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Psychologist Angela Duckworth knows what separates those who move forward from those who dwell on adversity. She wrote a whole book about it—Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. Here’s what she says separates the also-rans from the success stories.

Photo: Zach Teris

Photo: Zach Teris

Don’t fixate on things that aren’t fixable

All the highly successful people I’ve studied are biased toward information they can act on to change the situation they face, and they understand that not all opportunities are equal. For example, they may recognize that that guy got a promotion and they didn’t because maybe his father is the chairman of the board or he has other connections. Or maybe he’s more talented than they are or more experienced. Ultimately, what they’re always looking for is: What is it in this big, complex situation that I have a little bit of control over?

Think about the long-term value of your work

People tend to conceptualize their work in one of three ways: as a job, which does nothing more than pay the bills; as a career, where the focus is on climbing the ladder; or as a calling. The grittier people I’ve studied are the ones who say they have a calling, not a career or a job. It’s important to emphasize that you aren’t necessarily a “calling person” or “career person” or “job person”—the way you approach your work depends on your perspective.

For instance, I interviewed the chief engineer for New York City’s public transit authority. He’s worked there his entire life. It started as a job and then quickly became a career, as he realized he could move up in the company. Not long after that, it became a calling—he actually used the word and told me, “This is a calling.” He would look at the rivets and the bolts and the caverns underground and think, That is going to be here in 30 years. That’s the kind of thing that shows someone has a calling: when they can see their part in the history of something; when they can see that their work is part of something bigger than themselves.

Have hope, even when things seem hopeless

It’s easy to quit something when you just don’t think you’re going to be successful at it. What you have to do is examine why you’ve lost confidence and assess whether it’s justified. That’s harder to do when you have a fixed mindset. When your theory is that things are how they are, failure becomes diagnostic.

Say you open a restaurant, and it fails. If you have a fixed mindset, you may think, I’m just not the sort of person who opens a restaurant. I don’t have these skills, and I will never have them, so I should probably stop now. But if you fundamentally believe that human beings are hard-wired for growth and adaptation and learning, then the fact that your business failed does not mean your next one will. If you didn’t have very good accounting skills when your business went under, that doesn’t mean you will always have poor accounting skills. When you start to say things to yourself like, I don’t manage my team well, I don’t do the accounting right or I don’t have the focus, add the word “now” or “yet”: I don’t have those accounting skills now or I don’t have them yet. This way of reframing things will help you realize the situation you face is not necessarily permanent.

This article is from the August 2016 issue of Canadian Business. Subscribe now!

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