Here’s What Makes Top 1% Startup Employees Different from Others

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been onboarding a new person on my team, and it hasn’t been going all that well. But through that process, I have taken a step back and thought about in the last decade, what exactly makes the top 1% of startup employees so different than the rest. And hopefully, from today’s video, I’ll be able to share with you what my experiences have been from working with all sorts of different folks in the last decade and seeing what drives top performance.

By the end of this video, you’ll hopefully be able to better understand this for yourself, whether that is in the case where you’re working at a startup, or just thinking about working in a startup in the future.

So when I think about all the team members I’ve had the pleasure of working with over the last decade, I think the top 1% of people really understand what Angela Duckworth talks about in her book, Grit.

4 Components of Grit According to Angela Duckworth

In that book, she talks about how grit is comprised of four components. And those components are interest, practice, purpose, and hope. And if you don’t have these components of grit, then it’s going to be something in which when you find yourself in difficult situations or find yourself strapped in terms of a particular experience that you’re just going to give up and not be able to persist through to the next milestone.

And I think this really relates back to that classic startup diagram of the Trough of Sorrow that happens in that as people are getting ramped up or joining different startups, they don’t actually have the grit to actually become competent in their roles and then excel in their roles.

So I wanted to first dig into what are these four components of grit and how do I see them manifest themselves in the startup world before then transitioning to some practical tips that you can take when you start to think about your work at a startup.

Component #1: Interest

So the first component of Angela Duckworth’s research comes from the idea that you have to have an interest towards the particular work that you’re working on. In other words, you have to actually enjoy what you’re doing. It really goes back to that cliche where people tell you not to do a job that you absolutely hate doing.

The ways that I typically see this manifest in the top performers at startups is in how serious they go about learning the new things that they are learning in their onboarding as well as later on when they’re already onboarding. That’s what I mean by that is the top people that I’ve I’ve ever worked with all is having a neat interest in just learning something new, being curious about that and being intentional about how they work towards that.

So they like what they’re doing at the fundamental level, but also they just want to learn more than what they know today. And having that sort of humbleness in their approach allows them to get better outcomes than some of their other peers, where for example, if they had the mindset like, well, this is kind of interesting, but they don’t really care for this work. It’s something in which that shows later on in terms of their actual performance.

So just having a genuine interest or finding a way in which you can have an interest in whatever it is, even if it is something really boring on the surface can be a good way to just make sure that you’re setting yourself to have that grit.

Component #2: Practice

The second component of grit though is the concept of practice. And it’s the idea that you’re going to actually have opportunities to deliberately practice. The difference between just practicing and deliberately practicing is for example, you’re learning an important violin passage in a concerto, and it turns out that your way of practice is just playing it from the start to the end of the concerto whereas a person that’s approaching things from a deliberate practice standpoint is going to focus on the two sections of the concerto that are giving them the most challenges.

This sort of analogy has carried over in the startup world as well, in which I’ll notice that people that don’t actually know how to deliberately practice struggle in their onboarding because they’re just kind of going with the flow of things, but they’re not actually identifying exactly what they personally struggle with in order to improve towards the next time. Whereas the people that I’ve worked with that I would call the all-stars of all the people I’ve worked within the past, what they do differently is they jot down exactly what they did wrong the first time, make sure they don’t make that mistake the second time and then continue to iterate on improving at that particular thing.

So having that concept of deliberate practice is incredibly important, especially in the startup world because everything’s moving at a really rapid pace. And it’s something in which if you aren’t consistently learning and learning to avoid the mistake that you made the last time, well, then you’re probably going to be on your way out the door and not too long from now because startups often can’t afford to have somebody that consistently is making those sorts of silly mistakes.

The easiest way to tell if you’re actually effective at the concept of deliberate practice is to see whether or not you are continuously feeling more confident in the different tasks that you’ve done more than once. In the case where you are, then that means that you’re probably improving whereas in the case where you aren’t and you consistently struggling, what probably means that you’re kind of just going through the motion and you’re not actually learning from each experience that you have.

Component #3: Purpose

The third part about grit that I think is so important that the top 1% of star performers shell is they really have a sense of purpose towards their work. And what I mean by that is they really believe that the work that they do matters and that improves the lives of other people. And that means not only in the context of potential customer but also, it means in the greater context of a startup team and an overall start company.

Oftentimes, the people that I find are in the top 10% will care in general about how the company does, but the people in the top 1% are the people that are willing to go pretty much the end of the earth for the team and do something like fall on the sword when they make a big mistake for the customer in order to avoid the customer, getting mad at the rest of the team. So when it comes to this section of grit, I think that how it usually manifests itself is it’s something in which these sorts of team members are typically more than willing to go above the call of duty.

And this can manifest itself in a number of different ways. Sometimes that means working longer hours in order to make sure that a deadline is not missed, other times it’s just making sure that you do an extra action than what the SOP dictated in order to make sure if a customer is 110% satisfied, but essentially having a great sense of purpose allows top performers to feel like their work really aligns to their core personal values.

