A CULTURE OF GRIT - GROWING GRIT FROM THE OUTSIDE IN - Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance - Angela Duckworth

Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance - Angela Duckworth (2016)



The first football game I ever watched from beginning to end was Super Bowl XLVIII. The game took place on February 2, 2014, and pitted the Seattle Seahawks against the Denver Broncos. The Seahawks won, 43-8.

The day after their victory, Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll was interviewed by a former member of the San Francisco 49ers.

“I know when I was with the (Forty-) Niners,” the interviewer began, “you were there… . It meant something to be a Niner, not a football player. When you and John Schneider are looking for a player, tell me: What is that philosophy, what does it mean to be a Seahawk?”

Pete chuckled softly. “I’m not going to give it all to you, but …”

“Come on, man. Give it to me, Pete.”

“I will tell you that we’re looking for great competitors. That’s really where it starts. And that’s the guys that really have grit. The mindset that they’re always going to succeed, that they’ve got something to prove. They’re resilient, they’re not going to let setbacks hold them back. They’re not going to be deterred, you know, by challenges and hurdles and things… . It’s that attitude—we really refer to it as grit.”

I can’t say I was surprised, either by Pete’s comments or by his team’s triumphant performance the day before.

Why not? Because nine months earlier, I’d received a call from Pete. Apparently, he’d just watched my TED talk on grit. What prompted his call were two urgent emotions.

First, he was curious—eager to learn more about grit than I’d been able to convey in the six minutes TED had allotted me.

Second, he was annoyed. Not by most of what I had to say. It was just the part at the end that irked him. Science, I’d confessed in that talk, had at that point disappointingly little to say about building grit. Pete later told me that he just about jumped out of his chair, practically yelling at my on-screen image that building grit is exactly what the Seahawks culture is all about.

We ended up talking for roughly an hour: me on one end of the line, sitting at my desk in Philadelphia, and Pete and his staff on the other, huddled around a speakerphone in Seattle. I told him what I was learning in my research, and Pete reciprocated by telling me about what he was trying to accomplish with the Seahawks.

“Come and watch us. All we do is help people be great competitors. We teach them how to persevere. We unleash their passion. That’s all we do.”

Whether we realize it or not, the culture in which we live, and with which we identify, powerfully shapes just about every aspect of our being.

By culture, I don’t mean the geographic or political boundaries that divide one people from another as much as the invisible psychological boundaries separating us from them. At its core, a culture is defined by the shared norms and values of a group of people. In other words, a distinct culture exists anytime a group of people are in consensus about how we do things around here and why. As for how the rest of the world operates, the sharper the contrast, the stronger the bonds among those in what psychologists call the “in-group.”

So it is that the Seattle Seahawks and the KIPP charter schools—as much as any nation—are bona fide cultures. If you’re a Seahawk, you’re not just a football player. If you’re a KIPPster, you’re not just a student. Seahawks and KIPPsters do things in a certain way, and they do so for certain reasons. Likewise, West Point has a distinct culture—one that is more than two centuries old, and yet, as we’ll soon discover, continues to evolve.

For many of us, the companies we work for are an important cultural force in our lives. For instance, growing up, my dad liked to refer to himself as a DuPonter. All the pencils in our house were company-issued, embossed with phrases like Safety First, and my dad would light up every time a DuPont commercial came on television, sometimes even chiming in with the voice-over: “Better things for better living.” I think my dad only met the CEO of DuPont a handful of times, but he’d tell stories of his good judgment the way you might speak of a family war hero.

How do you know you’re part of a culture that, in a very real sense, has become part of you? When you adopt a culture, you make a categorical allegiance to that in-group. You’re not “sort of” a Seahawk, or “sort of” a West Pointer. You either are or you aren’t. You’re in the group, or out of it. You can use a noun, not just an adjective or a verb, to describe your commitment. So much depends, as it turns out, on which in-group you commit to.

The bottom line on culture and grit is: If you want to be grittier, find a gritty culture and join it. If you’re a leader, and you want the people in your organization to be grittier, create a gritty culture.

I recently called Dan Chambliss, the sociologist we met in chapter 3 who spent the first six years of his professional life studying swimmers.

My question for Dan was whether, in the three decades since his landmark study of expertise, he’d changed his mind about any of its provocative conclusions.

Did he, for example, still believe talent was largely a red herring when it came to understanding the origins of world-class excellence? Did he stand by the observation that going from your local club team to being competitive at the state and national levels and, finally, to world-class, Olympic-level expertise necessitated qualitative improvements in skill, not just “more hours” in the pool? And was mystifying excellence, at the end of the day, really the confluence of countless, perfectly executed yet mundane, doable acts?

Yes, yes, and yes.

“But I left out the most important thing,” Dan said. “The real way to become a great swimmer is to join a great team.”

That logic might strike you as strange. You might assume that first a person becomes a great swimmer and then he or she joins a great team. And it’s true, of course, that great teams don’t take just anyone. There are tryouts. There are a limited number of spots. There are standards. And the more elite the team, the fiercer the desire of those already on the team to keep those standards high.

