July 10, 2014

Got Grit?: Your Gritty Strength + A Growth Mindset = Success for the Long Run

Ann Farmer

The notion of “grit” has traditionally been thought of as either you have it or you don’t.

In the classic 1969 Western film True Grit, for instance, the plucky 14-year-old heroine, Mattie Ross (portrayed by Kim Darby), casts about for the right person to help track down her father’s murderer. So who does she hire? Not a young robust gunslinger, that’s for sure. She enlists the aging, overweight, hard-drinking, one-eyed U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn, craggily played by actor John Wayne. Why? Because he’s got “grit,” she explains, something she also exhibits in spades.

But what if grit could be taught? Recent studies suggest that grit—defined by Webster’s Dictionary as a firmness of character and an indomitable spirit—can, in fact, be fostered in individuals. As a result, educational institutions across the country have embarked on grit-kindling initiatives, including the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession, which launched the Grit Project this summer as a new tool to help women lawyers sustain long and successful legal careers.

“This could help move the needle,” says CWP Commissioner Carrie Hightman, referring to dismaying reports that women lawyers continue to drop out of the profession at higher rates than men lawyers. They similarly fail to advance to the top-tier legal positions at a pace and ratio equal to men, even though both sexes enter the field in comparable numbers.

Hightman, executive vice president and chief legal officer at NiSource Inc., thereby the highest-ranking woman at her Merrillville, Indiana, utility company, credits grit for helping her stick to her chosen path for over 30 years. She still recalls the gumption it took, at a key moment when she was still a fledgling partner, to stand up for herself and ask for some billing credit she had rightly earned.

“I didn’t know the term then,” says Hightman, who is cochairing the Grit Project along with Katie Larkin-Wong, president of Ms. JD, based in San Francisco, and Milana Hogan, a lawyer who has conducted research on grit as it pertains to women lawyers.

The project was officially launched in June with a webinar and the announcement that the Program Toolkit is available online at http://ambar.org/grit. The Toolkit incorporates research information, testing materials, PowerPoint slides, how-to guides, and other resources. Beginning in August, the Toolkit will be distributed to law schools, bar associations, corporate legal departments, and other women lawyer organizations. “We put together the Toolkit to make it available broadly throughout the country,” Hightman says.

Grit + Growth Mindset

The Grit Project, however, doesn’t solely focus on grit. Another common trait of successful people is a “growth mindset,” the belief that one can change and develop one’s abilities through dedication and hard work. It is the opposite of a fixed mindset, when people believe their intelligence or talents are fixed traits. The Grit Project takes the position that women lawyers can boost their gritty side by assuming a growth mindset.

“Having a growth mindset, I think, is necessary in some ways to be truly gritty,” Hogan says. As a recent doctoral student, Hogan studied the correlation between grit and growth mindset. She says that at the core of growth mindset is a belief in the power of effort.

“If you don’t believe that,” Hogan continues, “and yet do everything that a gritty person does, which is work extremely hard in an extremely focused and single-minded way, you’d be a little nuts not to think that effort would lead to something. Otherwise why would you be doing that? There’d be no motivation for it.”

Hogan, director of associate development and deputy director of recruiting at Sullivan & Cromwell LLP in New York, worked in law firms for 12 years before attaining her doctorate in education at the University of Pennsylvania last year. While there, she studied under Angela Lee Duckworth, a pioneer in the study of grit and the 2013 winner of a MacArthur Fellowship. Duckworth, in turn, introduced her to research on growth mindset by the renowned Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck, who has long championed the idea that people with a growth mindset are less fearful of failure and therefore more capable of learning from their mistakes than those with a fixed mindset.

“I was instantly struck by this research,” Hogan says. “It was a nice way of framing something that I always felt was important to success, but I didn’t have a term for prior to that.”

For her dissertation, Hogan decided to apply Duckworth’s and Dweck’s research to a study on the noncognitive traits that impact female success in BigLaw. As the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession and the National Association of Women Lawyers have pointed out, much has been said about the obstacles that women lawyers face. Less is known about the shared characteristics of female lawyers who stay the course and thrive in the profession.

She asked the participants, all women lawyers working in AmLaw 200 firms, but at different stages in their careers, to take the “grit scale” test created by Duckworth. The test requires participants to rate themselves on a scale ranging from “very much like me” to “not like me at all.” Some of the questions in the test include: (1) New ideas and projects sometimes distract me from previous ones. (2) Setbacks don’t discourage me. (3) I have achieved a goal that took years of work.

She similarly asked the participants to complete a mindset quiz created by Dweck. Participants answer questions using a six-point scale ranging from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree,” beginning with the question: You have a certain amount of intelligence, and you can’t really do much to change it.

