The #1 Trait that Determines Long Term Success

top of mountains

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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    312 thoughts on “The #1 Trait that Determines Long Term Success

    1. This is something I’ve been arguing with myself about, and I think I’ve been inspired. Definitely getting off my butt and getting started!

    2. For my little success, eh, perhaps a mixed blessing, but I move back my homework so that I can put very challenging workouts into my schedule. Sleep is for quitters. To change? More activity on “rest” days. Walks, aerobics, etc.

    3. Thanks Steve, I really appreciate the quote at the top, and the tip to fail differently next time. I would say my one small victory recently was that last week I was maxed with my bench with a 45 plate, and now all of my work sets require this plate, lol.

      Small change I am going to make is to buy more carrots, I’m always snacking on them, and run out. I can’t eat the unhealthy crap if I have more carrots on hand, and they’re cheap!

    4. I think its seeing other people with grit that reminds me that I too, can exibit the same level of gritiness.
      These are people who started out as bigger n00bs than I am, and are now level 75 Paladins. It’s inspiring, really.

    5. One Small Victory: Finished a spring 5k, with a new friend, with a time I feel good about.
      One Small Change: Ha, there’s a bunch in my current six week challenge, but an additional one is going to be adding some bicycle riding into my life for fun (and fitness… but mostly for fun!).

    6. This article was awesome! Thanks so much for all the inspiration! I have recently had the victory of completing a 5k 🙂 I am going to make the small change of drinking more water than I have lately even if its just a little extra before each meal.

    7. thanks so much, I think I’ll share this article with my (not-so-little) brother (who struggles with classes) he needs to hear/see it from someone else- You CAN do it so long as you try!

    8. It’s not the food choices I make in a group setting, bits the food choices I make when I am alone… I have made the change to ensure that every meal or snack is the healthiest option available!

    9. Great article as always! My recent victory happened this week, I held a star plank for 5 seconds each side, this progress is from practice and determination, a year ago I could barely hold a basic from elbow side plank.
      A change I am making is to cut out snacking! & stick to 3 regular meals.

    10. Very simple, warm and honest.. 🙂 thank you , Steve. You always show us that everything is not so complicated as we think at first. All we need is to find simpleness and happiness in our life 🙂

    11. This is a great article, I fully agree that commitment gets you way farther than natural talent or intelligence. I know this because I have always been naturally skilled and intelligent and because of that I never once put any effort into achieving something so I never did achieve anything. I’ve probably grown more because I decided to actually put effort into it in the last 4 months than I did in 12 years of schooling. This also reminds me of a couple really good motivational quotes:
      “Never forget that where you are is a result of who you were, but where you go depends entirely on who you choose to be from this day forward.” – “Yo Pal” Hal Elrod
      “I have found, over and over again, that a person with average intelligence who has clear goals will accomplish far more than a genius who is not sure what he or she really wants.” – Brian Tracy
      Right now I’m running every week with the goal of people able to complete a full marathon and I’m planning on doing 18km tonight.

    12. I canceled my YMCA membership and started CrossFit! I was pretty nervous to start, but I’m pumped 🙂

    13. As a former Carboholic, my biggest change recently has been drastically lowering the amount of grains and carbs in my diet. Four weeks ago, I was eating rice for 5-10 meals every week. I started by cutting back to only one meal a day, and at this point, I only eat one or two meals a day with ANY grains in them, and some days I go grain-free completely. I don’t plan on going full paleo any time soon, but I’m feeling really good about eating better and diversifying my diet.

    14. As always, NF is totally my inspiration. Whenever I’m flagging, I think “What Would a Rebel Do?” and get it done.

      A victory I had was being able to do a warmup of burpees and tire flips at increasing reps all by myself. When I first started, my trainer had to help me pull up the tire. It was a big benchmark for me. 🙂

      I am going to change my spending habits for GOOD this time, and not buy any premade (aka: fast) food for the next 30 days. At that point, my habit should be established, and eating out can become what it’s supposed to be: a once in a while thing.