What Dan was getting at is the reciprocal effect of a team’s particular culture on the person who joins it. In his many years in and out of the pool, he’d seen the arrow of causality between a great team and a great individual performer go both ways. In effect, he’d witnessed the corresponsive principle of personality development: he’d seen that the very characteristics that are selected for certain situations are, in turn, enhanced by them.

“Look, when I started studying Olympians, I thought, ‘What kind of oddball gets up every day at four in the morning to go to swimming practice?’ I thought, ‘These must be extraordinary people to do that sort of thing.’ But the thing is, when you go to a place where basically everybody you know is getting up at four in the morning to go to practice, that’s just what you do. It’s no big deal. It becomes a habit.”

Over and over, Dan had observed new swimmers join a team that did things a notch or two better than what they’d been used to. Very quickly, the newcomer conformed to the team’s norms and standards.

“Speaking for myself,” Dan added, “I don’t have that much self-discipline. But if I’m surrounded by people who are writing articles and giving lectures and working hard, I tend to fall in line. If I’m in a crowd of people doing things a certain way, I follow along.”

The drive to fit in—to conform to the group—is powerful indeed. Some of the most important psychology experiments in history have demonstrated how quickly, and usually without conscious awareness, the individual falls in line with a group that is acting or thinking a different way.

“So it seems to me,” Dan concluded, “that there’s a hard way to get grit and an easy way. The hard way is to do it by yourself. The easy way is to use conformity—the basic human drive to fit in—because if you’re around a lot of people who are gritty, you’re going to act grittier.”

Short-term conformity effects are not what excite me about the power of culture to influence grit. Not exactly.

What excites me most is the idea that, in the long run, culture has the power to shape our identity. Over time and under the right circumstances, the norms and values of the group to which we belong become our own. We internalize them. We carry them with us. The way we do things around here and why eventually becomes The way I do things and why.

Identity influences every aspect of our character, but it has special relevance to grit. Often, the critical gritty-or-not decisions we make—to get up one more time; to stick it out through this miserable, exhausting summer; to run five miles with our teammates when on our own we might only run three—are a matter of identity more than anything else. Often, our passion and perseverance do not spring from a cold, calculating analysis of the costs and benefits of alternatives. Rather, the source of our strength is the person we know ourselves to be.

James March, an expert on decision making at Stanford University, explains the difference this way: Sometimes, we revert to cost-benefit analyses to make choices. Of course, March doesn’t mean that, in deciding what to order for lunch or when to go to bed, we take out a pad of paper and a calculator. What he means is that, sometimes when making choices, we take into consideration how we might benefit, and what we’ll have to pay, and how likely it is that these benefits and costs will be what we think they’ll be. We can do all of this in our heads, and indeed, when I’m deciding what to order for lunch or when to go to bed, I often think through the pros and the cons before making a decision. It’s very logical.

But other times, March says, we don’t think through the consequences of our actions at all. We don’t ask ourselves: What are the benefits? What are the costs? What are the risks? Instead, we ask ourselves: Who am I? What is this situation? What does someone like me do in a situation like this?

Here’s an example:

Tom Deierlein introduced himself to me this way: “I am a West Pointer, Airborne Ranger, and two-time CEO. I founded and run a nonprofit. I am not special or extraordinary in any way. Except one: grit.”

On active duty in Baghdad during the summer of 2006, Tom was shot by a sniper. The bullet shattered his pelvis and sacrum. There was no way to know how the bones would knit back together and what sort of functionality Tom might have when they did. Doctors told him he might never walk again.

“You don’t know me,” Tom replied simply. And then, to himself, he made a promise to run the Army Ten-Miler, a race he’d been training to run before he was shot.

When, seven months later, he was finally well enough to get out of bed and begin physical therapy, Tom worked fiercely, unrelentingly, doing all the assigned exercises and then more. Sometimes, he’d grunt in pain or shout out encouragements to himself. “The other patients were a little startled at first,” Tom says, “but they got used to it, and then—all in good fun—they’d mock me with fake grunts of their own.”

After a particularly tough workout, Tom got “zingers,” sharp bolts of pain that shot down his legs. “They’d only last a second or two,” Tom says, “but they’d come back at random times throughout the day, literally making me jump from the shock.” Without fail, each day, Tom set a goal, and for a few months, the pain and perspiration were paying off. Finally, he could just barely walk with a walker, then with just a cane, then on his own. He walked faster and farther, then was able to run on the treadmill for a few seconds while holding onto the railings, and then for a full minute, and on and on until, after four months of improving, he hit a plateau.

“My physical therapist said, ‘You’re done. Good job.’ And I said, ‘I’m still coming.’ And she said, ‘You did what you needed to do. You’re good.’ And I said, ‘No, no, I’m still coming.’ ”

And then Tom kept going for a full eight months beyond the point where there were any noticeable improvements. Technically, his physical therapist wasn’t allowed to treat him anymore, but Tom came back on his own to use the equipment anyway.