And it’s when you have that sort of close alignment in terms of what you personally believe in and what you’re working on, that your work speaks for itself as well. This really goes back to another key takeaway if you’ve ever read the book Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl, and essentially talks about the story of a Holocaust survivor and how the difference that he observed between the people who are able to make it, and the people who weren’t able to make it from that horrific event was the people that still maintained some sense of hope, as well as some sense of purpose in their day-to-day life as they’re going through that time.

Component #4: Hope

The last component of grit that the top startup performers always show is the component of hope. And what that means is that believing you can actually achieve and that you can overcome the setbacks that you’ve had along the way. I’ve had a lot of onboarding experiences and through the years, I’ve seen people get incredibly frustrated, especially when it comes to learning more difficult things like the ins and outs of a company CRM, but the difference between the people that ultimately make it out of that experience and become really good pros at the CRM, as opposed to those who continuously struggle for the next few years that they’re working at the company are the people that truly believe that their onboarding period is going to be just a season.

And what I mean by that is it’s going to be a period of a lot of productive struggle, and they’re not going to get it on day one, but they’re committed to learning the process and getting it on day 30 or sometime later on day 90. When you take a step back and think about it, startups exist because there is this glimmer of hope or belief that you can essentially outgrow and incumbent business in order to seize on an opportunity that you see in a marketplace. And so similarly, you have to have this sort of level of hope as well when it comes to the work you’re doing and all the things that you’re learning in a startup in order to actually be a top performer.

Ultimately, if you’re not inherently an optimist, then you’re already set up to fail because your startup is not going to have the optimism it needs to get through those tough moments. So those are the four components of grit based off of Duckworth’s research, but you may be wondering how exactly can I take these components and my knowledge of these components into my day-to-day work at a startup.

How to take these components of grit into your day-to-day work

So to give you some practical advice on these four components of grit, the first thing that I tell you in terms of interest is don’t take a startup job that you have no interest in.

Straight off the bat, you’re going to avoid so many headaches if you just don’t take a job for the sake of taking a job.

Assuming though that you do have interest in the work that you’re doing from there, it’s just in the, day-to-day genuinely being curious about learning everything you can, especially in your first year at the startup. And that just means asking questions upfront, managing up to your manager, as well as all the other things that have gone over in recent articles around working at a startup.

When it comes to the second point in terms of practice, this is where what I typically tell folks who are onboarding on my team to do is to create a mistake log and what I mean by that is you just either do this in a Google doc or in a Google Sheet and then write down the day as well as what the mistake was that you made and how are you going to avoid making it in the next time around.

The reason why you want to do this is because then what you can do is at the beginning and end of your weeks, you can review this mistake log to essentially see what were some of the things that you struggled with this week and you’re setting yourself up for success in the next weeks that you avoid making that mistake again. The people that struggle though, are the people that don’t actually take this to heart. And what they do is they kind of just make a mental note, but they don’t actually hold themselves accountable to not making that mistake the second time.

On the third point, when it comes to purpose and finding purpose in your work, that’s something where what I would encourage you to do is to always be asking why. You want to start with why, because what happens is if you can understand why exactly you’re doing this particular task, then you’ll have an inherent purpose towards the work that you’re doing.

So, what that might mean is when your manager is giving you a new task at your startup, you want to ask why is this important and how should I prioritize this relative to the other work that you’ve given me. And by understanding this, you will be able to better position yourself in terms of your days and your weeks as you’re working away at the work that’s been assigned to you. Aside from starting with why it’s also important to kind of take regular moments every month or every few months to take a step back and reflect on the impact that you’ve had to the customers that you’ve served.

That can be something as simple as just reading through some of your user feedback channels or requesting some feedback from customers that you’ve worked with a few months ago. And that’ll just give you a greater sense of purpose that the service or product that you’re selling or working in actually makes a big difference in these people’s lives.

And then on the fourth component of hope, when it comes to the idea of you can always achieve and overcome setbacks, that’s something where that mistake log idea really comes into handy because then the next time that comes around, you can kind of leave a checkmark next to that mistake so that you avoided making that mistake the second time.

But also what you can do is you can use this forward momentum that you’re going to feel as you’re getting more and more competent and confident in your role to give yourself the hope of going into the next week. And even in those days, when you have a really bad day, the number one thing that I tell people is don’t take it too personally there’s always bad days when it comes to ramping up at a startup, as well as working in general in a startup. The best thing you can do is just find a way to unwind and find some sort of ritual routine to cycle through your day and then move on to the next day.

What that might mean is in the last 30 days of every single day, you have a regularly set routine that you’re always going to do. That might be something like closing out certain tabs, it might be something like going through your last emails until you’re at inbox zeros that you start the day fresh the next day. Whatever it is that works for you, it’s important to develop these sorts of rituals because that can then position yourself to be in a good headspace heading into the next day and not carry over any potential frustrations that happened in your current day-to-day.

There you have it. My breakdown of grit, which is what I believe makes the difference between the top 1% of performers at startups.

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