The Hard Thing Rule

“In our family, we live by the Hard Thing Rule.”

— Angela Duckworth, Grit

Last week, I wrote about Grit, the excellent book written by Angela Duckworth. In it, she makes a compelling case for why the most important personality trait to develop is not talent, it's grit.

The most successful people in any domain, whether they are Olympic athletes or leading scientists, tend to have very high levels of grit. They don't quit things easily and have a long term goal that remains unchanged for very long periods of time.

Fortunately, the message of the book is that your level of grit can change over time. I wanted to revisit one more idea before moving on because it has been something I've been thinking about over the last few days. Duckworth calls it 'The Hard Thing Rule'.

The Hard Thing Rule

The Hard Thing rule is a rule that Duckworth's family has in place, and it's designed to help her family (and particularly her kids) to develop their level of grit. There are three main aspects:

  1. Everyone has to do a hard thing.
    The first part of the rule is that everyone has to do a hard thing. A hard thing is something that requires daily deliberate practice, such as playing the piano or playing a sport. As mentioned in my previous post, deliberate practice is a specific type of focused practice in which you deliberately stretch yourself and get out of your comfort zone. You focus on the areas you are weakest and develop strategies for improving them.

    Deliberate practice is not particularly fun, but it is an incredibly efficient way to improve. This is why you need a high level of grit to do it consistently. And also this is why it's called the "Hard Thing" rule.
  2. You can quit, but not any time.
    The second part of the Hard Thing rule is that you are allowed to quit, but not until a 'natural' stopping point arrives. That means you can't quit until the football season is over, or this term's music lessons are done. The goal is to finish whatever your begin and so you cannot quit just because you had a bad day, or someone shouted at you, or you feel disheartened about your progress.
  3. You get to pick your hard thing.
    The third part of the Hard Thing rule is that each person gets to pick the thing that they want to work on. An intrinsic part of being gritty is being passionate and interested in what you're doing, so it's important that you pick an activity you are interested in from the beginning. Being forced to play the piano when you always hated it will not lead to developing grit, it will lead to resentment and wasted time.

These are the three main aspects of the Hard Thing Rule, but Duckworth mentions that since her kids are getting a bit older they are introducing a fourth part:

4. Two year commitments.
You must commit to at least one activity (whether new or continuing an old one) for at least two years. This ties back to the second aspect of the rule. The goal is to become the sort of person that finishes whatever he or she starts, and doesn't quit easily. Long term commitments like this will help develop grit more effectively.

Practice makes perfect

To some, the Hard Thing Rule may appear harsh or too strict, but it's hard to refute the reasoning behind it given that it's coming from the woman who literally wrote the book on this!

If you believe the research Duckworth talks about then developing grit is essential to going far in your domain of expertise. If your ambition is to be the very best that you can be in some area then you simply have to be (or become) a gritty person. Lucky for us, it is possible to build up your grit, but it takes practice. The Hard Thing Rule is a great example of how you can build in systems and rules that specifically target grit growth.

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