Was there any benefit to those extra months? Maybe. Maybe not. Tom can’t say for sure that the extra exercises did any good. He does know that he was able to start training for the Army Ten-Miler the next summer. Before getting shot, he’d aimed to run seven-minute miles, completing the race in seventy minutes or less. After getting shot, he revised his goal: he hoped to run twelve-minute miles and to finish in two hours. His finish time? One hour and fifty-six minutes.

Tom can’t say that running the Army Ten-Miler—and, after that, two triathlons—were decisions rooted in costs and benefits, either. “I simply wasn’t going to fail because I didn’t care or didn’t try. That’s not who I am.”

Indeed, the calculated costs and benefits of passion and perseverance don’t always add up, at least in the short run. It’s often more “sensible” to give up and move on. It can be years or more before grit’s dividends pay off.

And that’s exactly why culture and identity are so critical to understanding how gritty people live their lives. The logic of anticipated costs and benefits doesn’t explain their choices very well. The logic of identity does.

The population of Finland is just over five million. There are fewer Finns in the world than New Yorkers. This tiny, cold Nordic country—so far north that, in the depth of winter, they get barely six hours of daylight—has been invaded numerous times by larger, more powerful neighbors. Whether those meteorological and historical challenges contribute to how Finns see themselves is a good question. Regardless, it is undeniable that the Finns see themselves as among the world’s grittiest people.

The closest word to grit in Finnish is sisu (pronounced see-sue). The translation isn’t perfect. Grit specifies having a passion to accomplish a particular top-level goal and the perseverance to follow through. Sisu, on the other hand, is really just about perseverance. In particular, sisu refers to a source of inner strength—a sort of psychological capital—that Finns believe they’re born with by dint of their Finnish heritage. Quite literally, sisu refers to the insides of a person, their guts.

In 1939, Finland was the underdog in the Winter War, battling a Soviet army that boasted three times as many soldiers, thirty times as many aircraft, and a hundred times as many tanks. Finnish troops held their ground for several months—dramatically longer than the Soviets or anyone else might have expected. In 1940, Time magazine ran a feature on sisu:

The Finns have something they call sisu. It is a compound of bravado and bravery, of ferocity and tenacity, of the ability to keep fighting after most people would have quit, and to fight with the will to win. The Finns translate sisu as “the Finnish spirit” but it is a much more gutful word than that.

In the same year, the New York Times ran a feature called “Sisu: A Word That Explains Finland.” A Finn explained his countrymen to the journalist this way: “A typical Finn is an obstinate sort of fellow who believes in getting the better of bad fortune by proving that he can stand worse.”

When I lecture on grit to my undergraduate classes, I like to include a brief digression on sisu. I ask my students the rhetorical question: Can we forge a culture—as Seahawks coach Pete Carroll clearly thinks we can—that celebrates and supports such qualities as sisu and grit?

A few years ago, by complete coincidence, a young Finnish woman named Emilia Lahti was in the audience when I mentioned sisu. After the lecture, she rushed to greet me and confirmed that my outsider view of sisu was correct. We agreed there was a pressing need for a systematic investigation of sisu, how Finns think about it, how it’s propagated.

Emilia became my graduate student the next year, completing her master’s thesis on exactly those questions. She asked a thousand Finns how they thought about sisu and discovered that most have a growth mindset about its development. When asked, “Do you think sisu can be learned or developed through conscious effort?” 83 percent said, “Yes.” One respondent then offered: “For example, participation in Finnish scouting association jaunts, where thirteen-year-olds may be in charge of ten-year-olds alone in the woods, seems to have some correlation with sisu.”

As a scientist, I don’t take seriously the notion that Finns, or members of any other nationality, have actual reserves of energy hidden in their intestines, awaiting release at the critical moment. Still, there are two powerful lessons we can take from sisu.

First, thinking of yourself as someone who is able to overcome tremendous adversity often leads to behavior that confirms that self-conception. If you’re a Finn with that “sisu spirit,” you get up again no matter what. Likewise, if you’re a Seattle Seahawk, you’re a competitor. You have what it takes to succeed. You don’t let setbacks hold you back. Grit is who you are.

Second, even if the idea of an actual inner energy source is preposterous, the metaphor couldn’t be more apt. It sometimes feels like we have nothing left to give, and yet, in those dark and desperate moments, we find that if we just keep putting one foot in front of the other, there is a way to accomplish what all reason seems to argue against.

The idea of sisu has been integral to Finnish culture for centuries. But cultures can be created in much shorter time frames. In my quest to understand what gives rise to grit, I’ve encountered a few organizations with especially gritty leaders at the helm who, in my view, have successfully forged a culture of grit.

