Hard work often gets the short shrift when it comes to explaining someone's success. For reasons that aren't entirely clear, we love to romanticize achievement, as though raw talent and something we call "genius" are the real determining qualities of accomplishment. Named a MacArthur fellow, and given what is colloquially known as a "genius grant," Angela Duckworth has personal stakes in how we understand success.
Not only because the title of "genius" was bestowed upon her, but because her life experiences figure prominently in how she came to understand "grit," and how it can help us to overcome obstacles and find meaning in our lives. In this discussion with New Yorker contributor Maria Konnikova, Duckworth discusses her own ambitions which, though fierce, were rudderless through her twenties.
Duckworth realized that hard work without direction would not ultimately lead to real lifelong achievement — the kind she craved, and the kind she wished for everyone to find. She realized that finding passion — an essential part of grit — was more difficult than finding the determination to work hard. Her conversation with Konnikova reveals a human portrait of grit as well as the scientific findings which underpin her important work.
Duckworth's book is Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.
Maria Konnikova: I am so thrilled to be here with Angela Duckworth who in addition to being a brilliant writer and psychologist is also a genius. She’s a recipient of the MacArthur Genius Grant though I think she wishes it would be called the MacArthur Grittiness Grant.
Angela Duckworth: I made that suggestion actually yeah. We’ll see what happens.
Maria Konnikova: Excellent. Excellent. So why don’t we start there. Why should it be the Grittiness Grant rather than the Genius Grant?
Angela Duckworth: Well, you know, it’s interesting that the MacArthur Fellowship has never been called a Genius Grant in any official literature, right. It’s kind of this nickname and I think the question is why did the public decide to give a nickname to a fellowship that the originators of the fellowship never chose for it. And it gets to I think a deep mythology that is pervasive in our society that when somebody does something really great, not kind of great but like you saying Bolt great, right, Adele great, we want to categorize them as something totally different from ourselves. We want to say that’s special, that’s a gift, that’s genius. And I’m not even going to begin to compare myself.
Maria Konnikova: That makes a lot of sense. So then grit has as you write in your book very persuasively I took little post it notes so that everyone would see that I’m gritty too. I read it. And also this is my crutch just in case I forget. But you say it’s a combination of passion and perseverance. Can you talk a little bit about those two components and how they contribute. Because I think a lot of people throw the word grit around and sometimes they throw it around not exactly in the way that you mean it in the book.
Angela Duckworth: You know I would like to say that I use the word grit to mean both passion and perseverance. That’s the way I use it. It’s not maybe the way some people would think about grit. I think when a lot of people think about grit what comes to mind is the vision of a really hard diligent worker who doesn’t give up. And I agree with that but I think that’s only half of it, right. If you’re a really hard worker as I was in my twenties, you know, I worked hard at everything that I did but the thing that I lacked was a consistent passion. And that other half, you know, not just determination but a direction. Throughout my twenties I worked hard when I was, you know, doing internship at the White House. I worked hard when I was a consultant. I worked hard when I was in graduate school looking at neuroscience. I worked hard as a teacher. But those are completely different career paths. And the lack of direction is why I didn’t get far enough in any of those things. When I was 32 I realized that I didn’t want to be a dilettante anymore and so I wanted to work hard and be persevering but I also wanted enduring passion to give me direction.
Maria Konnikova: Well and that almost seems like the more difficult part of the grit equation because to me I mean I can easily see okay, you know, this is how I can learn to persevere, you know. These are the steps I can take and you point out, you have a lot of lovely graphs in your book about effort and all of the ways we can train this up. But passion, I mean, how do I figure out where my passion lies? You made an observation here that really blew my mind because I’d never really thought about it, that we only notice when we’re bored. We don’t necessarily notice when we’re becoming passionate about something. So how do you do – how can you deliver on that part of the grit equation?
Angela Duckworth: One of the really interesting things and I think we can all, you know, we’re all ourselves the object of our own study here, right. Think about yourself and what you’re interested in and think about what bores you to tears, right. It’s actually when you’re young and you’re figuring those things out, you know. It’s easy for a person to say well I can tell you that bores me and that’s incredibly boring. Boredom is a very self-conscious emotion by definition. Interest is not. So you can actually be completely absorbed in something and at certain points in your development not even realize that you’re into it. I can give you an example from my own family. I have a 13 year old at home named Lucy and I’ve watched her grow up getting more and more interested in cooking and baking, right. Mostly baking. She basically wants eat crescents and make them.
