Getting gritty with the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air

Emily Mongan
Emily Mongan

It's possible that your facility or community is currently grappling with a staff recruitment and retention issue, as so many around the country are. Or maybe you're experiencing your own personal staffing struggle, feeling stuck or burnt out in your current position.

Whatever your workforce issues are, Angela Duckworth, Ph.D., might have just the answer you're looking for. And it involves a little advice from the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.

Duckworth, an author and professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, spoke Monday at the general session of LeadingAge's 2016 Annual Meeting & Expo in Indianapolis. Duckworth's research and passion lie in the common denominators of what makes someone great, whether they're a ballerina, a CEO or a chess player.

The biggest common denominator Duckworth has stumbled upon (and, coincidentally, the title of her book) is "grit." Not the sandpaper kind, but the combination of passion and drive that helps people to succeed (you can find out your personal grit score here).

Here's where Will Smith comes in. A fellow Philadelphia native, Duckworth extolled Smith's take on grit when asked by an interviewer why he was so successful.

“I'm not afraid to die on a treadmill,” Smith said in the recorded clip. “I will not be outworked, period. You might have more talent than me, you might be smarter than me … but if we get on the treadmill together, there's two things: You're getting off first, or I'm going to die.”

So maybe you and your staff don't have quite as extreme of a view on work ethic and grit as Will Smith, and that's OK. But for those of us looking to get a little grittier, Duckworth shared a way to “reverse engineer” the process to build up passion and perseverance: practice.

Duckworth illustrated her idea of “deliberate practice” with Steph Curry, the NBA superstar whose practice routines have helped make him the league MVP and one of the best shooters in the history of the NBA. Practice can benefit those of us without multimillion dollar basketball contracts, too, Duckworth shared. Set a goal, focus on it, and welcome feedback. Then, take the feedback to heart, and reflect and refine your work going forward.

“Deliberate practice is hard, and not that fun,” Duckworth said. “But you don't hang on to skills you don't practice.”

Once you've brushed up on your own grit through practice, it's time to take it to the next level: your staff. Duckworth's research at the first-year barracks at West Point found that for many, grit levels directly correlated to retention rate. While talent is a plus, it isn't what keeps good recruits around.

“Talent is awesome, but it's no guarantee that you will, as Woody Allen says, ‘show up,'” Duckworth noted. “I believe in talent but I also believe in the power of passion and perseverance.”

How can you gauge a prospective employee's grit? There's always Duckworth's test, or an even simpler way: asking if they love what they do, as she frequently does on airplanes.

If they respond yes, there's a good chance that employee is going to display grit and power through his or her work, even if it isn't fun or easy. And that mix of passion and perseverance will benefit you and your organizations in the future. It can help boost your own grit, and help determine which workers will stay on the treadmill.

Follow Emily Mongan @emmongan.
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McKnight's Daily Editors' Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news and issues. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor, Editor James M. Berklan, Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman and Staff Writer Emily Mongan.

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