Consider, for example, Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JPMorgan Chase. Jamie isn’t the only one of the bank’s 250,000-plus employees who says, “I wear this jersey and I bleed this blood.” Other employees much lower in the ranks say things like “What I do every day for our clients actually matters. No one here is insignificant. And every detail, every employee, matters… . I am proud to be part of this great company.”

Jamie has been the CEO of JPMorgan Chase, the largest bank in the United States, for more than a decade. In the 2008 financial crisis, Jamie steered his bank to safety, and while other banks collapsed entirely, JPMorgan Chase somehow turned a $5 billion profit.

Coincidentally, the motto of Jamie’s prep school alma mater, the Browning School, is “grytte,” an Old English version of grit defined in an 1897 yearbook as “firmness, courage, determination … which alone win the crown of genuine success in all undertakings.” In Jamie’s senior year at Browning, his calculus teacher had a heart attack, and the substitute teacher didn’t know calculus. Half the boys quit; the other half, including Jamie, decided to stick with it and spent the entire year in a separate classroom, alone, teaching themselves.

“You have to learn to get over bumps in the road and mistakes and setbacks,” he told me when I called to talk about the culture he’s built at JPMorgan Chase. “Failures are going to happen, and how you deal with them may be the most important thing in whether you succeed. You need fierce resolve. You need to take responsibility. You call it grit. I call it fortitude.”

Fortitude is to Jamie Dimon what sisu is to Finland. Jamie recalls that getting fired from Citibank at age thirty-three, and then taking a full year to ponder what lessons to take from the episode, made him a better leader. And he believes in fortitude enough to make it a core value for the entire JPMorgan Chase bank. “The ultimate thing is that we need to grow over time.”

Is it really possible, I asked, for a leader to influence the culture of such an enormous corporation? True, the culture of JPMorgan Chase has, with some affection, been described as “the cult of Jamie.” But there are literally thousands and thousands of JPMorgan Chase employees Jamie has never met in person.

“Absolutely,” Jamie says. “It takes relentless—absolutely relentless—communication. It’s what you say and how you say it.”

It may also be how often you say it. By all accounts, Jamie is a tireless evangelist, crossing the country to appear at what he calls town hall meetings with his employees. At one meeting he was asked, “What do you look for in your leadership team?” His answer? “Capability, character, and how they treat people.” Later, he told me that he asks himself two questions about senior management. First: “Would I let them run the business without me?” Second: “Would I let my kids work for them?”

Jamie has a favorite Teddy Roosevelt quote he likes to repeat:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

And here is how Jamie translates the poetry of Roosevelt into the prose of a JPMorgan Chase manual, titled How We Do Business: “Have a fierce resolve in everything you do.” “Demonstrate determination, resiliency, and tenacity.” “Do not let temporary setbacks become permanent excuses.” And, finally, “Use mistakes and problems as opportunities to get better—not reasons to quit.”

Anson Dorrance has the challenge of instilling grit in considerably fewer people. Thirty-one women, to be exact, which is the full roster of the women’s soccer team at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Anson is the winningest coach in women’s soccer history. His record includes twenty-two national championships in thirty-one years of competition. In 1991, he coached the U.S. Women’s National Team to its first world title.

During his younger, playing days, Anson was the captain of the UNC men’s soccer team. He wasn’t especially talented, but his full-throttle, aggressive playing in every minute of practice and competition earned the admiration of his teammates, who nicknamed him Hack and Hustle. His father once declared, “Anson, you’re the most confident person without any talent I’ve ever met.” To which Anson quickly replied, “Dad, I’m taking that as a compliment.” Many years later, as a coach, Anson observed that “talent is common; what you invest to develop that talent is the critical final measure of greatness.”

Many of Anson’s admirers attribute his unprecedented success to recruitment. “That’s simply incorrect,” he told me. “We’re out-recruited by five or six schools on a regular basis. Our extraordinary success is about what we do once the players get here. It’s our culture.”

Culture building, Anson said, is a matter of continuous experimentation. “Basically, we’ll try anything, and if it works, we’ll keep doing it.”

For instance, after learning about my research on grit, Anson asked each of his players to fill out the Grit Scale and made sure each received their score. “To be honest, I was absolutely shocked. With only one or two exceptions, the grit ranking on your test is the way I would have evaluated their grit.” Anson now makes sure the entire team scores themselves on grit each spring so that they have “a deeper appreciation for the critical qualities of successful people.” Each player gets to see her score because, as Anson put it, “in some cases the scale captures them, and in some cases it exposes them.” Returning players take the scale again—and again—each year so they can compare their grit now to what it used to be.

Another experiment that stuck is the Beep Test, which begins every Tar Heel season. All the players line up, shoulder to shoulder, and at the sound of an electronic beep, jog to a line twenty meters away, arriving in time for the sound of another beep, which signals them to turn around and jog back to where they started. Back and forth they run, picking up the pace as the interval between the beeps gets shorter and shorter. Within minutes, the players are in a flat-out sprint—at which point, the beeps come faster still. One by one, players drop out, invariably falling to all fours in utter exhaustion when they do. How far they get, like everything else the players do in training and competition, is carefully recorded and, without delay, posted in the locker room for everyone to see.

