last burst and comes home with the crown. In reality, it wasn’t even close. Noah put in a first-class burst of speed and won by nine seconds over that last quarter-mile.

In the aftermath, it was easy to assign tags: Noah won because he was more talented. Andrew made the race exciting because he was grittier.

On a superficial level, both of those statements seemed true. But did lauding one athlete for their talent and one of their grit actually limit their growth as complete runners? And could synthesizing the two approaches actually open the door for every runner to better maximize their gifts?

The Narratives We Create

Grit, right now, is all the rage. Angela Duckworth’s Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance has made the word a goldmine, mostly because it seems achievable for anyone. "Grit is passion and perseverance for long-term and meaningful goals,” writes Caren Baruch-Feldman, PhD, author of The Grit Guide for Teens. "It is the ability to persist in something you feel passionate about and persevere when you face obstacles. This kind of passion is not about intense emotions or infatuation. It’s about having direction and commitment.”

That resonates because it sounds like something we can harness, unlike talent, which is seen as a genetic fluke. As a term of endearment, grit is fairly new. For the longest time we reserved the descriptor “gritty” for the less-talented athlete who plodded away at their task day after day. It was a backhanded compliment, a second-class fill-in for the more desirable descriptor: talented. 

These days most of us likely want to view ourselves as gritty. We don’t believe we have the incredible talent of an Eliud Kipchoge, the Kenyan marathoner who nearly broke two hours for the marathon last year. Absent that ability, we fall back on the narrative of being gritty, of getting in our runs at 5 a.m. or in ice storms or while the newborn sleeps. If we can just will it hard enough, we can overcome the talent gap. We watch a so-called “blue collar” runner like Desi Davila, clawing away in the brutal rains and winds of this year’s Boston Marathon, and we envision this a victory for grit. After all, in ending the American winner drought at Boston, she put away more talented runners like Shalane Flanagan and Molly Huddle (ignoring, conveniently, that Davila’s marathon personal best is several minutes faster than Huddle’s). 

There is nothing wrong with celebrating grit; in fact, none of the athletes – from Andrew and Noah to Desi Davila and Eliud Kipchoge – would be worth mentioning without it. And that’s the point that’s often missed when topics like grit get channeled into the self-help realm. Desi Davila runs 130 miles a week, but so, too, does Kipchoge. The best athletes usually are naturally talented and gritty. And when we emulate that tenacity with a belief in our talents, our chance to succeed rises exponentially.

The Power of Grit

Perhaps the most beneficial thing to come out of the grit phenomenon has been a stronger belief in self-determinism. Malcolm Gladwell got this ball rolling when he publically stumped the 10,000 hours rule in his book Outliers. Even though the notion that mastery is achieved after 10,000 hours of practice has not held up well to further research, it did show that masters of their craft typically put in incredible volumes of work to reach their peak.

Duckworth’s research is particularly interesting to runners, because many of the situations where grit proves to be most beneficial are arduous tasks such as making it through the United States Military Academy’s grueling boot camp known as Beast. The parallels between distance running and enduring a Hell Week may seem flimsy, but consider the determination, sacrifice and full-on commitment needed to tackle marathon training. Plenty of talented athletes (there’s that word again) have balked at the notion of putting in triple digit mileage weeks or skipping Saturday nights on the town, even if the marathon was something they’ve long dreamed of. Only those with grit will see the training through to the end, knowing there are no guarantees in the sport of running.

Grit doesn’t exist in a vacuum, however. In fact, it may rest partly in our DNA. As David Epstein discusses in The Sports Gene, Iditarod racers have bred the Alaskan Husky to have webbed toes, a voracious appetite, an incredibly responsive cardiopulmonary system and, most interestingly, a stronger work ethic. Studies looking at mice have confirmed the same thing – when bred specifically for work ethic, scientists can quickly produce generations of rodents that inherently enjoy running and will put in countless miles on a treadmill for no visible reward. 

“Who says motivation isn’t genetic?” asks researcher Theodore Garland in the book. “In these mice, it’s absolutely the case that motivation has evolved.”

Revisiting Grit and Talent

The day Noah outkicked Andrew was the first of nine state titles he won in his high school career. He ended up running 4:17 for the mile as a junior, one of the top 100 performances turned in by a junior that year. Andrew, meanwhile, won a relay state title and several times earned All-State honors, but never stood alone atop the podium.

When both runners looked at continuing their careers in college, they found schools that matched their talented and gritty labels. A school that participated in the NCAA Championships every year invited Noah to walk on. Suddenly the slowest person on his team, Noah initially struggled. His talent no longer matched the talent of his peers; he would need to rely on grit to adapt and catch up. 

On the flipside, Andrew entered a school filled with chip-on-their-shoulder types who were willing to run 100 miles each week to prove their talent. Not surprisingly, Andrew thrived in this environment and became the only member of the freshman class to get called up to the varsity team during the cross-country season. Now Andrew was being lauded for his talent of holding a steady pace for long periods of time. 

Every runner has a finite limit on their performances determined by genetics, but it’s grit that will determine how close they get to their talent ceiling. The best runners (and, if we’re honest with ourselves, the best performers in any field) are generally those who have a lot of genetic talent and then work their tails off to fulfill that potential.

Ultimately, that’s what grit is all about: not letting potential get wasted. You can’t rewire your DNA, but by golly you can see how far you can push it.

Tips for increasing your grit

Here are five ways you can increase your grit, according to an interview with Angela Duckworth, and my take on how you can apply that to running.

  • Pursue what interests you. 
    Stick-to-it-ivness only develops if you truly are passionate about what you’re doing. If you run because you love the sport and competition you’re more likely to grind things out when things get tough than if you’re doing it for fitness or body goals.
  • Practice a lot. 
    You can’t achieve mastery without focused and determined practice. That means getting in the routine of running every time you’re supposed to without making excuses. It can be hard to try and correct a weakness, but deliberate practice is the best way to achieve excellence.
  • Find purpose. 
    What drives you on this quest? What makes running so important in your life? Answer these questions and you’ll likely find the resolve to persist. Gritty people do their task with conviction. For a gritty runner, this sport would be their “calling.”
  • Have hope. 
    This is all about self-determinism. If you resolve to make your next training cycle better, you’re more likely to succeed than if you just blindly hope for it. Take accountability for your actions and make good decisions that support your goals.
  • Hang out with other gritty people. 
    Why do great athletes gravitate towards great teams? Because those organizations are filled with other gritty types, ones who expect excellence to come through hard work and collective talent.

To see just how gritty you are, consider taking Duckworth’s online grit scale.

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