#126: Grit—The Single Quality That Will Determine Your Long-Term Success as a Freelancer

Episode summary: The most important quality you must have to succeed over the long haul as a freelance professional is grit. Fortunately, there are simple things you can do to become a grittier person.

The notes that follow are a very basic, unedited summary of the show. There’s a lot more detail in the audio version. You can listen to the show using the audio player below. Or you can subscribe in iTunes to get this show delivered straight to the Podcasts app on your smart phone, tablet or iPod.



An Epiphany

I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about success.

Specifically the difference between people who succeed over the long haul… and those who drop off.

I’ve been infatuated with this idea for as long as I can remember.

And I think it stems from the struggles I faced as a kid—and what I did to overcome the odds.

For many years I had very low self-confidence. I didn’t think I was good at much.

I certainly wasn’t good at sports. I wasn’t nearly as smart as most of my friends. And I just felt that nearly everyone else was “better” than I was.

Not only that, but English was my second language. That was always in the back of my mind. I felt disadvantaged.

But halfway through high school I realized that this wasn’t true. I began to see that most of my peers weren’t any better than I was. I saw that I had the power to achieve way more. So I started making big changes in my life and working like I never had before.

In 18 months I went from a “C” average to getting into the National Honor Society. I started weight training and got into the best shape of my life. I got into a good college and graduated with honors. I landed a great job out of school and worked my way up in the company.

Why Do Some People Succeed Over and Over Again?

Ever since then I’ve been fascinated by why some people do consistently well and why others seem to struggle. And why so many fail despite the fact that they’re smarter than average… have more financial resources than the average person… have better skills… a great personality… or great looks.

After working with more than 300 freelancers at all levels (from newbies to six-figure earners), I’ve reached some very interesting conclusions.

For instance, I constantly talk about the importance of taking action. But not just any level of action. To make it as a solo professional (or to get to the next level of success once you’re established) you have to take massive action.

I’ve also talked and written extensively about the importance of focus, commitment and belief.

And I’m always reminding new and aspiring freelance writers and copywriters how hard it is to get your business off the ground—and how most aspiring freelancers never make it.

In fact, I’m often criticized for blurting out this basic truth. Some of my peers think I’m crazy for being so honest about this. Others think it’s demotivating for aspiring freelancers to hear that.

But I do it because I know that if it were me on the other end, I’d want to know the truth. I’d want to know that it’s going to take an incredible amount of work and focus.

And a heavy dose of grit.

Grit (Not Talent) Is the Most Essential Quality for Success as a Freelancer

Grit. That’s such a fascinating word.

It encompasses so many of the ingredients needed to succeed in an endeavor that’s filled with obstacles.

And that, my dear listener, is what I’d like to talk about today: the critical role of “grit” in freelance success.

In fact, for the first time in this podcast, I’m going to dedicate a full month to this topic. That’s going to be the theme for this month. It’s that important!

If I had to choose, grit is the one quality I would want to have above any other.

I would trade all my money, resources, connections, skills, talents and knowledge for grit. Because with a heavy dose of grit, I’m confident that I’d eventually get it all back.

Who needs grit? And where do you need it?

You need a good amount of grit if you’re trying to launch a freelance writing or copywriting business.

You definitely need it if you’re an established freelancer and you’re trying to break out of a plateau in income or client quality.

And even if you’re happy with status quo, you need to be gritty. Because change is inevitable. And the ability to change, adapt and evolve requires a gritty personality.

It wasn’t until I came across Angela Duckworth’s book titled Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, that I found a much more elegant way to describe what you need to do well on your own.

In fact, I can’t recommend Duckworth’s book strongly enough. It’s an eye-opening book. And for me, it’s tied together and confirmed so many of the things I had noticed in my work as a freelancer and as a business-building coach for freelancers.

This is not a feel-good kind of book. Duckworth is an academic and professor of psychology. So she offers plenty of research to back up her assertions.

Essentially, grit encompasses all the key ingredients you need to not just achieve success as a freelancer, but also sustain success over the long haul.

In this episode I mainly want to introduce the topic of grit. And I want to do that by summarizing some of my biggest takeaways from Duckworth’s book.

Plus, I’ll give you a link to a test you can take to determine how “gritty” you are.

