Maybe You Should Interview For Grit, Zest, and Self-Control

Jan 20, 2012
This article is part of a series called Opinion.

I’ve learned that mistakes can often be as good a teacher as success.

Jack Welch said that. It’s a good reminder of that old aphorism about learning from your mistakes.

What about those times when no one believes in you? When you fail when no one expected you to succeed anyway? Ted Turner has been there: “All my life, people have said that I wasn’t going to make it.” Today, there’s no doubt that he’s made it, and like Welch, helped transform an industry.

How many successful “failures” get hired is anyone’s guess. Recruiters look for them; try to separate a winner from the others with interview questions like that classic, if overused, “Tell me about a time when you failed and what you learned.”

Good interviewers are looking for winners who have the character strength to learn why they failed, what to do next time to succeed, and who will then get back up on the horse.

But exactly what are the specific traits that lead one person to try again when others just give up?

Industrial and organizational psychologists have spent decades researching that very thing. Today, there are any number of tests from dozens of firms, purporting to help employers solve problems (retention being a key issue) or hire people who will perform just like the company’s current top performers.

There’s no doubt that these work — at least to some degree. Try, though, to describe the specific traits of success and you quickly find how elusive and complicated an exercise it is.

Months ago, the New York Times wrote a long article about the search for measuring and teaching success and character at an exclusive private school in The Bronx. The article cites the work of Prof. Angela Duckworth:

People who accomplished great things, she noticed, often combined a passion for a single mission with an unswerving dedication to achieve that mission, whatever the obstacles and however long it might take.

That quality she called “grit.”

Duckworth developed a short, 12-point grit test that proved to be a better indicator of success at West Point’s freshman summer training than the Army’s Whole Candidate Score.

Grit eventually became one of the seven key character traits the school determined were the most important underpinnings of success, and would be the traits the school would seek to foster: zest, grit, self-control, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism, and curiosity.

“The idea of building grit and building self-control is that you get that through failure,” the school’s headmaster told The Times, which closed the article with this observation: “Randolph (the headmaster) wants his students to succeed, of course — it’s just that he believes that in order to do so, they first need to learn how to fail.”

So the next time your hiring manager rejects all your candidates, and your hot prospects go to the competition, and the only seat you’re getting at the table is in the lunchroom, watch the video and think of what Oprah Winfrey once said:

Be the one thing you think you cannot do. Fail at it. Try again. Do better the second time. The only people who never tumble are those who never mount the high wire. This is your moment, own it.

This article is part of a series called Opinion.
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