Grit: The differentiator

Rulon Gardner
Rulon Gardner. Grit incarnate.

What is the one that would help you enjoy lifelong success in your career?

Is it confidence? It’s hard to win at anything in life without believing in yourself. Or how about intelligence? Assertiveness? Listening skills?

Or, maybe it’s a positive attitude? Some of the best-selling books in the last century are really simple reminders that if we can discipline our thoughts to focus only on the positives, we can think our way to success.

Lastly, it could just be hard work and dedication, right?

Well, it’s none of those. Actually, maybe a better way to put it, is that it’s all of those combined into one trait.

The one thing you need for long-term, sustained excellence in sales is a thing called grit.

Grit is the perfect blend — the ultimate combination — of five must-have ingredients — passion, ambition, perseverance, optimism and effort. It’s focused, constant energy towards goals, even in the face of adversity. And here’s the thing that makes grit so rare: it requires every ingredient to be present in someone.

It’s not optimism alone. It’s not just perseverance. Many people have what it takes to get through short, one-time difficulties. And it’s obviously not merely the willingness to work hard. There are countless underachievers working long hours out there. It’s not simply intelligence, the world has plenty of armchair philosophers floating around.

Rulon Gardner: The Upset

Maybe you know the story of Rulon Gardner. Wyoming-born, Mormon-bred, the youngest of nine children, Gardner was a big kid. B-I-G, big. Maybe to keep up with those siblings, he took up wrestling as a sport at 6 years old, back in 1977.

But we’ll come back to that. Let’s fast forward to the year 2000.

Gardner was a good wrestler, but never good enough to win an NCAA medal, let alone a world championship. Still, he found a way to pull off the greatest upset in Olympic wrestling history by beating The Alexander Karelin 1-0 for the Greco-Roman super heavyweight gold medal. Maybe it’s not “The” Alexander Karelin to you. But this Alexander was the man who had never lost in international wrestling — never — a streak of more than 200 matches.

But he didn’t just never lose, this was a man (Karelin) who had allowed one point in 10…years. That’s years, folks. And, yes, I said one point. A man whose power, strength, and skill had caused other highly skilled wrestlers to essentially quit during matches, rather than risk being hurt or, worse, embarrassed. You don’t inherit a nickname like “The Experiment” any other way.

Now, the key moment in the Gardner gold medal victory over Karelin (now dubbed the Miracle on the Mat) came after the first three minutes. At that point, wrestlers begin the second period with a clinch and have to remain locked-together until one of them executes a scoring move or releases his lock. Gardner and Karelin were scoreless at this point.

In the midst of this second-round grip, as these two hulks lumbered to the side of the mat, Gardner managing to keep his hands clinched, while Karelin’s slipped apart (it was only after watching a replay that the mat judges confirmed Karelin’s hands had separated). The score went up: 1-0, Gardner. It was the first deficit Karelin had faced since the 1988 Olympic finals.

Ultimately, this blip of a score held. Rulon Gardner had pulled off the unthinkable upset. Not with a Hollywood pinning of a Golaith. Not with a stunning turnaround in the final seconds. But with a methodical dismantling of his adversary’s plan. With grit.


In fact, it was such an unfathomable outcome that International Olympic Committee president Juan Antonio Samaranch had made a point of being on-hand to personally present Karelin with his fourth straight gold medal.

Why do I tell you this story? Because Gardner summoned up something he had long-cultivated in order to win: grit.

Now, before you argue that Rulon Gardner simply “wanted it more” that day, or that he was the super-talented-but-relatively-unknown underdog, let me add a bit more color to the story to tell you who Gardner is on the inside…

Rulon Gardner: Before and After the Upset

This is the Rulon Gardner who, when very young, learned the value of work as he fed and milked the cows, chopped grain, and cared for the yard on his family’s farm. The Rulon Gardner who, in 3rd grade, punctured his abdomen with an arrow. The Rulon Gardner who, as I mentioned earlier was big enough that he was teased regularly and mercilessly for his size as a child — it was heavy adversity in his early years. The Rulon Gardner who struggled with reading and school in general.

This is the Rulon Gardner who, a year after winning the gold medal, had a toe amputated due to frostbite after getting lost for a several days during a snowmobiling trip in Idaho.

And this is the Rulon Gardner who, two weeks before the 2004 Olympic national wrestling championships, was flipped over his motorcycle handlebars and another car when that car pulled in front of him unexpectedly.

The Rulon Gardner who then survived a Cessna plane crash.

Any question about whether Gardner has grit? The man fought through these later setbacks to earn a bronze medal at the 2004 Oympics before retiring.

How to Get Grit

See, grit is forged through adversity, through difficulty. It was planted in him early in life. It’s safe to say that a life of ease — a life without stress or hardship — will rarely produce that thing called grit. Don’t believe that? Angela Duckworth has done multiple studies on the issue (PDF). You can even take one of her grit-scale self-tests.

Passion. Ambition. Perseverance. Optimism. Effort. Grit reigns as the differentiator between those who endure a career — bouncing around from job to job because they know how to write acceptable resumés — vs. those who thrive because they just plain know how to get things done at a high level.

So, how do you get grit? By taking chances. By seeking hard things. By finishing what you start. By pushing even harder when it would be easy to put it in cruise control. By owning your business results, never placing blame elsewhere for anything. By expecting the best things to happen to you because of your effort; but never flinching for a moment when you’re dealt momentary setbacks or challenges. By putting on determination and effort like you put on your pants every day.

And by never letting anyone, anywhere, for any reason, derail you or even bring out the worst in you.

And here’s my final thought on the subject. It’s highly likely you have it. It may be dormant. It may be weak from lack of character-defining exercise over the last 10 years. You may not know it’s there. Yet it is.

I’m a big believer in capacity over destiny. I can’t say you’re personally destined for greatness in your life. But I feel pretty confident in saying that you have the capacity for greatness. We’re all capable of amazing things…tremendous feats, performance, service, focus. That capacity is built-in. The well has been dug inside.

The issue is: will you tap into it…?

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