The Beep Test was originally designed by Canadian exercise physiologists as a test of maximal aerobic capacity, but gauging fitness is only one reason Anson likes it. Like the researchers at the Harvard Fatigue Laboratory who, in 1940, designed a treadmill test to assess perseverance through physical pain, Anson sees the Beep Test as a twofold test of character. “I give a little speech beforehand about what this is going to prove to me,” he told me. “If you do well, either you have self-discipline because you’ve trained all summer, or you have the mental toughness to handle the pain that most people can’t. Ideally, of course, you have both.” Just before the first beep, Anson announces, “Ladies, this is a test of your mentality. Go!”

How else does Anson build a culture of grit? Like Jamie Dimon, he puts a lot of stock in communication. It’s certainly not the only thing that he does, but as a philosophy and English major he has a special appreciation for the power of words: “For me, language is everything.”

Over the years, Anson has developed a list of twelve carefully worded core values that define what it means to be a UNC Tar Heel, as opposed to just any run-of-the-mill soccer player. “If you want to create a great culture,” he told me, “you have to have a collection of core values that everyone lives.” Half the team’s core values are about teamwork. Half are about grit. Together, they define a culture Anson and his players refer to as “the competitive cauldron.”

But a lot of organizations have core values, I pointed out, that are flagrantly ignored on a daily basis. Anson agreed. “Of course, there’s nothing motivational about the statement that within your culture you work hard. I mean, it’s so banal.”

His solution to rescuing core values from banality was in some ways entirely unpredictable and in other ways exactly what you might expect from someone with Anson’s humanities background.

Inspiration struck while Anson was reading an article about Joseph Brodsky, the Russian exile and Nobel laureate poet. Brodsky, Anson learned, required his graduate students at Columbia University to memorize scores of Russian poems each semester. Naturally, most students considered this demand unreasonable and antiquated, and they marched into his office to tell him so. Brodsky said they could do what they liked, but if they didn’t memorize the required verses, they wouldn’t get their PhDs. “So they walked out of his office,” Anson recalled, “with their tails tucked firmly between their legs, and they got to work.” What happened next was, as Anson put it, “simply transformational.” Quite suddenly, upon committing a verse to memory, Brodsky’s students “felt and lived and breathed Russia.” What was dead on the page had come to life.

Rather than read this anecdote and quickly forget it, Anson immediately appreciated its relevance to the top-level goal he was trying to accomplish. Like just about everything else he reads, sees, or does, he asked himself, How can this help me develop the culture I want?

Each year that you play soccer for Anson Dorrance, you must memorize three different literary quotes, each handpicked to communicate a different core value. “You will be tested in front of the team in preseason,” his memo to the team reads, “and then tested again in every player conference. Not only do you have to memorize them, but you have to understand them. So reflect on them as well… .”

By senior year, Anson’s athletes know all twelve by heart, beginning with the first core value—We don’t whine—and its corresponding quote, courtesy of playwright George Bernard Shaw: “The true joy in life is to be a force of fortune instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.”

Verbatim memorization is a proud, centuries-old tradition at West Point. You can find the very, very long list of songs, poems, codes, creeds, and miscellany that all first-year cadets—“plebes” in West Point parlance—are required to memorize in a document West Point calls the Bugle Notes.

But West Point’s current superintendent, Lieutenant General Robert Caslen, is the first to point out that words, even those committed to memory, don’t sustain a culture when they diverge from actions.

Take, for example, Schofield’s Definition of Discipline. These words, first spoken in an 1879 address to the cadets by then superintendent John Schofield, are the sort you’d expect a West Pointer to know by heart. The passage that cadets must memorize begins: “The discipline which makes the soldiers of a free country reliable in battle is not to be gained by harsh or tyrannical treatment. On the contrary, such treatment is far more likely to destroy than to make an army.”

Schofield goes on to say—and the cadets must memorize this, too—that the very same commands can be issued in a way that inspires allegiance or seeds resentment. And the difference comes down to one essential thing: respect. Respect of subordinates for their commander? No, Schofield says. The origin of great leadership begins with the respect of the commander for his subordinates.

The irony of reciting Schofield’s uplifting words, even as you’re being yelled and screamed at by upperclassmen, was not lost on Caslen when he committed them to memory as an eighteen-year-old plebe in 1971. In that era, hazing was not only tolerated but encouraged. “It was the survivalists who succeeded,” Caslen recalled. “It wasn’t so much the physical challenges as the mental toughness required to cope with all the yelling and screaming.”

Indeed, forty years ago, 170 of the cadets who started Beast Barracks quit before it was over. That’s 12 percent, double the proportion who dropped out of Beast by the time I came to West Point to study grit a decade ago. Last year, attrition was down to less than 2 percent.

