The Secret to Success is Grit

Passionate people persevere. They overcome significant obstacles. They "hang in" when the going gets tough and when others might give up. What is that characteristic that allows such people to achieve and inspire? Psychologists say it is "grit". 

Grit is a combination of perseverance and determination. It is stamina in direction and interests, and it can determine who succeeds where others falter. West Point uses grit to predict who will graduate. Hospitals use grit to decide which doctors and nurses will thrive. Schools use it to predict which students will graduate with diplomas. Grit can be measured, cultivated, and utilized to build stronger, more resilient teams.  

During the early days of Rubicon, my small team would post pictures on the walls of our office of places where we imagined we could be after a few more years of work. These were pictures of places we wanted to visit or buildings in which we imagined working. We were working out of a tiny office — one of our investors had a spare room in their headquarters. So there we sat, in our tiny office, looking every day at inspirational pictures of what we knew in our hearts we could achieve if we hung in and surmounted every challenge. 

Grit helped us build Rubicon from that small office into a company with operations in 22 countries. It helped us innovate in an industry that had not seen meaningful innovation in 2,000 years. It helped us reimagine the waste industry away from the landfill model at scale and imagine a future without waste. 

Angela Duckworth is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of GRIT: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. Professor Duckworth says there are three things to master if you want to increase your grittiness:  

1)  Ignite your interests. Passion is the first component of grit, and passion evolves from having a keen interest in things. The more interested you are in something, the more likely you are to practice, and the better you will become. 

For me, reducing waste is a passion. I come from a working family in Kentucky. We did not always have a lot of resources. I saw the waste of anything, be it money, time, or material, as an insult.  

Turning that passion for reducing waste towards creating Rubicon allowed me to bring the energy of lifelong interest to bear on a new challenge. I believe this is a significant reason why we have succeeded.  

2)  Pursue purpose. Having a personal or professional mission can help you find meaning in what you do, develop a passion for serving others, and become “grittier”.  

At Rubicon, our mission to end waste imbues everything we do with purpose and meaning. It has allowed us to maintain our status as a Certified B Corporation even as we have grown and evolved.  

Rubicon was also recently certified again as a Great Place to Work® for the fourth consecutive year. The systemic failure of most tech companies is not in technology but in culture. I am proud to say that our culture is strong, and a huge part of that is our company's shared purpose.  

3)  Have faith. Earnestly believe that you will become what you wish to become, that your efforts will have a positive result and that what you see will be. 

This brings us back to that small office. We could easily have despaired of ever achieving our goals, but we had faith that our efforts would succeed. We visualized our success, and we reached it.   

The best part about grit is it is not just limited to the young. Unlike other performance indicators, grit increases as a person gets older. 

The list of Americans with successful accomplishments into their golden years is impressive. It includes Betty White, Julia Child, Ray Kroc, and Samuel L. Jackson. Famed NFL owner Jerry Jones described T. Boone Pickens as “the best 4th quarter player he had ever seen,” referring to his immense success as a leader in energy in his later years. One of my favorite business success stories was that of the great Kentuckian Harlan Sanders, who was broke at age 65 but then turned it around and started selling his Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise. Why? He had grit. 

This phenomenon of the grit-fueled "third act" is a testament to the breadth of availability of the American Dream. That people in their waning years are nevertheless able to muster their resources — grit among them — to achieve greatness is a sign that in America, greatness is available to all who seek it, no matter where you come from, who your parents were, or even how old you are.  

I am a firm believer in the availability of the American Dream to all. We know now that grit is a crucial component in seeking it.

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