The #1 Trait that Determines Long Term Success

Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm. Sir Winston Churchill

Today is a big day for Nerd Fitness.  I happened to notice last week that this would be my 500th post published!  It had me thinking about how the heck I got from “I’ll start a blog” to “let’s build a freaking rebellion and take over the world.”  It also had me thinking about how there are so many parallels between the Rebellion’s growth, and the growth of all of us in our quests to live healthier, better lives.

I’ve come to realize that it’s not the best genetics, the best workout plan, or the most time spent working out that produce the most success…

It comes down to one key word.


What the hell is a “grit”?

determined kid

No, not grits like in My Cousin Vinny.

Grit is defined as: “perseverance and passion for long-term goals.”

There we go.

More and more research is coming out that shows in school, work, and in life, intelligence is no longer the greatest predictor of success.  It’s grit and character – the ability to push through adversity, challenges, and setbacks to find a new solution or path to success.

Angela Duckworth, Psychology Professor at University of Pennsylvania, has found through her research that:

“Smarter students actually had less grit than their peers who scored lower on an intelligence test. This finding suggests that, among the study participants — all students at an Ivy League school — people who are not as bright as their peers ‘compensate by working harder and with more determination.’ And their effort pays off: The grittiest students — not the smartest ones — had the highest GPAs.”

She also discovered that:

“At the elite United States Military Academy, West Point, a cadet’s grit score was the best predictor of success in the rigorous summer training program known as “Beast Barracks.” Grit mattered more than intelligence, leadership ability or physical fitness.

At the Scripps National Spelling Bee, the grittiest contestants were the most likely to advance to the finals — at least in part because they studied longer, not because they were smarter or were better spellers.”

These findings suggest that the achievement of difficult goals entails not only talent but also the sustained and focused application of talent over time.

Last week in the New York Times, Thomas Friedman published an article that I couldn’t agree with more: “Need a job? Invent one!”  In this article, he references Harvard Education Specialist Tony Wagner, “Today, because knowledge is available on every Internet-connected device, what you know matters far less than what you can do with what you know.”

So what does all this science and job talk have to do with Nerd Fitness and losing weight?  After all, it’s simple, right?  Eat less and move more, right?

As we all know too well, there is so much more to having long term success that goes beyond counting calories and completing a workout.  It’s not how much information we know about getting healthy and losing weight, but what we actually DO with that information that will determine our success.

Or, in Nerd Fitness terms, success is going from an Underpants Collector to an Action Taker

Instead of knowing all of the answers, instead of chasing the perfect workout or diet plan, people who succeed get started. And then they stick with it.

My tale of grit

Determined Steve

I’m proud to say that I am healthy, happy, and strong.

But it wasn’t always that way.

I was cut from my high school basketball team for being too weak and scrawny (and because I couldn’t dribble with my left hand).  I tried to work out for the first time the day after that and almost killed myself by dropping the bar on my chest during a bench press.  I spent the next six years after that trying to get strong and healthy, but having very limited success. I ate poorly. I followed routines from bodybuilder magazines and spent ten hours a week in the gym and had nothing to show for it.

It wasn’t until I adjusted my diet and simplified the sh** out of my workout that I finally started to have success. From that point on, it was another six years of incremental improvements, setbacks, adjustments, and research that led to small changes and new tactics.  I imagine I’ll spend the rest of my life learning more, failing more, and trying to discover new ways to improve myself

To some, this might sound boring or daunting.  

However, I discovered that it is fascinating and encouraging to see improvement from week to week, no matter how small they were, to see changes in my appearance, no matter how unnoticeable they were to anybody else, and to see increases in my strength and health, no matter how minuscule.   

“Boring” became exciting.

I feel in love with small changes and small wins adding up to big transformations.  Like grinding out kills and experience in a video game to reach the next level, I loved grinding out one extra repetition or lifting five pounds more.  And 12 years later, my workouts are no less exciting.

Instead of saying, “ugh, I have to work out,” it’s become “I wonder what I’m capable of today? RAH!”