    15. One victory I had was getting my black belt recently, but barely. I almost gave up trying to do my 50 push-ups but then I thought of all the things you’ve taught us here and made it through. Nerd Fitness helped me become a 16 year old black belt!

    16. It has been twelve months since I started my journey to improve my health and fitness. I began to run…30seconds at a time!
      Really..30 sec run (slowly) and walk 2min. Slowly I have been able to increase my running I am now training for my first half marathon 🙂 I still run/walk but I now run 5min and walk 20sec… I have even lost 17kg by eating Paleo (most of the time). It takes true grit – but slowly slowly my life has turned around. thanks to you Steve and the Rebellion..

    17. I almost feel obligated to comment on this – congrats on your 500th post! It’s amazing to see how far you’ve come with NF in what seems like a fairly short time, glad to have been there since the beginning. Here’s to the next 500!

    18. Thanks for writing this article Steve. It was a major wake up after a pretty big fall out in my life. It reminded me that everyone experiences failure, but the bold persist despite failure and achieve victory. All the best man.

    19. Good for you! (and your children) I did the same and it was the best decision I ever made. You *can* have the life your want.

    20. I got back to the gym after a serious injury and went for my first proper run. I need to make exercise a habit again to become faster and stronger.

    21. Loved reading this, Steve, thanks! I volunteered to teach good character in schools using skits, poems, animal stories and songs for seven years, believing determination and patience matter more than intelligence…teaching changed me for the better, as my sister and I persevered through many trials. My guitar teacher told me people who practice can out-perform those with natural musical talent, but who don’t practice. Exercising and maintaining a clean diet require the same thing – perseverance. I’m a bit of a turtle, rehabbed from many injuries and health issues and am keeping going =).

    22. Thank you for the advice Steve! About 3 months ago I weighed 190+ lbs, and was unhappy with my life. I’ve lost about 30 lbs since, just from changing my diet, and walking. Seeing my progress so far I am amazed with myself, because I honestly never thought I could accomplish something so astounding. I know I need to incorporate weights into my routine, and step up my cardio, but lately I haven’t been able to motivate myself to do it. I will use your advice to transform myself into the person I’ve always wanted to be, but didn’t have the grit to do!

    23. The point about making incremental changes is huge. No one wakes up with ten times more willpower than the day before — or at least they don’t sustain it. It’s being patient and building habits over the long-term that grows success. Great article Steve.

    24. So to summarize:
      Think Big
      Move slow
      Celebrate every little success
      Keep going.
      Thank you Steve,a beautiful article!And if I can can stick with the Angry Birds workout plan for a month,I am thinking of joining the Rebellion.

    25. I have joined the rebelion about 4 weeks ago. My small victory: I’ve lost 10 kilos. I’ve made a lot of small improvements in my life:
      – cut down on sweets
      – signup for english lessons
      – being more paleo every day
      – trying some workout and pushing myself everyday to make a little bit more
      – stoped collecting damn undarpants

      My next goal is to eat 80% of paleo meals in about a month.

      Thanks Steve & all NerdFitness & all rebels out there & Robb Wolf

    26. I know this reply is 4 months later than your post, but what a great example of determination (and it’s never too late to start-ness)!! Thanks!!

    27. I added a new habit more than a month ago (doing the beginner body weight circuit workout 3x a week) and the success made me overconfident-I’ve added too many habits in the last week or two, and fallen off the wagon. I’m going to scale it back a bit.

    28. These two quotes immediately came to mind:

      1. “And why do we fall, Bruce? So we can learn to pick ourselves up.” ~ Thomas Wayne

      And… (my favorite)

      2. “Men succeed when they realize their failures are the preparation for their victories.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

      There may be people out there who’re more talented or more intelligent than myself, but I’ll be damned if there are a handful of people more resilient and bullheaded.