In addition, Hogan collected other data from the lawyers, such as their billable hours in the last year (which is a predictor of success from the law firm perspective) and their most recent job performance evaluations. She controlled for other factors, such as where they went to law school.

Besides corroborating the theory that grit and growth mindset are common traits among highly successful women lawyers, Hogan’s research indicated that women lawyers often become grittier “as a direct result of having overcome challenging obstacles along the path to leadership positions.” She furthermore concluded that these two traits are also valuable predictors of the future success of individual women lawyers in BigLaw.

A Pioneer on the Psychology of Grit

Duckworth’s research on grit became more widely recognized after she gave a 2009 TED talk titled “True Grit: Can Perseverance be Taught?” In it she described how she became transfixed on the topic: She was teaching math to high school and middle school students when she began noticing that intelligence didn’t always signal who would do well on tests. The students who studied harder often pulled ahead of the brainiest kids in the class. They also sometimes reeled in better grade point averages than the students with higher IQs. The question of why effort would trump IQ began to fascinate Duckworth.

Duckworth also began looking at her own life. She had tallied up a succession of kudos in her 20s: She attended the University of Oxford for two years on a fellowship, she was a McKinsey & Co. consultant, and she served as chief operating officer of a nonprofit website for parents. But she had done all of this and more in the relatively short timeframe of 10 years. Quickly swinging from one brass ring to the next, she began to feel that she lacked sufficient grit to stay the course long enough to achieve a high level of expertise in anything.

At age 32, she decided to pursue a psychology degree at the University of Pennsylvania, where she studied the behavior of kids and adults in all types of settings. She studied boot camp inductees, salespeople, teachers, spelling bee students, and others. She says her primary question was always, “Who is successful here and why?” Grit was the one characteristic that emerged as a significant predictor of success.

In her TED talk she explained, “Grit is passion and perseverance for very long-term goals. Grit is sticking with your future, day in, day out. Not just for the week. Not just for the month. But for years. And working really hard to make that future a reality. Grit is living life like it’s a marathon, not just a sprint.”

Duckworth’s research has resonated. Paul Tough’s bestseller How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character is one example of the growing conversation around grit. And when Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet Yellen delivered her commencement remarks to the 2014 graduates of New York University, she didn’t talk about the state of the economy or other financial matters. She focused on “grit.”

“You won’t succeed all the time,” she told the graduates, using former Yankee superstars as examples. “Even Ruth, Gehrig, and DiMaggio failed most of the time when they stepped up to the plate.” Grit, she said, is “an abiding commitment to work hard toward long-range goals and to persevere through the setbacks that come along the way.”

Getting the Word Out

The June webinar that launched the Grit Project brought together young associates and experienced lawyers, including outgoing Chair Bobbi Liebenberg, who spearheaded the Grit Project.

Larkin-Wong, a young associate in the litigation department at Latham & Watkins LLP in San Francisco, facilitated the multimedia section of the webinar, when some of the video scenarios available in the Toolkit were presented. All of the scenarios depict challenging situations that typically arise in professional settings or law school. In one video, a third-year associate gets bullied by the opposing lawyer during her first solo deposition. The Toolkit offers a discussion guide for how to summon grit and a growth mindset to effectively deal with that type of situation, and, better yet, learn from it. “They will help you view those moments that feel like a failure as an opportunity,” Larkin-Wong says.

In another, an overextended associate is offered yet another job assignment (a juicy one, in fact), but one that might overstrain her ability to do an exemplary job. Should she take it or not? Part of the Grit Project is to cue women lawyers on how to make the right decisions for themselves, which might be different for someone else.

“Really there is no one way to get there,” says Michele Coleman Mayes, incoming chair of the Commission, who also participated in the webinar. Similar to Mattie Ross and Rooster Cogburn in the film True Grit, Mayes is one of those people who oozes grit. Currently vice president and general counsel for the New York Public Library, she formerly served as general counsel for Allstate Corp. and Pitney Bowes Inc.

She told the webinar participants how she set her sights on becoming a general counsel years before she had the necessary experience. She also wasn’t afraid to express her ambitions or to stumble at times as she plowed her path. “I felt brazen,” she said. “I would never have used ‘mindset.’ I might have called myself stubborn.”

http://ambar.org/grit Source: The Carol Dweck website, http://mindsetonline.com/changeyourmindset/firststeps/index.html (reprinted with permission). www.americanbar.org/groups/women/initiatives_awards/grit/toolkit.html Source: Adapted from Milana Hogan & Katherine Larkin-Wong, , Women Law. J. 98, no. 3 (2013): 10.

Ann Farmer

Ann Farmer is a Brooklyn, New York–based freelance journalist who covers breaking news for the New York Times and contributes stories on culture, law, crime, and other topics to publications including Emmy, DGA Quarterly, Budget Travel, and others.