Maria Konnikova: Can I meet her?
Angela Duckworth: You can absolutely meet her. Yes please because there’s like a surfeit of, you know, carbohydrates in our house because she keeps baking new things. But I said to her one day, you know Lucy, it’s clear to me as somebody who studies fashion that you have this emergent love of baking, right. And she was like oh no I don’t. I was like uh, so why is it that the YouTube page is always on like DIY, you know. You made macaroons last week. Now you’re on to, you know, something else this week. And so I think that question of, you know, how do we known that we’re passionate about something is not a straightforward one. In the early stages of passion you may or may not realize that you’re getting into something. And the second thing I’ll say is this. From our data we can look at people’s perseverance scores separately from their passion scores and collectively that makes your grit score. What we reliably find is that people’s perseverance scores are actually higher than their passion scores and I think it really does get to the fact that working hard is hard but maybe finding your passion is even more difficult.
Maria Konnikova: Right. Because I see actually kind of a difficulty with the two separate notions of passion and perseverance because what happens if you can only become passionate about something when you learn more about it, right. When there are those initial difficulty roadblocks. I mean you talk about a personal example with neurobiology and how you almost failed out of your first neurobiology class. And yet you had, somehow you decided that you were still going to really stick to it and become a neurobio major. Where a lot of people I think, especially women, I mean talk about women in STEM careers, that culture is very hostile quite often would have said okay, I’m going to take Angela’s advice and I’m going to quit because this is clearly not where I’m good and I’m going to focus my grit on something else. How do you make those choices?
Angela Duckworth: You know I think it’s never easy to figure out what that one direction will be, right. If you’re like me growing up I was raised in a way, particularly after I got to college to always keep the doors of opportunity open. I mean that was the game, right. Like if you do this internship then these other six doors of opportunity will be open too. And if you go to McKinsey you can get hired by anyone. It’s like what you do when you’re a young adult. It’s like more and more doors of opportunity. But as you get older you realize that to become really expert in anything you have to actually walk through a door and listen to a bunch of other doors slam shut. And for me that was actually really hard to make a commitment and say okay, I’m going to do this thing and because I’m going to do this things I’m going to give up these other things that might be, you know, the road not taken, right. The Robert Frost poem is so poignant because none of us like to have a road that was not taken or a door that we didn’t walk through or leave open. I’ll say of my neurobiology experience that in that moment I mean I was all of 18 years old and I was in a class that I honestly shouldn’t have been taking because I had this kind of like shoddy high school experience, you know. I really should have taken Bio I and Bio II but I decided to take Bio 25, right.
And I worked fiercely hard in it and, you know, came around to the quiz. Completely choked, right. You know those thoughts that are like crowding out all the thoughts that you should have about the question. It’s like oh my god, I’m not going to finish. Oh my god, I’m going to fail this quiz. Oh my god, if I fail this quiz I’m going to fail the class and then I may fail out of college. So I bombed the first quiz. I didn’t quit. I had this kind of like, you know, I’ll show you response to that first quiz. Second exam comes around, the midterm. Same thing happens actually, right. I studied furiously for it and nevertheless I totally panicked on the day of the midterm. Bombed that. A very understanding and I think a well-meaning teaching assistant said this would be the part of the story where you drop out of the class before you get an F on what’s call a transcript. And I at that moment had this kind of like welling up. I mean it was almost like an angry, it really was I’ll show you I can do it. I walked out of that office and walked to the registrar to declare my major in neurobiology which is like kind of idiotic and, you know, sort of crazy. It’s very gritty I guess.