Somewhere early in the second half of my journey to a healthier life, I decided I wanted to help others feel that same excitement without having to make all of the same rookie mistakes I made during my six years of discovery;  I wanted to help beginners see progress and build momentum and confidence from day one.

I’m proud to say that my dream has been realized: Nerd Fitness, 500 published articles later, has evolved into a community more powerful than I ever could have imagined.

These days, we add hundreds of new rebels every single day to our cause, and we reach over a million sets of eyeballs every month.  We’ve had some transformations so drastic that they’ve brought me to tears.

But it wasn’t always that way!

Want to know how many subscribers I had after 9 months? 


So why didn’t I give up?  What kept me going? I celebrated the small wins. I remember the first reader that emailed me (Evan!). I knew if I could reach one reader, then I could reach two, and then ten, and then twenty.  I built momentum.

I’ve learned that grit CAN be developed, and once you have it in one area of your life, it carries over to others

Developing grit


Although I didn’t realize it at the time, what I was doing was identifying the new “normal” and the new “identity” I wanted for myself (Hat tip to  James Clear for the idea).  

Then I proved that this new identity was actually a future possibility with teeny tiny small wins, building momentum, developing more grit and perseverance.

Here’s how you can develop grit yourself:

1) Identify the new “identity” you want to have. The more specific you can be with it, the easier it’ll be to prove it to yourself. “I’m the type of person that never misses a workout.”  “I’m somebody who eats a healthy lunch every day.” “I’m somebody who works on my side business every dang day.”  Remind yourself of this EVERY day by hanging up a post-it note on your bathroom window, or using your phone/calendar to keep this at the front of your mind.

2) Prove to yourself you can do it with small wins.  Create a teeny tiny benchmark for yourself to show that you are heading in the right direction.  Make it something you can do every day, that takes less than 15 minutes. 5 minutes is even better.  Build the habit.

3) Build momentum by completing the small win every day for at least 30 days.  Remember we have limited willpower, so dump all of it into building this one habit.

4) Once you have established your new “normal,” it’s time to stretch again.  Constantly adjust your new normal, but make the adjustment small so it’s not a drastic adjustment.  Slow and steady for the win!

5) If you fail at something, make sure you fail differently next time.  Failing is not a reflection on your character. You’re simply crossing something off your list that didn’t work. Move onward and upward.

Rebel grits

tortoise and bunny

Rule #1 of the Rebellion: It doesn’t matter where you came from, only where you’re going.

This is why I love sharing Nerd Fitness success stories.  These are people like you and me: normal folks with normal jobs and normal problems, who probably never thought they’d be healthy.  They tried every tactic out there and struggled to find success for a long time.  Then, for whatever reason, that light bulb went off in their head and they were encouraged to try something different:

  • Joe used to be 320 pounds. Now he does pull ups, handstands, and is creating his own costume to wear at C2E2 2013.
  • Staci used to be overweight and a chain smoker. Now she deadlifts 380 and helps people get healthy for a living full time at Nerd Fitness.
  • Ryan used to be really big, unhappy, and lost.  Since then he’s lost 115 pounds and completely changed his life.

These guys didn’t set out to drastically change their life, but they knew it was a possibility.  They just focused on small wins, building momentum, and building a new normal for themselves.  As a result of that, these men and women are forever changed; their new normal is healthy, happy, and fit.

My goal with NF is to help you build grit and momentum.  I’ve seen it happen with thousands of people, and it all starts with one thing: the first step.

This is a challenging journey, but one I hope you’re willing to take. There’s no doubt in my mind you have it in you to become that level 50 version of yourself, and I look forward to the day when you start to believe it too. Prove it to yourself.

Don’t ever let anybody tell you that you can’t accomplish something.  

My nana, who passed away two years ago yesterday, always told me: “Of course you can.

Tell me one small victory you’ve had recently, and one small change you’re going to make.


PS – Leave a comment by May 5th at 11:59pm, and we’ll pick one comment at random and give the winner a Nerd Fitness shirt. Why? Because I can :)


photo sources: top of mountain, deadlift, tennis kid, tortoise and bunny

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