by Nina Post
What is grit?
"Grit entails maintaining allegiance to a highest-level goal over long stretches of time and in the face of disappointments and setbacks."
Or to put it another way: Grit "entails having and working assiduously toward a single challenging superordinate goal through thick and thin, on a timescale of years or even decades."
Grit is closely tied with a growth mindset, and I agree with a lot of aspects of the growth mindset.
But I find grit overrated, especially for startup founders.
Most founders have an inherent belief that their business is unique and the same type of opportunity won't come along again. A founder generally rates the likelihood of their own success as much higher than what the data shows, and rates the potential of failure as much lower.
They think, "This is my shot. This is it." And because they have this belief, they want to shoot for the moon: a huge acquisition or an IPO. Selling their company for anything less than a huge sum of money—however arbitrarily that may be defined in their mind—feels like giving up.
And so they work "assiduously toward a single challenging superordinate goal through thick and thin, on a timescale of years or even decades."
My husband is a startup founder. Years ago, when he was getting home at 4 am every day, worried about retaining the one customer that made up the bulk of the company's revenue, I turned to reading Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius—stoics I was already very familiar with—to help myself deal with it, and help him deal with it.
(It didn't help that the company was based outside the core startup hubs, but that's another blog post.)
For more than a decade, he has been "maintaining allegiance to a highest-level goal over long stretches of time and in the face of disappointments and setbacks." And, oh man, the disappointments and setbacks. It was one gut punch and uppercut after another, and that's barely doing the experience justice. It took grit, but was it worth it?
A startup founder needs an experienced mentor to tell them, "This won't be the only thing you ever do." They need a mentor to tell them, "It's far easier to do something else, to start another company or to join one, after you've exited from one." We didn't have any mentors, and didn't even have any other founders to confide in.
If a startup isn't getting significant traction after two years, three years at the most, a founder should find a buyer and move on.
Why? Because for every example of someone who spent twenty years on something and had a good outcome, there are 999 people who worked on something just as long and didn't get anything out of it. Hard work is a tiny portion of the success formula for a new business. As Jens Lapinski, Managing Director of the Techstars METRO Accelerator in Berlin, writes:
"Building a successful startup is incredibly difficult. The reason is this: In order to build a great startup, EVERYTHING has to work out for you. EVERYTHING. The CEO, the team, the market, the business model, the pricing, the marketing, the sales, the customer success, the design, the engineering, finance, HR, recruitment, culture, your investors, your board, your advisors, your competitors must screw up, the world changes in ways favorable to you, the tech stacks shift in your favor. And more. EVERYTHING. If only ONE of those things goes really wrong, you will likely shut down. ONE key aspect wrong, company likely dead. You need to master ALL of them. And if you want to build a world class company, all of these better be world class."
And this is why grit is overrated. All the grit, determination, and hard work in the world isn't going to move the needle on the things that are beyond your control.
Once you realize that there's a lot more to success than just hard work, you're more likely to be able to make smart decisions about which projects are worth persevering on despite the odds, and which ones are best put aside in favor of new opportunities where those all-important external factors are more likely to work in your favor.