On Will Smith and the treadmill success theory

Will Smith and Treadmill Success

I came across an article on Wharton’s website about whether hiring should be based on gut or data, which is an insanely interesting topic because … well … most organizations spend about half their money going out on salaries and hiring, and yet, the process for actually finding the best people and putting them in the right roles is really, really flawed. This is largely because everyone buzzwords the idea of “talent strategy” — they talk about it, but they could care less —  and, as the headline of the Wharton article indicates, we’re still deeply in the throes of this “gut feel” vs. “use data” debate at most organizations.

OK, so long story short … the idea of this Wharton post was interesting to me, and I started reading it. There was a “People Analytics” conference at Wharton, and some guys from JetBlue were there, and they were talking about how to hire flight attendants, and … it’s all pretty interesting, then I got to a section randomly about Will Smith. Wait, what? But it, too, was intriguing.

The Treadmill Success Theory

Here we go:

Duckworth illustrated the concept of grit with a clip of actor Will Smith, in an interview in which he was essentially asked how a poor kid from Philadelphia with no connections in Hollywood had made it big. Smith, who has elsewhere credited his success to his “ridiculous, sickening work ethic,” answered this way: “The only thing that I see that is distinctively different about me is, I’m not afraid to die on a treadmill,” he said. “You might have more talent than me, you might be smarter than me, but if we get on the treadmill together, right, there’s two things: You’re getting off first, or I’m going to die.”

Hmmm. Makes sense. Let’s pause for one second and reflect on the success and glory of Will Smith before we continue. He went from this:

… to a series of massive movies and a potential net worth of $250 million. So, capitalism success-wise, he’s doing OK.

Back to this article for a second:

Interestingly, noted Duckworth, about 70 years ago Harvard conducted a study of how long people would be willing to stay on treadmills, on a steep incline at an uncomfortable heart rate, “to measure in some kind of precise and objective way your stamina, your ability to tolerate stress, but also just to hang in there.” It turned out to be an extremely good predictor of long-term mental health, she said.

There’s a lot going on here, but essentially we’re talking about “grit,” or perseverance. This isn’t necessarily the same thing as success, but it’s highly correlated with success, because how the heck can you be successful unless you’re willing to grind out through all the failures? Remember: no one skips the second act of life. 

And now, here we go in terms of “what success really is and how to think about it:”

Duckworth joked that although she doesn’t run people on treadmills, she has designed a Grit Scale test, which is publicly available online. The scale has two kinds of questions, she said. One kind is about the consistency of a person’s interests, or their long-term passion. “The simple idea here is that world-class experts tend to wake up every day like Newton and Darwin did, pretty much thinking about the same thing they thought about yesterday, just kind of incrementally trying to work on it.” The other kind of question gets at an individual’s level of perseverance: “Questions like, ‘I finish whatever I begin’ — which is the single most predictive item on the scale.”

Incremental Progress Is Key

There you have it. It’s a day-to-day grind. You basically wake up tomorrow thinking about the same stuff you were doing yesterday and just incrementally trying to get better at it. For most people, this could result in abject boredom, or wanting to chase other projects. (This happens a lot at companies, where people don’t see the right growth metrics on one thing, so they shift to chasing another thing.) But if you really want to be successful, this is the grind. Whether it’s a treadmill or just coming to your cubicle/desk every day, well, that’s how it works.

And of course, as you’re doing all this: please remember to talk about failure and keep that in context. It’s important.



Ted Bauer