Grit alone is insufficient for success

By Bernard Callus on 17 July 2019

For over 20 years I was a cancer researcher. As a young scientist I wanted to understand what drove cancer cells to grow uncontrollably and, in doing so, develop a cure for cancer. I didn’t think this would be quick or easy to do. However, I was unprepared for several things that seem obvious now in hindsight. What then are some of the ingredients for success and achieving your goals?


Experimental research is full of failure. Without a doubt, throughout my career I spent far more time troubleshooting experiments in the lab figuring out why they weren’t working as designed, and far less time actually generating useful data to further my research. Obtaining meaningful experimental data took perseverance. It took grit. It took courage and resolve to keep going when I wanted to quit. Often the difference between an experiment working or not was simply persevering and giving it one more go. Fortunately for me, perseverance is one of my top strengths. However, I discovered grit alone is insufficient for success.

Teams and teamwork

As a school and university student, and later as an early-career scientist, I received multiple awards for high-achievement. I was a high-performer. I was smart, worked hard and had perseverance. I expected success was inevitable. Unfortunately, there was a big lesson for me to learn. I did not know how to create and much less lead a team. In fact, I was really bad at it. In the competitive world of medical research I was competing against teams essentially as an individual. Imagine going out to compete in the World Cup by yourself. It doesn’t matter how good you are individually, a team will beat you any day of the week. Rather than seek advice, I struggled on naively by myself working harder trying to figure things out alone. Not surprisingly this didn’t work out too well for me and my career struggled along with my inability to lead. Thankfully the skills to lead can be learnt and I have spent several years discovering leadership and what it takes to be a great leader.

Get a mentor

A major gap for me my entire career was the absence of a mentor. Making wise career choices about where to go or what to do next or what’s the best way to write a grant application would have profoundly increased my success. Sure, I sought advice from colleagues; however, there is no substitute for meeting regularly with a powerful mentor whom is committed to your success. Receiving good advice at critical times from someone trusted and respected would have made a big difference to my career. I still needed to do the work but a good mentor, would have saved me lots of time getting from point A to point B. Ultimately, that translates to more success, sooner.

What are the gaps in your success? Do you persevere or give up quickly when facing adversity? Do you tackle obstacles individually or as a team leader? Is your instinct to think, “what can I do” or “what can we do?” Do you have a trusted mentor? Perseverance alone is insufficient; it is only one of many elements necessary for success.