Grit: The Ultimate Guide for Salespeople

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Aja Frost
Aja Frost


Think of the last long-term goal you worked toward.

What was the time span -- a month or two? Half a year? Several years?

Did you achieve it? Were there setbacks along the way you had to push through?

The answers to these questions will suggest how gritty you are. In this guide, we’ll define what grit is, how it will help you in sales, and how to develop it.

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The Definition of Grit

Grit is a personality trait defined by psychologist Angela Lee Duckworth as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals.” Duckworth’s research suggests a person’s grittiness has a bigger impact on their success than their IQ or talent.

The Grit Scale

Duckworth developed a short test for determining how gritty a person is. Scores range from 1 (not at all gritty) to 5 (extremely gritty). You can take The Grit Scale here.

But don’t beat yourself up if your score is lower than you’d like. According to Duckworth, part of your score is based on your standards. You might have a stricter definition of what it means to be a hard worker or stick to a goal, which will bring down your score.

The Characteristics of Grit

What does grit look like? Many people mistakenly believe "grit" is another term for "self-control." These personality traits are related but not synonymous. Self-control is about short-term choices, like resisting the urge to procrastinate. Grit, meanwhile, is about the long-term. Maybe you stay in sales despite having a hard first year, or go to school so you can become a sales engineer. Here are the top three attributes of gritty people.

1) Couragous

Being courageous helps in goal-setting. If you’re not brave, you’ll go after relatively easy targets. If you’re willing to challenge yourself (and can accept the potential risks), you’ll set ambitious targets. Even if you don’t completely hit the mark, you’ll be more successful.

To give you an idea, suppose you commit to making 150% of your number. You’re still ahead of where you would have been if you make 120%, although you’ve “failed.”

2) Passionate

To stay invested in a goal for years and years, you can’t feel lukewarm about it. That’s why passion is a critical component of grit: The more passionate you are, the likelier you are to keep going even when things get tough.

Ask yourself, “Would I be excited about what I do if I wasn’t paid for it? If there wasn’t any recognition for my work?”

If you’re truly passionate, you’ll answer yes. There’s nothing wrong about working in sales because the money and validation is rewarding -- many salespeople are motivated by those things. But that’s different from finding true enjoyment in working with and helping prospects independent of the ego boost or paycheck.

3) Ambitious But Realistic

It might seem counter-intuitive, but gritty people aren’t usually perfectionists. Perfection is an impossible standard. Most of the time, you fall a little short. So if you’re always trying to be perfect, you’ll always be disappointed -- and you’ll probably be tempted to give up.

Rather than setting such lofty goals, recognize what “nearly perfect” looks like. Leave room for a few mistakes. As Duckworth has shown in her research, people who take failure as an opportunity to learn and grow do much better in the long run.

The Grit TED Talk

In 2013, Duckworth gave a TED Talk about her research on grit. Coming in just over six minutes, the presentation is definitely worth watching.

But if you’re looking for the highlights, here they are:

  • As a math teacher at a New York public school, Duckworth became fascinated with the differences in her best and worst students. Her strongest performers didn’t necessarily have the highest IQ scores, while smart kids didn’t always perform well.
  • She starts to wonder if IQ is getting too much credit for success. After becoming a psychologist, Duckworth studies a bunch of different groups -- West Point cadets, new teachers, salespeople -- and finds grit is the major predictor of success.
  • Duckworth finds grittier children are far likelier to graduate. She says there’s still much more research to be done into building grit, but the best idea she’s heard so far is related to the “growth mindset.”

The Growth Mindset

According to Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, there are two basic mindsets.

If you have a fixed mindset, you believe your character, intelligence, and creativity are basically unchanging, and that success reflects your innate talents.

If you have a growth mindset, on the other hand, you believe your traits can change over time, and that failure actually helps you learn and improve.

Believing that you can cultivate your abilities makes a huge impact on your results, Dweck says. You’re not afraid of making mistakes or falling short, because you know it won’t define you. That means you’re much more likely to take risks and push yourself.