One explanation for this downward trend is hazing, or, rather, the lack thereof. The practice of inflicting physical and psychological stress on first-year cadets was long considered a necessary part of toughening up future officers. A second benefit, so the logic went, was to cull the weak, effectively eliminating weakness in the corps by pushing out those who couldn’t handle it. Over the decades, the list of approved hazing rituals was progressively curtailed, and in 1990, hazing was officially banned altogether.

So, eliminating hazing might explain declining Beast attrition in the late twentieth century, but what explains the last decade’s precipitous drop? Is West Point admissions doing a better job of selecting for grit? From the year-to-year data on grit I’ve seen, absolutely not. The average grit scores of incoming cadets haven’t changed since West Point began collecting them.

According to General Caslen, what’s happened at the academy is a deliberate change in culture. “When only the survivalists succeed, that’s an attrition model,” he explained. “There’s another kind of leadership. I call it a developmental model. The standards are exactly the same—high—but in one case, you use fear to get your subordinates to achieve those standards. And in the other case, you lead from the front.”

On the battlefield, leading from the front means, quite literally, getting out in front with your soldiers, doing the same hard work, and facing the same mortal risks. At West Point, it means treating cadets with unconditional respect and, when they fall short of meeting the academy’s extraordinarily high standards, figuring out the support they need to develop.

“For example,” Caslen explained, “on the physical fitness test, if there are cadets that struggle with the two-mile run and I’m their leader, what I’m going to do is sit down with them and put together a training program. I’m going to make sure the plan is sensible. Some afternoons, I’m going to say, ‘Okay, let’s go run,’ or ‘Let’s go workout,’ or ‘Let’s go do intervals.’ I will lead from the front to get the cadet to the standard. Very often, the cadet who was unable to do it on their own all of a sudden is now motivated, and once they start to improve, their motivation increases, and when they meet those objectives they gain even more confidence. At some point, they figure out how to do things on their own.”

Caslen’s example brought to mind a story West Pointer Tom Deierlein told me of the even-tougher-than-Beast training he endured to become an Airborne Ranger. At one point in the training, he was hanging off a rock face—a climb he’d already failed once—with every muscle in his body shaking in rebellion. “I can’t!” Tom shouted to the Ranger instructor on the plateau above. “I expected him to shout back, ‘That’s right. Quit! You’re a loser!’ This guy, for whatever reason, instead says, ‘Yes you can! Get up here!’ And I did. I climbed up, and I swore to myself I’d never say ‘I can’t’ again.”

As for critics of West Point’s new developmental culture, Caslen points out that the academic, physical, and military standards for graduating from West Point have, if anything, grown more stringent over time. He’s convinced that the academy is producing finer, stronger, and more capable leaders than ever before. “If you want to measure West Point by how much yelling and screaming goes on around here, then I’m just going to let you complain. Young men and women today just don’t respond to yelling and screaming.”

Other than objective standards of performance, what else hasn’t changed at West Point in the last ten years? Norms of politeness and decorum remain so strong that, during my visit, I found myself checking my watch to make sure I was a few minutes early for each appointment and, without thinking, addressed every man and woman I met by “sir” and “ma’am.” Also, the gray full-dress uniforms worn by cadets on formal occasions remain the same, making today’s cadets part of the “long gray line” of West Pointers stretching back two centuries before them. Finally, cadet slang is still spoken fluently by West Pointers and includes such improbably defined terms as firsties for “fourth-year cadets,” spoony for “neat in physical appearance,” and huah for everything from “I understand you” to “gung ho” to “agreed” to “great job.”

Caslen isn’t so naive as to think that four years of developmental culture at West Point will reliably turn 2s and 3s on the Grit Scale into 5s. But then again, the varsity athletes, class presidents, and valedictorians who make it through West Point’s two-year admissions process aren’t exactly the bottom of the barrel in grit. Importantly, he’s seen people change. He’s watched cadets develop. He has a growth mindset. “You never really know who is going to become a Schwarzkopf or a MacArthur.”

Two years after Pete Carroll called to talk about grit, I got on a plane to Seattle. I wanted to see firsthand what Pete meant when he said the Seahawks were building the grittiest culture in the NFL.

By then I’d read his autobiography, Win Forever, in which he talks about discovering the power of passion and perseverance in his own life:

Personally, I have learned that if you create a vision for yourself and stick with it, you can make amazing things happen in your life. My experience is that once you have done the work to create the clear vision, it is the discipline and effort to maintain that vision that can make it all come true. The two go hand in hand. The moment you’ve created that vision, you’re on your way, but it’s the diligence with which you stick to that vision that allows you to get there.

Getting that across to players is a constant occupation.

I’d also watched Pete talk about grit and culture in his many interviews. In one, Pete is onstage in an auditorium at the University of Southern California, returning as an honored guest to the school where he’d coached the USC Trojans to a record six wins in seven championship games over nine years. “What’s new? What are you learning?” Pete’s interviewer asked. Pete recounted discovering my research on grit and its resonance with his own decades-in-the-making approach to coaching. “In our program,” Pete said, his coaching staff reinforces a culture of grit through innumerable “competitive opportunities and moments and illustrations… . Really what we’re doing is we’re just trying to make them more gritty. We’re trying to teach them how to persevere. We’re trying to illustrate to them how they can demonstrate more passion.”

