The Most Important Characteristic of Highly Successful People

January 2, 2014

Do you have what it takes to reach the top?

When I was little, I was the most mellow and laid-back child. I had so little sense of ambition, competition, or success–the polar opposite of my older sister, who declared her intention to become the valedictorian of her class–at age two, apparently. When the concept of success finally dawned on me in high school, I asked my father what successful people had in common. This turned out to be one of the most enduring lessons I’ve ever received from him.

“The most accomplished, successful people I’ve known have these four things in common,” he said. “They’re extraordinarily healthy and strong. They’re brilliantly creative problem-solvers. They are extremely stubborn. And they work incredibly hard.”

Physical health, creativity, stubbornness, and diligence. At the time, these four traits struck me as quite unrelated, random things. I would also have guessed luck and intelligence as factors, and perhaps discounted the merit of physical health. Nevertheless, his lesson stuck with me and over the years, I’ve realized that those four traits have become important reminders to myself. So much so that I’ve made my physical fitness a priority for the past ten years primarily because my body needs to have the stamina to keep up with my life.

And though my father spoke out of observation and experience, and not from business school seminars or academic research, there is increasing evidence that he was exactly right. According to Angela Duckworth, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, the most important characteristic of highly successful people is none other than grit. Grit is the willingness to strive for long-term goals, and to “tough out” the obstacles. And perhaps most definitively, grit is the quality that makes you get back up and try again after facing the trauma of failure. Grit is so critical in predicting success that it even eclipses IQ and more surprisingly, family income, which was previously thought to determine academic performance more than any other single factor.

Grit, essentially, is the sum of stamina, creativity, stubbornness, and diligence. You have to have stamina in order to get up when you get knocked down. You also have to be creative in order to overcome challenges–since trying the same failed method repeatedly won’t get you to the next step, you have to think outside the box. Grit also involves stubbornness: a deep, unwavering commitment toward your goal, foiled by equally strong belief in your own abilities. And finally, diligence is the propelling force that keeps gritty people moving.

The wonderful thing about this is that grit–unlike family income–is something you can change. Maya Angelou has said: “One isn’t born with courage. One develops it by doing courageous things–in the way that if one sets out to pick up a 100-lb bag of rice, one would be advised to start with a 5-lb bag, then 10 lbs, then 20 lbs, and so forth…It’s the same way with courage. You do small courageous things that require some mental and spiritual exertion.” For me, grit is the courage to overcome my fear of failure, pull myself up by the bootstraps, and keep marching. I definitely wasn’t born with it. But every day is a chance for me to build it.

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Photo: Peaceful Dumpling

Juhea is the founder and editor of Peaceful Dumpling and the author of bestselling novel Beasts of a Little Land. Follow Juhea on Instagram @peacefuldumpling, @juhea_writes and Pinterest.


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