Grit. What a funny-looking word. What is grit, anyway? A recent google search rounded up the Oxford Dictionary’s definition of grit:  “Courage and resolve; strength of character.” Its synonyms comprise a large list: courage, bravery, pluck, mettle, backbone, spirit, strength of character, strength of will, moral fiber, steel, nerve, fortitude, toughness, hardiness, resolve, resolution, determination, tenacity, perseverance, endurance. Pretty impressive, right?  However, after having recently read Angela Duckworth’s new book, Grit, Oxford’s definition seems to be lacking a very important third dimension – namely effort.

In her book, in chapter two, “Effort Counts Twice,”  Duckworth writes: “Without effort, your talent is nothing more than your unmet potential. Without effort, your skill is nothing more than what you could have done but didn’t. With effort, talent becomes skill, and, at the very same time, effort makes skill productive.”  That’s brilliant! You see, effort really does count twice! The other powerful idea her research supports, is that goal setting (most importantly in the thoughtful development of many smaller goals that can meaningfully support the path to your big, over-arching goal) can put you on the track to great success. Duckworth says: “The most dazzling human achievements are, in fact, the aggregate of countless individual elements, each of which is, in a sense, ordinary.” So this is what effort really looks like. It’s taking that first, small step, and going from there. It’s showing up every day and doing the work. It’s that Lots of Little Things Can Add Up to Big Gains idea, which I wrote about here on this blog a few months back.

But let’s talk more about effort. What should that look like? Is it possible to expend a lot of effort and end up not getting any more skilled than you were when you started? Of course you can, which is why thoughtfully choosing your goals, as a way to inform your daily practice, is so critically important. If you get it right, you’ll see your efforts paying off and moving you forward. If not, then you’ll probably be one of those who claim that talent is purely innate, and that it’s just not possible to develop your mastery of a thing by doing something as simple as working on specific skills. Poor you. Here’s where “deliberate practice” comes in. Anders Ericsson writes about this in his new book, Peak, saying: “Deliberate practice nearly always involves building or modifying previously acquired skills by focusing on particular aspects of those skills and working to improve them specifically; over time this step-by-step improvement will eventually lead to expert performance.” Deliberate practice, then, is what makes the effort pay off. And smart, targeted goal-setting is the path that gives your effort the road to travel.

By now, you might be wondering what this has to do with sailing. Well, if you’re just starting out, and wonder how you could ever be as good as the best sailor in your fleet, or if you’ve been sailing for a while, and wonder why other people are improving faster than you are, it has EVERYTHING to do with your sailing progress. Your power lies in understanding that consistent effort, in the form of deliberate practice, is your ticket to success. It trumps what we think of as “natural talent,” which, without effort, goes nowhere fast. It calls to mind Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset, the New Psychology of Success, where believing that you can learn what you need to know, is the very thing that enables you to grow into what you wish to become. Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, tells the same story, as well, in his writing about intelligence and ambition. Persistent, deliberately practiced effort is the secret to success in pursuing your passion. Speaking from my own experience, deliberate practice is what I learned to do as a musician, and is what I’ve been applying to my efforts to improve as a sailor.

In the words of Leo Tolstoy: “That which one has set oneself to do, one should not relinquish on the grounds of absence of mind or distraction.” But rest assured, the process doesn’t have to be daunting. That’s the beauty of it. Let me share with you the way I think of grit, and specifically effort, within my own individual program, be it for opera-singing or sailing – it can apply to anything. It is helpful for any stage, whether you’re just starting out, or whether you’re already experiencing your chosen activity at a higher level. Here are the main points to remember:

  • Effort is what will get you where you need to go. Talent and skill depend upon it.
  • Proper goal setting will ensure effort’s success.
  • Smaller, supporting goals are the little steps that embody effort.
  • Persistent effort, over time, in the form of deliberate practice, will make you huge gains.
  • Consistency of this effort over the long run is the key to success.

So, get out your notebook! Write down your over-arching goal, and its much-more-manageable supporting goals, and chip away at them a little bit every day. Deliberately practice the things you aren’t good at. Focus on the tasks that are beyond your current level of competence and comfort. Start with one step, with one small supporting goal, and go from there. And, over time, when you look back and see how far you’ve come with all of those little steps, I promise that you will be amazed.




Deborah Bennett Elfers
I was practically born on a boat, though on a working lobster boat rather than a sailboat. In my early days, I sailed quite a lot on a Sunfish, but not very elegantly, as in our little neighborhood “fleet,” the boat was primarily used as a weapon in a wildly popular game of “kill the other guy!” Who could have imagined way back then, that one day I’d become so passionate about all things sailing?
Deborah Bennett Elfers
Deborah Bennett Elfers

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