Tenacity and the Secret Sauce

Tenacity predicts success more than intelligence or ability. While it helps to be smart, it’s not what will ultimately determine your future prospects or decide your fate. There are plenty of intelligent people around who have little to show for their brilliance. In virtually every endeavour, talent is vastly overrated in comparison to mental toughness. And, after a while, perseverance and resilience start to look a lot like talent.

Don’t get me wrong. Ability does matter. But only in certain ways and in certain types of undertakings, particularly in jobs or enterprises where there is a singular focus or a narrow problem-solving objective. Like technology. Grit, on the other hand, applies to every field of human endeavour.

Tenacity demands a strong will – a relentless desire to achieve something most would not even attempt. On her 27th birthday, my daughter told me she would celebrate her 30th standing atop Mt. Kilimanjero, the highest peak in Africa, “watching the sun rise.” Knowing the extent of preparation and enormous discipline required to accomplish such a feat, I vaguely recall saying something like “Well, that sounds interesting dear.”

On her birthday three years later, she sent me a photo of her vision realized. Her tenacity was in full display and I have admired few things as much as her dedication towards accomplishing one of her many life benchmarks. To her everlasting credit, she did exactly what she said she would do. And that’s the definition of true grit. It’s the difference between “I think I’d like to be …” and “I’m going to be.” The only barrier to accomplishing great things is saying “I can’t.” All that is required is to begin. After that, “I can’t” is no longer true.

Steve Jobs is regarded by many as the most innovative leader in modern times. What gave Jobs that brand was not his genius, passion or vision. The “secret of Steve” is that he was never satisfied. We are all born creative, albeit not equally creative. And there is no scientific correlation between creativity and intelligence. Creating, like any human endeavour, comes in a spectrum of competence. But anybody can do it and anyone get better at it. You learn how to succeed by learning how to fail. Jobs called this “intelligent failure.” I call it resilience – the irrepressible ability to bounce back and become stronger from the lessons learned from our errors.

Willpower and mental toughness have limits however. You have to be hard on yourself but not too hard. A strong-willed but self-indulgent person is not necessarily tenacious. Drive is a combination of several things, discipline and perspective among them. The more willful one is, the more disciplined one becomes. The stronger your will, the less people argue with you. But that is entirely short-sighted – we always need some pushback and robust debate in our lives. Without it, confidence become hubris and overwhelms humility. The latter is fertilizer for the brain. If no one else can do that, you have to learn how to argue with yourself.

No one becomes tough minded doing only the things they like to do. What separates those who achieve from those who just “settle” for enough, think average is acceptable or it’s okay to just be okay? The tenacious understand adversity is a path, not a roadblock, that nothing is perfect and that most things are temporary. Even the worst eventually passes. Alternatively, those who lack grit believe the world owes them something, crave reassurance from others and refuse to accept feedback that doesn’t align with their self-image. They are the ones who procrastinate or choose to hit the snooze button before getting out of bed in the morning.

Like motivation, our persistence is assaulted by our temptations and depleted with use. The more successful one becomes, the greater is the seduction that enables our self-discipline to slide. I call that the slippery slope. When our willfulness supercedes our discipline, our achievements regress to the mean. Finding balance is always the objective. Because excessive discipline can crush will.

If tenacity coupled with discipline is the fuel to get you to your destination, ambition is how you choose the right path. Fortunately, ambition is malleable. Most don’t quite know how ambitious to be, what “hard” actually means or what they’re capable of achieving. Abraham Maslow, the American psychologist, said “The story of the human race is the story of men and women selling themselves short.” That has become my professional beacon. And Walt Disney, another hero among my guiding lights, countered with “All our dreams can come true if we have the courage to pursue them.”

Achievement powers ambition. It gives us the oxygen necessary to dig even deeper and stretch our capabilities even further the next time we try to scale the mountain. To paraphrase Phil Everson, mountains inspire people but valleys mature them. And valleys are likely where we can find the richest soil. But true achievers are rare. This is because perseverance alone is never enough. Another ingredient is part of the mix. Let’s call it the secret sauce.

Ambition must be energized by purpose. One of my executive programs is sub-titled “leading with purpose.” It’s designed to be a gut check for leaders. Purpose is deliberately choosing a course of action that makes you feel validated. It is knowing who you are, what you believe and what you can do when push comes to shove. It’s making no compromises on matters of principle. It is the sum of our convictions as well as our undeniable, sometimes inexplicable, desires. This is the secret ingredient in the sauce we call grit.

Purpose cannot be borrowed from the ideals or the expectations of others. Echoing Eleanor Roosevelt, “When you adopt the standards and the values of someone else … you surrender your integrity.” Purpose is saying yes to hard work, to a journey that does not have a pre-existing map nor a guarantee. It’s adjusting the inner voice and embracing what “being alive” really means. No undertaking, path or career is entirely without its obstacles and unknowns. That’s where tenacity and purpose fill the void.