And I think that the important thing about that story is what I did next, right. So I didn’t go back to what I was doing for the first half of the semester which was sit in the front row, take notes and study hard. I actually tried to do things differently. I thought to myself like I must be doing something differently wrong than I should be. So I went to teaching assistant office hours, all of them. Like not just mine but like all of them and I asked them to tell me, you know, like look at this question that I got wrong. Like what is this? Like what’s really going on here? I studied but I studied in ways that made me think about like what the professor would want to ask me, not just what I could see in my notes. I did things differently. I worked very hard. I aced the final. I got a B in the course which was actually my lowest grade for all four years but the grade that made me the proudest. And I guess the lesson here in part is, you know, when you’re working hard it’s not just like beating your head against the wall. It’s like asking yourself, you know, what could I do that would get me to the school, that would not only be a hard effort but also smart effort. And the other thing is that the path to success is very messy, right. I mean it’s not like MacArthur fellows have, you know, like hopped from one successful rock to another to like reach the – it’s messy. There are like wrong turns. There are disastrously bad decisions that in retrospect you’re like really? What was I thinking? You know life is messy and success is messy.
Maria Konnikova: Absolutely. One of the things that strikes me though about your story is that you, I mean no one told you you should stick with this. People said, you know, you should drop out. And so it seems like a lot of the strategies came from you. So I think that brings us to a very important point and one that you discuss in the book. How much of grit is innate and kind of a character trait that people have basically from a young age? And it might not be innate even in terms of being genetic but, you know, you have a family that really values grit. Somehow you’ve grown up this way versus how much of it is acquired later in life. I’d love you to kind of address some of the hypotheses that you lay out about that.
Angela Duckworth: The word character for some people – I think of grit as one aspect of character, right. I think of character as what Aristotle told us character was which are ways of living your life that are beneficial to you as an individual and at the same time typically beneficial to other people around you, right. So if you take that definition of character then you can ask questions like is it borne? Or if it’s not entirely in your genes is it, you know, those first few formative years of life experience? If you’re not a four year old like what can you do, right? Is it too late, right? And I think that the lesson from research that you and I both know well is that there is no human trait really that you could study that doesn’t actually change. And not just when you’re four or five but really all across the lifespan. The question is, you know, how do we make that change intentional? Like how do we actually make happen, catalyze what we want in a way that is, you know, not just letting life experience take its course. And that’s why I studied grit because I feel like if you could understand what’s going on in the head of a really gritty person there’s a possibility of some reverse engineering that for the rest of us.
Maria Konnikova: That’s very interesting. Should we say goodbye to our Facebook Live audience now? Bye bye guys. Thanks for listening. You guys get to keep listening.
Angela Duckworth: Bye.
Maria Konnikova: So have you figured out – so I think the research that you were referring to is the research on self-control since you and I…
Angela Duckworth: Both know very well.
Maria Konnikova: Yes, we both have Walter Mischel in common.
Angela Duckworth: Hi Walter.
Maria Konnikova: Who did the famous marshmallow studies that can you wait for your marshmallow or not. And, you know, Walter obviously over many, many decades figure out okay, you know, these are the ways that we can push people on a high self-control trajectory even though they weren’t there to begin with. And there are people who were high to begin with who peter out. And those are the most interesting I think trajectories. Not the always high and the always low but the changing ones. So have you been able to do something similar for grit or not quite yet?
Angela Duckworth: Well I think the thing to say about the famous marshmallow test, right where little four year olds are given a choice between, for example, two marshmallows when I come back into the room or one marshmallow right away. Their capacity to wait for that second marshmallow quite famously predicts a wide, I mean everything right. I mean your SAT scores and your grades and whether you’re going to go to, you know, bad things in adolescence like, you know, smoking too early, et cetera. The quality of relationships. I mean that’s the famous finding, you know, that at age four I can count the number of seconds on a clock while you’re delaying gratification and it seems to auger like all of your life opportunities. And I think that’s misinterpreted because as you and I both know what Walter Mischel really devoted his life to is figuring out what little tricks these four year olds who could wait were using in that situation? What are the tricks that the four year olds who couldn’t wait are not using and then how do you teach those to other people? So it’s interesting that what has become famous is the fact that the number of seconds at age four predicts a lot of outcomes.
