Updated: Dec 2, 2021
We often tell the tale of the gritty founder: the one who persisted in the face of incredible hardship. Grit comes up in a number of books and is consistently mentioned as a core trait for great entrepreneurs. You might say the proselytizers of grit have exemplified the trait in their consistency of its use.
Grit is undoubtedly important. All founders will face challenges regardless of the strength of their project. Even the best projects I’ve known were at points held together with duct tape and super glue. However, persisting through hardship takes its toll. The visual image of a gritty person might be someone battle-worn and a bit haggard (think Mad-Eye Moody). I think there’s a better word we can use to get at this concept of perseverance in the face of challenges. I recently had an insightful conversation with Kevin Starr, and he suggested irrepressibility as one of the traits that makes a great charity entrepreneur. Irrepressibility overlaps with grit, but takes a more positive framing – someone “full of energy and enthusiasm; impossible to stop” (think Hermione Granger). Although I had never heard of it in this context the term immediately felt right when I thought back to some of the strongest charity entrepreneurs in our program. Their energy and passion fueled them to relentlessly move forward, almost ceasing to notice hardship at least relative to the more important endline goals. Where others would have to use willpower or grit their teeth to succeed, these entrepreneurs found motivation or even fun in the challenges. Another way to get at the difference is the term antifragility, described by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book Antifragile. Taleb describes it as a property of systems that thrive as a result of stressors or failures. Antifragility is fundamentally different from the concepts of resiliency (the ability to recover from failure) and robustness (the ability to resist failure). I think irrepressibility connects more to antifragility, and grit to resilience. More than grit, irrepressibility tends to get at the right level of persistence versus open-mindedness. Grittiness can sometimes become an excuse to pursue a path that isn’t working (“we just need to do another sprint”), while irrepressibility aims at goals rather than specific pathways. Someone irrepressibly happy wouldn’t take joy from one source, but many; someone who is irrepressible in getting their charity to success might try dozens of different paths. It connects well to the idea of being stubborn to the ends but flexible to the means. In the past, we’ve talked a lot about grit as one of our top traits for entrepreneurs. But I think irrepressibility gives a clearer sense of the unrelenting motivation that ambitiously altruistic people can bring to a project and that can ultimately lead to its success. And I plan to be irrepressible in describing it to new founders!