Key Ingredients of Grit

One of Duckworth’s biggest findings is that grit isn’t just about perseverance. That was surprising for me, because when I thought of grit, one of the first words that came to mind was perseverance, doggedness.

Grit involves two other elements: passion and purpose.

People who have passion for an activity or initiative can persist longer than people who are relying purely on willpower.

But better yet, people who have purpose (an important WHY) can persist even longer than those who have passion.

You may be passionate about your work. But let’s say you hate marketing your services, which is essential to your success as a freelancer. Well, if you have a clear purpose for doing the work you do—for being self-employed—that can help you overcome some of the areas in which you’re weak.

Grit is more about stamina than intensity.

That was another key takeaway from me. It’s the turtle and hare metaphor. Slow and steady wins the race. Sure, we can go about the problem in a frenzied, full-steam-ahead kind of way.

But eventually we run out of steam.

Ignore the gurus who preach the “just hustle” gospel. Freelance success requires more than hustle. It demands a heavy dose of grit.

We’re better off taking small, incremental and consistent steps over time. In fact, Duckworth explains that many of the most important human achievements are the sum of countless ordinary individual elements. Doing them consistently and correctly over time produces excellent.

Enthusiasm is common but endurance is rare.

In my coaching work I come across a ton of enthusiastic writers and copywriters. They want to go freelance. Or they’re already freelancing but they want to break out of an income plateau.

I love to see their enthusiasm. But what I really look for is their ability to stick to a plan, even when their actions and hard work aren’t producing immediate results.

When I see someone get discouraged early because of a setback or lack of visible results, that’s a bad sign of things to come.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t get discouraged. It’s normal to feel disappointed. It’s normal to have thoughts about quitting and going home early. I have them all them time!

But the person who gets back up and keeps going, that’s the person who who’s much more likely succeed.

Consistency of effort over the long run is way more important than enthusiasm.

We’re infatuated with talent.

We view natural talent as a key ingredient to success. But history is filled with countless examples of men and women who accomplished impossible feats … yet had very average talent or intelligence.

The problem with this “talent obsession” is that it gives off the impression that everything outside of talent and genius (including grit) is not important. So rather than going after goals that we’re passionate about, we instead waste time and energy trying to identify where we may have a natural talent.

Writing didn’t come naturally to me. In fact, I was a really bad writer all the way through school. I had to work at it for years before I became competent.

Good news: we get grittier as we age. (Thank God!)

This was a very interesting finding, although it makes perfect sense. Duckworth’s theory is that as we age we get better at dusting ourselves off after disappointment.

We mature. And we become more adept at identifying what’s truly important and what isn’t. So we have better focus.

I also think that generally speaking, our confidence goes up with age. We’re more comfortable with ourselves and our abilities. We have more clarity. We understand our priorities better. And we start realizing that our time on this earth is limited. So we take more chances and go after things we may have avoided in the past. And we start caring LESS about what other people think when we stumble.

When you think of yourself as someone who can overcome adversity, you’re much more likely to behave in a way that confirms that self-concept.

In fact, selfishly that’s one reason why I’m thinking and talking about grit this month. Because being much aware of my ability to endure and persist when it comes to things that I’m passionate and purposeful about, helps me sustain and improve my grit. So I think it’s important to give this issue some thought on a regular basis.

For instance, you could think back to times in your personal or professional life when you’ve exhibited a heavy dose of grit—when you rose to the occasion! You can relive those experiences and identify what drove you. This can be a great journaling exercise (it’s been powerful for me).

Grit is more plastic than you might think.

It’s not a genetic thing (there are some genetics involved, but like so many things in life, environment plays a massive role).

Duckworth explains that grit requires four key psychological elements:

  1. Interest: enjoying the work.
  2. Practice: consistent work towards mastery.
  3. Purpose: something driving you that’s much deeper than mere intention or interest.
  4. Hope: Not depending on luck. But instead adopting an attitude of “I resolve to make tomorrow better … because it’s within my power to do so!”

You can grow your grit from the inside out by:

  • Discovering, developing and deepening your interests.
  • Acquiring the habit of discipline.
  • Cultivating a sense of purpose and meaning towards your work.
  • Teaching yourself to hope (because you can make a dent on the universe).

