Photograph by Hans Neleman — Getty Images
By Robin Koval
May 24, 2016

The MPW Insiders network is an online community where the most thoughtful and influential people in business contribute answers to timely questions about careers and leadership. Today’s answer to the question: What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned in your career? Is written by Robin Koval, President and CEO of Truth Initiative and author of Grit to Great: How Perseverance, Passion, and Pluck Take You from Ordinary to Extraordinary

Growing up in the Bronx, I certainly learned a lot of life lessons (not to mention four-letter words), but it would take me years to realize that the best career lesson I learned came from growing up in the Bronx.

My parents, both of whom worked, did everything in their power to make sure my sister and I were set up to succeed. I dreamed about making it big someday but often worried about whether or not I had what it took. I certainly didn’t have money or a pedigree to leverage. I went to a great college, but it wasn’t an Ivy League school. My social circle contained not one socialite. And while I was smart, I didn’t possess any natural-born talent that could one day serve as a meal ticket to success.

My fears intensified when I landed my first ad agency job as an assistant in its account management department. I had a fine arts degree in a sea of MBAs. I typed and made travel arrangements to keep my day job and pay for graduate school to pursue my own master’s degree. But it wasn’t the extra piece of paper or the elusive “it” factor that made the difference for me. Much like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, I was unaware that I had what I needed to succeed all along – the “grit” factor and there was no place like home to get it.

See also: What happens when you speak up at work

My Bronx upbringing instilled in me the perseverance that lead to my ultimate success, which included co-founding a fledgling ad agency. We had six employees, five chairs and no space – we stored our files in the bathtub, but we had massive amounts of grit.

Before long, our little startup became one of the fastest growing ad agencies in the country creating award-winning campaigns that became part of pop culture, such as the Aflac Duck.

Research shows that grit is the real secret to success. Take Michael Jordan, JK Rowling, Colin Powell and Steven Spielberg. Each of them was completely ordinary growing up. Few would have predicted their future success. They weren’t considered brilliant, talented, or destined for greatness. In fact, Jordan was cut from his high school varsity basketball team’ Rowling, who was living in poverty, was turned down by 12 publishers before her first Harry Potter novel was published and has since sold 450 million books; Powell was a “C” student and Spielberg was rejected from film school three times.

They failed early and often, but each had the steadfast determination and stamina to propel them to excel in their chosen field. True, grit made all the difference in my life and the lives of so many. And the best part is you don’t have to be born with it (or in the Bronx) to get it. Anyone can possess it, and it costs nothing. It seems very fitting that the answer to the question I am asked most – “What’s the secret to your success?” – happens to be a four-letter word. G-R-I-T and its component traits of guts, resilience, initiative and tenacity will propel you from ordinary to extraordinary.

Here are some grit builders excerpted from my book written with Linda Kaplan, Grit to Great, to help you achieve your life and career goals:

Ditch the dream.

There’s an old Yiddish proverb that, loosely translated goes something like this: “If you want your dreams to become a reality, wake up already!” Too often, the whole gauzy adage of “following your dream” has taken the place of more attainable aspirations: setting your sights on a goal, formulating a plan, charting a path, and steadily working forward from milepost to milepost. While the dreamers are still in la-la land, the doers are taking victory laps, because they had the good sense to be in the real, day to day now, and get to work. They put themselves in a grit state of mind.

Become an over-preparer.

Go against the conventional wisdom of “not sweating the small” stuff and over-prepare for every situation. That’s what we learned from high wire artist Nik Wallenda who spends months walking across a 1-inch metal cable incorporating every single thing that could possibly go wrong into his training. He believes fear is a part of life and that it shouldn’t be avoided. Prepare for it instead and edge out your competitors. As Hall of Fame quarterback Roger Stauback says, “There is very little traffic on the extra mile.”

Create your own high wire.

Mentally fire yourself. Ask yourself what you’d do if you lost your job today or lost everything you had. Now write a list of the steps you would take. That simple act can take the bite out of the scary aspects of your life if it is upended—because you are mentally prepared. But it can also lead you to be proactive about making a change in your life. The answer may even be the key to your future happiness.

Make yourself uncomfortable.

Get out of your comfort zone. Try getting dressed with your eyes closed, or brush your teeth with the opposite hand. Order something you have never tried before at a restaurant. Say hello to strangers in an elevator. Flexing those muscles will enable you to stick out uncomfortable situations. Research has shown that the brain craves novelty and that doing things that don’t feel automatic has a positive effect on neurological activity. It can keep you sharp and can make you more creative, and ultimately lead to better decisions.

Have a Plan B.
Things don’t always work out as we plan, but it’s what you do about it that counts. Being resilient and able to adapt leads to a growth mindset and greater success. Embrace Plan B as it’s often more effective that Plan A. When Steven Spielberg’s mechanical shark malfunctioned on the set of Jaws, he used music as a stand-in, creating a lurking underwater menace that was even more terrifying than the shark we could see.

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