Then he gave an example. In practice, Seahawks play to win—offensive and defensive players compete against each other with the full-throated aggression and destroy-the-enemy intensity of a real game. The ritual of weekly competition-level practice, dubbed Competition Wednesdays, can be traced back to Anson Dorrance, whose book on coaching Pete devoured when he was crafting his own approach. “If you thought of it as who was winning and who was losing, you’d miss the whole point… . It’s really the guy across from us that makes us who we are.” Our opponent, Pete explained, creates challenges that help us become our best selves.

Outsiders to Seahawks culture easily miss that point. “Guys don’t understand it right away,” Pete said. “They don’t get it, but in time we work our way through it.” For Pete, this means sharing—in the most transparent way—everything that goes on in his own head, his objectives, the reasoning behind his approach. “If I didn’t talk about it, they wouldn’t know that. They’d be thinking, ‘Am I going to win or am I going to lose?’ But when we talk about it enough, they come to an appreciation of why they compete.”

Pete admitted that some players may have more to teach than they have to learn. Seahawk free safety Earl Thomas, for example, came to him as “the most competitive, gritty guy you could ever imagine… . He pushes and practices with marvelous intensity. He focuses, studies, does everything.” But the magic of culture is that one person’s grit can provide a model for others. On a daily basis, Earl “demonstrates in so many different ways what he’s all about.” If each person’s grit enhances grit in others, then, over time, you might expect what social scientist Jim Flynn calls a “social multiplier” effect. In a sense, it’s the motivational analogue of the infinity cube of self-reflecting mirrors Jeff Bezos built as a boy—one person’s grit enhances the grit of the others, which in turn inspires more grit in that person, and so on, without end.

What does Earl Thomas have to say about being a Seahawk? “My teammates have been pushing me since day one. They’re helping me to get better, and vice versa. You have to have a genuine appreciation for teammates who are willing to put in hard work, buy into the system, and never be satisfied with anything but continuing to evolve. It’s incredible to see the heights we’re reaching from that humble attitude.”

By the time I got around to visiting the Seahawks’ training facility, my curiosity had doubled. Making it to the championship game in successive years is notoriously hard, but the Seahawks had defied the odds and made it to the Super Bowl again that year. In sharp contrast to the prior year’s win, which Seattle fans celebrated with a blue and green ticker-tape parade that was the largest public gathering in Seattle’s history, this year’s loss resulted in howling, weeping, and the gnashing of teeth—over what sports commentators deemed “the worst call in NFL history.”

Here’s a recap: With twenty-six seconds on the clock, the Seahawks have possession of the ball and are one yard away from a game-winning touchdown. Everyone expects Pete to call a running play. It’s not just that the end zone is so close. It’s also because the Seahawks have Marshawn Lynch, whose nickname is Beast Mode and who’s widely agreed to be the single best running back in the entire NFL.

Instead, Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson throws a pass, the ball is intercepted, and the New England Patriots take home the trophy.

Since Super Bowl XLIX was only the third football game I’d watched without interruption in my entire life—the second being the NFC championship game the Seahawks had won the week before—I can’t offer an expert opinion on whether, indeed, passing instead of running was the epitome of coaching misjudgment. What interested me more when I arrived in Seattle was Pete’s reaction and that of the whole team.

Pete’s idol, basketball coach John Wooden, was fond of saying, “Success is never final; failure is never fatal. It’s courage that counts.” What I wanted to know is how a culture of grit continues not just in the afterglow of success, but in the aftermath of failure. What I wanted to know is how Pete and the Seahawks found the courage to continue.

As I look back on it now, my visit has an “in the moment” feel:

My appointment begins with a meeting in Pete’s office—yes, it’s the corner office, but no, it’s not huge or fancy, and the door is apparently always open, literally, allowing loud rock music to spill out into the hallway. “Angela,” Pete leans in to ask, “how can this day be helpful to you?”

I explain my motive. Today I’m an anthropologist, here to take notes on Seahawks culture. If I had a pith helmet, I’d be wearing it.

And that, of course, gets Pete all excited. He tells me that it’s not just one thing. It’s a million things. It’s a million details. It’s substance and it’s style.

After a day with the Seahawks, I have to agree. It’s countless small things, each doable—but each so easy to botch, forget, or ignore. And though the details are countless, there are some themes.

The most obvious is language. One of Pete’s coaches once said, “I speak fluent Carroll.” And to speak Carroll is to speak fluent Seahawk: Always compete. You’re either competing or you’re not. Compete in everything you do. You’re a Seahawk 24-7. Finish strong. Positive self-talk. Team first.