One quick point on developing your interests and passions. Duckworth’s research shows that:

“…passion for your work is a little bit of discovery, followed by a lot of development, and then a lifetime of deepening.”

She adds:

“The process of interest discovery can be messy, serendipitous, and inefficient.”

And she quotes Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon as saying:

“One of the huge mistakes people make is that they try to force an interest on themselves.”

Without experimenting, Duckworth says, you can’t figure out which interests will stick and which won’t.

Freelancing Has Made Me a Grittier Person

Going out on my own is the hardest thing I’ve done professionally. I’m not alone. Many of my peers feel the same way.

When I say “hardest thing” that doesn’t mean it’s a struggle or that it’s arduous and not fun.

It simply means that this business has required me to reach deep down inside and become my very best.

The biggest gift I’ve received from being self-employed is that it’s made me a grittier person.

When you’re on your own, everything’s dependent on you. Obstacles come your way and it’s up to you to push through them.

You have to rise to the occasion!

And to do that effectively AND consistently, you need to be a gritty person. There’s just no substitute. You can’t make that up with talent. You can’t make it up with charm.

Only a good amount of grit will do. And fortunately, that’s something you can develop.

Before we end, I have a couple of recommendations:

  1. Take Duckworth’s grit-scale test to get an idea of where you are today.
  2. Read Duckworth’s book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. Every freelancer (aspiring, new and established) should read it. You’ll learn why grit matters and how you can become a grittier person and raise gritty kids.

What role has grit played in your freelance success?

What obstacles have you overcome as a result of your grit?

Please let me know in the comments area below.



  • Joel Altman

    You’re too hard on Millennials.

    Issac Newton spent his days toiling in his mother’s basement. When Newton’s mother died, he inherited the farm. The farm pretty much ran itself. It nearly failed many times, but he didn’t care. Newton was focused and driven. He would work on one problem to the exclusion of everything else.

    Newton succeeded in many things, but not as a businessman. Did he have grit? I guess so.

    I’m an old man and have seen many things and people come and go. Grid is a useful thing, but it doesn’t give you a balanced life. Newton wrote

    treatises on ship design, but never saw the sea shore, never took a vacation.

    Maybe the most important about grit is knowing when to turn it off.

    • Hi Joel, thanks for your comment. My comment about Millenials was about 15 seconds long out of a 30-minute show. And I thought it was fair and NOT mean spirited at all. In fact, I just got an email from a colleague who works *only* with Millenials, and she said I was spot on with that comment. In fact, she teaches a college class full of Millenials and she said she’s going to have them all listen to this episode.

      RE: “Newton was focused and driven. He would work on one problem to the exclusion of everything else.” I think you just described grit. 😉

      Grit is NOT about being a workaholic. It’s not about living an unbalanced life. It’s about having enough passion, perseverance and purpose about something that you achieve great success in that area. Grit and balance are not mutually exclusive.

      That’s why I love this quality. Because it’s not one-sided. It encompasses so much.

  • Debbie Curtis

    Hi Ed. I love listening to your podcasts while I take a writing break and eating lunch, etc. This one, in particular, struck home. You see, I left my full-time job and am substitute teaching while getting my freelance business going. This is working quite well, especially since school ends at 2:00, so I schedule all phone calls in the afternoon, and have quite a few west coast clients (I’m in the eastern time zone). Anyway, I’m appalled at how wimpy a lot of our youngest kids are. They need grit! They are coddled way too much, and run to teachers and aides for things that they need to ‘just walk off’. I just taught an 8-yr-old to swing! No kidding, he had no idea to pump his legs. Then I had to explain to do both legs together. Then how to put the swing behind you and get a running start. Wow! Our generation (I’m over 50, and quite gritty if I do say so myself) fell out of trees, rode bikes in shorts, ran barefoot, got dirty, drank out of hoses (I hear people discourage that now). You get my point. Here is another generation of kids living in the basement. I was a PE teacher today, and the other PE teacher has rental apartments. The college kids he rents to pretty much don’t go outside. They play video games. No matter how nice it is outside. Anyway, this was a timely subject for this tough old bird. I grew up falling off my pony. Then falling off horses. I get back on! Always have, Always will. Thanks for the podcasts!

    • Debbie Curtis

      I am a 4.30 on the Grit scale, higher than 80% of Americans. I wonder how folks from war-torn countries would score?

