#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.