During my day with the team, I can’t tell you how many times someone—a player, a coach, a scout—enthusiastically offers up one of these morsels, but I can tell you I don’t once hear variations. One of Pete’s favorite sayings is “No synonyms.” Why not? “If you want to communicate effectively, you need to be clear with the words you use.”

Everybody I meet peppers their sentences with these Carrollisms. And while nobody has quite the neutron-powered, teenage energy of the sixty-three-year-old head coach, the rest of the Seahawks family, as they like to call themselves, are just as earnest in helping me decode what these dictums actually mean.

“Compete,” I’m told, is not what I think it is. It’s not about triumphing over others, a notion I’ve always been uneasy about. Compete means excellence. “Compete comes from the Latin,” explains Mike Gervais, the competitive-surfer-turned-sports-psychologist who is one of Pete’s partners in culture building. “Quite literally, it means strive together. It doesn’t have anything in its origins about another person losing.”

Mike tells me that two key factors promote excellence in individuals and in teams: “deep and rich support and relentless challenge to improve.” When he says that, a lightbulb goes on in my head. Supportive and demanding parenting is psychologically wise and encourages children to emulate their parents. It stands to reason that supportive and demanding leadership would do the same.

I begin to get it. For this professional football team, it’s not solely about defeating other teams, it’s about pushing beyond what you can do today so that tomorrow you’re just a little bit better. It’s about excellence. So, for the Seahawks, Always compete means Be all you can be, whatever that is for you. Reach for your best.

After one of the meetings, an assistant coach catches up to me in the hallway and says, “I don’t know if anyone’s mentioned finishing to you.”


“One thing we really believe in here is the idea of finishing strong.” Then he gives me examples: Seahawks finish a game strong, playing their hearts out to the last second on the clock. Seahawks finish the season strong. Seahawks finish every drill strong. And I ask, “But why just finish strong? Doesn’t it make sense to start strong, too?”

“Yes,” the coach says, “but starting strong is easy. And for the Seahawks, ‘finishing’ doesn’t literally mean ‘finishing.’ ”

Of course not. Finishing strong means consistently focusing and doing your absolute best at every moment, from start to finish.

Soon enough, I realize it’s not only Pete doing the preaching. At one point, during a meeting attended by more than twenty assistant coaches, the entire room spontaneously breaks out into a chant, in perfect cadence: No whining. No complaining. No excuses. It’s like being in a choir of all baritones. Before this, they sang out: Always protect the team. Afterward: Be early.

Be early? I tell them that, after reading Pete’s book, I made “Be early” a resolution. So far, I had yet to be early for almost anything. This elicited some chuckles. Apparently, I’m not the only who struggles with that one. But just as important, this confession gets one of the guys talking about why it’s important to be early: “It’s about respect. It’s about the details. It’s about excellence.” Okay, okay, I’m getting it.

Around midday, I give a lecture on grit to the team. This is after giving similar presentations to the coaches and the scouts, and before talking to the entire front-office staff.

After most of the team has moved on to lunch, one of the Seahawks asks me what he should do about his little brother. His brother’s very smart, he says, but at some point, his grades started slipping. As an incentive, he bought a brand-new Xbox video-game console and placed it, still in its packaging, in his brother’s bedroom. The deal was that, when the report card comes home with A’s, he gets to unwrap the game. At first, this scheme seemed to be working, but then his brother hit a slump. “Should I just give him the Xbox?” he asks me.

Before I can answer, another player says, “Well, man, maybe he’s just not capable of A’s.”

I shake my head. “From what I’ve been told, your brother is plenty smart enough to bring home A’s. He was doing it before.”

The player agrees. “He’s a smart kid. Trust me, he’s a smart kid.”

I’m still thinking when Pete jumps up and says, with genuine excitement: “First of all, there is absolutely no way you give that game to your brother. You got him motivated. Okay, that’s a start. That’s a beginning. Now what? He needs some coaching! He needs someone to explain what he needs to do, specifically, to get back to good grades! He needs a plan! He needs your help in figuring out those next steps.”

This reminds me of something Pete said at the start of my visit: “Every time I make a decision or say something to a player, I think, ‘How would I treat my own kid?’ You know what I do best? I’m a great dad. And in a way, that’s the way I coach.”

At the end of the day, I’m in the lobby, waiting for my taxi. Pete is there with me, making sure I get off okay. I realize I haven’t asked him directly how he and the Seahawks found the courage to continue after he’d made “the worst call ever.” Pete later told Sports Illustrated that it wasn’t the worst decision, it was the “worst possible outcome.” He explained that like every other negative experience, and every positive one, “it becomes part of you. I’m not going to ignore it. I’m going to face it. And when it bubbles up, I’m going to think about it and get on with it. And use it. Use it!

Just before I leave, I turn and look up. And there, twenty feet above us, in foot-high chrome letters, is the word CHARACTER. In my hand, I’m holding a bag of blue and green Seahawk swag, including a fistful of blue rubber bracelets stamped in green with LOB: Love Our Brothers.