  • Ma

    Hi Ed,

    Longtime lurker and first-time poster here! Firstly, thanks so much for your thoughtful take on the philosophical and spiritual aspects of business that it seems so many freelancers do not acknowledge as being equally as critical to success as writing ability or business acumen. I’d love to hear more podcasts of this nature in the future!

    The point Duckworth makes about growing grit by teaching yourself to hope was particularly striking to me. I wondered if you could share one thing you do or have done in the past to cultivate or teach yourself to hope during a period of repeated setbacks in business? What was it in those moments that made you forge ahead in spite of the obstacles rather than throwing in the towel?

    Thanks, and keep up the great work! 🙂

    • Thanks for stepping forward from the shadows! Lol! 🙂 I’m glad to hear you enjoy topics like this. I have a few more on the spiritual side of freelancing:


      As far as what I do to cultivate hope in the face of serious adversity, it’s not something I always do consciously, but when that happens I turn to books about people who faced WAY more adversity than I did and overcame all the odds anyway. That helps me gain some perspective. I’ll also pray and meditate. And I try to let go and let a higher power intervene. Letting go and trusting that I’ve done everything I can possibly do… and that now I need to give the problem to God or the Universe … that’s not only cathartic, it’s the best thing to do.

  • Sabine

    Hi Ed, I loved this episode. Didn’t know you weren’t a native speaker of English! Are you still bilingual with your first language? I had no confidence as a teenager either, until age 17 (adolescence sucks, doesn’t it).
    I’ve seen Duckworth’s TED talk and have been coming back to the topic of grit ever since. I grew up in Germany and aged 29 gave up my teaching career, moved to the UK and eventually discovered a new passion, which I turned into a new career path. It took some grit to make the best of all the changes that brought. Thanks for reminding me!

    • Hi Sabine — Yes, I’m still fluent in Spanish, but my Spanish writing ability is poor and it’s difficult for me to talk about complex topics in Spanish (topics such as grit, for example!).

      Thanks for sharing a bit about yourself! 🙂

  • Rand_Ileny

    Very interesting topic. This fits in nicely with the ideas in a book I just read (though it’s 10 years old), “Mindset” by Carol Dweck. Have you read it? She talks about this issue of talent vs. effort. People who overvalue talent (likely because they were praised for things as kids – “you’re so smart!” “you’re a natural artist!”) tend to undervalue effort, and will give up on something if they’re not immediately good at it. In contrast, people who believe in the value of effort will go to great lengths and achieve things that don’t necessarily reflect their natural talents, like you and your story of deliberately learning to write well.

    I wonder if the focus on pursuing passion and following your bliss gives some people the idea that things should be easy, and if they’re hard, it’s a sign that it’s the wrong avenue to pursue. If so, that’s a shame.

    Thanks for the podcast!

    • Thanks, Rand! Believe it or not, I haven’t read “Mindset.” it’s on my reading list, though. And I’m very familiar with Dueck’s work on the natural talent vs. effort issue. Agree completely.

      I also love your observation: “…following your bliss gives some people the idea that things should be
      easy, and if they’re hard, it’s a sign that it’s the wrong avenue to

      I think you’re on to something there!

  • Yvonne Feltman

    Thanks for the recommendation of “Grit” the book. I really enjoyed it. Now I need to develop more of it. I never knew grit was the term for what I’ve been pondering that I need more of. Now I know!! Ha. Anyway, I’ve been listening to your podcast for a while now and there is always great information. I’m never bored. Thanks for doing what you do (and please keep doing it!).

    • Thanks, Yvonne! Great to have you as a listener, and I’m happy to hear that the show has been helpful! 😉

  • Hannah Glenn

    Thanks for introducing this concept and book, Ed. I’m burning through the book and I love it. So inspiring. I took the quiz and got a 4.30 too! My husband was disappointed when he got a lower score around 3.70. Ha! I told him not to worry, grit can be developed 😉

    • Glad you’re enjoying the book. It’s a page turner, isn’t it? And tell your husband that your grittiness will wear off on him. 😉

      • Hannah Glenn

        Yeah, it’s becomming a catch phrase around our house. When one of us starts to get frustrated with something as silly as not being able to open a jar of pickles, the other one says, “Be grittier! You can do it!”