    29. I made a egg and sweet potato pancake with salt and cinnamon as a snack instead of a grain pancake with syrup. I will eat a paleo breakfast everyday BEFORE I start taking care of everyone else!

    30. That reminds of a quote from Batman Begins:
      ‘It’s not who I am underneath, but what I do that defines me.’
      What I like about this article is that it points out that making an effort is 90% of the battle. The other 10% is how hard you’re pushing.

    31. Small victory: I faile don my first attempt to power clean 135, gave up, and lowered the weight substaintially (down to 85lbs. I think). after doing two sets of that feeling like I was wasting my time I put the 135 back on and gave it another shot. I pulled off the lift four times and upped it to 140 to finish. Grit made me try again

    32. For the longest time, I’ve struggled with the concept of changing, just in general. I mean, I’ve been through experiences that are supposed to be big, life-changing things (in more aspects than just fitness), and it’s never done much for me.

      Recently, I’ve discovered this sleeping trick, that simply involves paying attention to sleep cycles in order to make it easier to wake up in the morning. It was a small thing that I started doing, and it’s worked fantastically. Then reading these articles about small changes and making your new normal made me realize—that’s a change. My small victory, which is actually kind of a big deal for me, is that I’ve made that first change—after years of despairing that I simply can’t change myself—and been able to easily stick with it. It’s also been proof that I CAN do this. I CAN improve myself.

      So thanks, Steve. Because NF is exactly the thing I’ve been needing.

    33. I know people are done posting on this article but I’m a new rebel and I wanted to share a success that I told myself to relive and cement in my mind after reading this article 🙂 I decided that during the rest of my bachelors, I want to be someone who never skips an assignment. It’s a bad habit I get into and when I’m on an A/B border, I know I would have had no problem if I had just pushed through.

      Tonight I was working on the last three assignments to finish the associates degree that I’m getting from a community college and taking with me to NIU. I finished two and then wasted some time calculating what my grade would be if I just stopped there. I don’t know what made me change my mind (but maybe that’s it, there’s no secret to deciding to do something hard. Just do it!), but I started the assignment willing to aim for at least half credit. Then, I just kept going until I completed the whole assignment.

      It was very rewarding to be able to text my mother and share the news that I would be getting the associates! (she had been worried about my classes’ progress)

      I don’t know if I should just focus on that for 30 days because I do agree that willpower is finite ( ) or if I want to add, “I’m someone who runs to class everyday as part of their daily workout” or “I can prepare healthy food for my husband and myself every meal.” Well see 😉 at least my husband is as interested as I in the Paleo diet. That will help a lot, having someone on my side for that battle

    34. I love your articles, Steve. I am so grateful I found Nerd Fitness. I was already in shape before I found it, and the reason I found it was because I wanted to know how to do squats properly (thanks Staci for the perfect article and video demonstration), but it has really helped me see how to best approach fitness for my body and my muscles. I read the article about figuring out which class I am, and that helped tremendously. Now I know what to do to tap into my body’s full potential.
      Anyway, one small victory I had recently was that I was able to successfully complete 180 body weight squats last night, feeling proud of the muscles on my legs I could see in the mirror. I’ve been doing the 30-day squat challenge and I’m 2/3 of the way there. I feel so proud to be so close to achieving something like this. 🙂
      One small change I’m going to make is that as soon as my 30-day squat challenge is up, I’m going to plan out my new fitness schedule, which I’ve been thinking out over the last week or so. I’m going to do interval training on a treadmill, add barbell weight to my squats, do variations with the sets and reps of my free weight lifting, and return to my trusty ab workout video (which I love).
      Thanks so much for being such an inspiration, Steve. You and Traci and everyone else at Nerd Fitness. 🙂 You guys are amazing. Keep it up!

    35. I’ve started small, like you said. Making small changes to my diet and starting small on my workout routines. Looking forward to the future!

    36. People to discourage you are always needed so that you stay true with yourself and work with a good anger. The good anger helps do it in an extraway to prove them wrong

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