Talent is Overrated: Why Grit is What you Need to Reach the Top
Derek Redmond was Great Britain’s premier 400m runner at the 1992 Olympics who didn’t get past the semi-final. You’d think that no-one would remember him, but millions do. Even Barack Obama is a fan. Why” he was a great athlete (and a World Championship Gold Medalist), Derek Redmond is mostly remembered for coming in last in the 1992 Olympics 400m final. The fact he finished at all can be considered a great achievement. Halfway through the race his hamstring snapped and Redmond fell to the ground in agony as the other runners sped towards the finish line. It was obvious that he couldn’t win, and he was in obvious pain. Most people would have given up, but not he. He was determined to finish the race he started, and so he began to hobble the remaining 150m or so to reach the finish line. As he struggled on, he was joined on the racetrack by his father, who’d run down from the stands first to plead with him to cry uncle, then, to help him hobble to the finish line when Redmond refused to quit. By the time they ended the race, the whole stadium was on its feet applauding this display of bravery. The event has continued to inspire reverence and was voted the 3rd most famous Olympic moment in an NBC poll.
Derek Redmond’s inspirational story displays a lot of what we know as grit. Grit is the characteristic that means we get back up after a fall; it’s our resilience and self-control in the face of adversity; it’s the long nights of hard work we put in to achieve a goal, and the passion we display when doing what we love.
From our earliest years, grit plays an important role in our development. In his book, How Children Succeed, author Paul Tough reveals that children who display healthy levels of grit are generally more successful throughout their lives. The results of the the iconic marshmallow experiment demonstrate this beautifully. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, Stanford university tested the self control and determination a number of 4-year-olds by placing them in the room with a single marshmallow, forbidding them to eat it, and then leaving them alone with the fluffy sweet. They found that the children who resisted the temptation to gobble it down—those who had higher levels of grit—ended up with higher SATS scores, healthier finances, and better relationships later in life.
One of the reasons why grit is so important to our success is that it keeps us focused on goals and allows us to reach our potential. In fact, according to Linda Kaplan Thaler and Robin Koval’s book, Grit to Great, it is much more important than talent in determining how great we become. The talented often get by on just doing enough to slide by. On the other hand, those with less talent but higher levels of grit are always striving to get better to reach their goals. This means that they therefore have more chance of development. For example, the director of Iowa University’s internationally-famous writing program found that the most successful writers were those who most wanted to become great—not the ones with the most natural talent.
The determination of those with grit brings us to perhaps its most important benefit. Grit forces people to get back up after failure, and Derek Redmond’s career yet again provides us with the perfect example. Over his long athletics career, he’d already gone through multiple injuries and setbacks before the infamous race. These experiences just made him more determined to keep going no matter what the odds. It was his well-developed grit that pushed him to finish the 1992 semi-final despite the pain and the obvious last place.
Grit is vital if you want to succeed, and one last look at Derek Redmond’s later career will confirm this. When doctors advised him to give up running—warning it could lead to walking difficulties—he pushed himself to try other things instead. He became a basketball player and represented the UK national team, he took up rugby, and he also stepped up as a Sprint and Hurdles coach for the UK athletics team. After all he had been through, it would have been understandable for Redmond to quit sport altogether, but his grit kept him going and, if not winning medals, seriously winning at life.