Every year at this time we are bombarded with numerous articles on New Year’s resolutions and goal setting for the year ahead. And yet the average person makes the same New Year’s resolution ten separate times without success. In a similar manner the entrepreneurial equation is equally hope depleting as business failures track at around nine out of every ten initiatives started. Imagine if one simple question could unlock the answer to greater success. Surely life is not that simple?
Delving into the stories of individuals who have achieved great significance in the world of entrepreneurship and business; people such as Mark Shuttleworth, Elon Musk and Herman Mashaba, what is it that made these individuals so successful? Was it pure luck and serendipitous happenings? Was it a special God-given gift or talent with which they were born? Or was it something else – something in their character?
Character can be seen as a person’s propensity to think, feel, and act in ways that help them as well as others. Character strengths, variously described as life skills, soft skills, mindsets or non-cognitive factors, have long been considered vital for personal and professional success. Yet more recently claims about the importance of the often unheralded character strengths of persistence and resilience (bouncing back from adversity) have become increasingly compelling. In fact, as part of the work at the Allan Gray Orbis Foundation, this characteristic is one of the key pillars against which we assess and select young South Africans for possible future entrepreneurial activity and is an important determinant of success not only on our programmes for entrepreneurs but for life in general.
Part of the power of persistence and resilience is that it allows us to deal with the almost inevitable setbacks and to push through until achieving the ultimate outcome. The famed Colonel Sanders was rejected 1009 times before he hit success with his fried chicken recipe. Last year, Siya Xuza, an Allan Gray Fellow, was attempting to develop a micro-fuel cell large enough to power a cell phone in the laboratories of Harvard and MIT. He failed 113 times in this pursuit, which could be equated to lifting a piece of paper the size of a sports field without tearing it (some of those individual failures each taking a number of days) before finally making the breakthrough that might fundamentally change how we access mobile power in the future.
But what makes a person willing to persist through so many failures, when so many others would have given up much earlier? The answer lies with our mindset and moves us closer to the intriguing question with which we started.
This ability to persevere even when it’s not going well is the hallmark of what Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck terms a growth mindset. In this mindset, more important than believing in your own abilities, is to believe that you can improve these abilities. Her studies show that whether or not someone believes their intelligence or other characteristics are changeable directly affects their achievement. Based on these findings we can essentially divide everyone into one of two categories: Those with a “fixed mindset” who believe that their capabilities are set and will not change, and those with a “growth mindset” who believe that they can improve their basic qualities through effort. Her research has shown that people with a “fixed mindset” miss opportunities for improvement; while those with a “growth mindset” experience the constant development of their abilities. It is this insight that leads us to potentially the most powerful question you can ask yourself:
”Do I have a fixed mindset or a growth mindset?”
A growth mindset, in addition to much else, opens the door to developing greater perseverance and resilience, or in the words of the Chinese proverb, Fall down seven times, stand up eight , and all the benefits which that aspect of character brings.
So interestingly, after so many significant breakthroughs in the understanding of entrepreneurial potential we can still not fault the wisdom of Calvin Coolidge from nearly a century ago: “Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not… Genius will not… Education will not… Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent”
 Psychologist Angela Duckworth has dedicated herself to better understanding the power of resilience (Grit in American terms) and explains its magic and relationship to the growth mindset in this Ted Talk