And that ties in perfectly with grit. Grit is epitomized by being willing to keep going when you fail, rather than giving up.

So how can you adopt a growth mindset, and by consequence, grit?

Pay attention to how you think of failure. When you mess up, steer clear of labeling the situation or your efforts a complete waste. Instead, think of what you’ll take away from the failure. Will you do something differently next time? Have you gotten the chance to practice a skill? Were you able to achieve anything, even if the ultimate outcome wasn’t a success?

You might not be able to change your mindset overnight, but consistently trying to take a healthy attitude will definitely help in the long run.

Examples of Grit

Wondering what grit actually looks like? Duckworth gives many examples in her book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perservance.

According to her, crossword puzzle editor for The New York Times Will Shortz exemplifies the passionate side of grit.

"One thing that's true of gritty people is they love what they do and they keep loving what they do. So they're not just in love for a day or a week,” Duckworth says. “Shortz is still interested in crossword puzzles. He's been doing crossword puzzles since he was eight.”

Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon and the second richest person in the world, shows how gritty people think about failure. He’s a big fan of taking risks (for proof, Amazon Destinations, Amazon Auctions, and the Fire Phone are all failed experiments).

Nine times out of 10, Bezos believes you’ll fail. But on that tenth time, you’ll succeed at a level that more than makes up for your misses.

"Given a 10% chance of a 100 times payoff, you should take that bet every time," Bezos says.

Daniel Ruettiger, known as “Rudy,” is another "grit" role model. Rudy was the Irish son of a coal-miner. His dad loved watching Notre Dame play football, so Rudy grew up with the dream of attending Notre Dame and playing for the university team.

He was a talented high school athlete, but a mere 5’6 and 165 pounds.

Rudy tried to transfer to Notre Dame three semesters in a row. Each time, he was rejected thanks to his below-average grades -- which likely stemmed from being dyslexic.

As a result, he took a job as a stadium groundskeeper for Notre Dame. Then he applied again … and got in. Rudy’s crowning glory arrived when he brought down the opposing team’s quarterback and was carried off the field on his teammates’ shoulders.

How to Develop a Gritty Culture

As a leader, you set the cultural tone for your team, department, or company. Duckworth has a few recommendations for leaders who want to create a gritty culture.

First, change the reaction to failure. Rather than sweeping mistakes under the rug or viewing them in a negative light, use them as learning opportunities. For example, if you make a mistake, bring it up at a meeting and discuss what you’ve taken away from the experience and how you’ll adopt those takeaways into future decisions. Ask your reps to do the same.

You might even institutionalize failure. The Seattle Seahawks do so with “Tell the Truth Monday,” a weekly tradition where everyone discusses what they did wrong. Once you’ve admitted a mistake out loud in front of your peers, you’re probably not going to repeat it again. Try doing something similar with your team. (I suggest “Failure Friday” over drinks.)

Second, be a gritty leader. Your salespeople will model themselves after you both consciously and unconsciously. Be passionate, be persistent, and be consistent.

"The heart of grit is really about sticking with things, as opposed to dropping out of them," Duckworth explains. "There's two ways that’s important. One is stamina of your effort: You keep trying, even when things are going badly. Part of grit is stamina of your efforts in the face of adversity, but there's also just the everyday stamina of, say, getting up at 4:30 in the morning and just going to the pool again or sitting down at your computer and working."

If you hold yourself to the highest standards, your team will be motivated to do the same.

Third, practice “tough love.” Duckworth says the best combination is “challenging or tough but also supportive.” Maybe your top salesperson is hitting quota but doesn’t seem to be knocking it out of the park like she usually does. You listen to one of her call recordings and notice she’s not asking probing questions or digging to find the prospect’s true motivations.

You might say, “I’m glad you’re meeting your target, but I know you can do more. Let’s work on X, Y, and Z.”

If I had to guess, sales probably has more gritty people than most other professions. It’s a challenging, relentless career -- but with passion and perseverance, you’ll thrive.

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Topics: Grit in Sales

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