But what’s not famous is the most important message which is that those strategies can be taught. And I think exactly what you said. It’s the part that’s useful, you know. So the question is, you know, how far are we on grit? There is as you know much more known about self-control as a character strength than as grit. You know the research on self-control because Walter kicked it off in the sixties has had all that time to mature. I will say this. If you connect grit to things like growth mindset and optimism, if you connect grit to things like other centered purpose or the evolution of your interests or deliberate practice, the kind of practice that experts do. Those four things are signature to gritty people. There is a science behind all of them. And so we can kind of bridge to those literatures and say yeah, there’s actually in all four of those domains things that science can tell us that we might try in our own lives.
Maria Konnikova: So you mentioned growth mindset and so let’s talk a little bit about Carol Dweck’s work because it is quite related to yours. So Carol Dweck created the concept of mindset, fixed or growth. Do you have a mindset that’s just totally fixed or can you keep growing? And she last year famously said that this has been really misunderstood and misapplied and she’s really upset at how it’s being used in schools because people are praising kids the wrong way, people are just doing the wrong thing. I’d love to just hear your thoughts on this.
Angela Duckworth: So first I will say that if my wildest dreams come true I will like wake up one day and I will be Carol Dweck, right. Because she is like everything I want to me.
Maria Konnikova: Me first. Me first.
Angela Duckworth: I know, right. We’ll have to elbow each other like in Heaven we’ll just like be elbowing each other. Because she is not only a world class scientist. She is a world class mentor. She’s like the nicest person. So what does Carol have to say about her work and I think there, you know there’s an argument to be made that in education for example that Carol Dweck is more famous than Sigmund Freud, right.
Maria Konnikova: Absolutely.
Angela Duckworth: So she’s I think ambivalent about that because as you say the research is often misinterpreted. About a year ago Carol Dweck wrote an essay called False Growth Mindset. And she said, you know, when teachers read my book and then they go back into the classroom the next day and their kids try to do something like a math problem and they fail and the teacher thinks oh, I’m going to have a growth mindset. I’m going to say that’s okay, maybe math isn’t your strength. Or, you know, at least you tried hard, right. It’s well meaning. It’s absolutely the opposite of what Carol wants you to say. What Carol wants you to say is you can’t do that problem yet. You don’t have fractions going to decimals as a strength yet. And here’s a strategy that you could use to solve this problem.
Maria Konnikova: Right. Which to me that essay actually evoked grit. It evoked a lot of the same themes that you explore in your research which is why I bring it up. That it seems like there’s a very wrong way to apply grit. It’s very easy to say, you know, you just keep working and there’s a right way.
Angela Duckworth: Yeah, I mean grit is not just keep working but I will say this about the keep working part, you know. It is good to try something a few times, not just once and say like did I really put full effort, right. Having done that I actually looked in my high school yearbook not too long ago and you know how we always have to write – we’ll probably regret those things that we write, everything about our high school including our hair and the guys that we were dating. But anyway I looked at my high school yearbook and I have this quote there that I later Googled and I can’t figure out where I got it from but it’s like go, go, go, go, then turn left. And I think there is a kind of wisdom in the idea that you should try and you should try again and you should try again. But you know what? If you are trying and trying again like in my biology class, my neurobiology class, you know, you do have to pivot and say okay, sheer effort is not getting me here. So just as in growth mindset you can misinterpret the message. For grit I think the message is not just always try harder but keep your eye on the top level goal, right. Not that okay, the goal of my life is to, you know, study these particular notes but really the higher level goal is to succeed in this class. And then that allows you for flexibility to say like what are the many paths I could take? Maybe there’s a better path than the one I’ve been trying.
Maria Konnikova: So let’s pivot a little bit because I think kind of the big thing in the back of everyone’s mind – and it was definitely in the back of my mind as I started this was talent obviously and we can’t talk about, you know, your work in grit without talking about talent and IQ and kind of all of these things. And I think a lot of people would say sure I can be very gritty but I mean I can sing 20 hours a day, I’m not going to be Adele, sorry guys. So let’s talk a little bit about that.
Angela Duckworth: So people use the word talent all the time. I mean I actually started keeping track and I think there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t read or hear the word talent. I mean this is especially true if you are interested in sports because it’s not even like two minutes that goes by that, you know, somebody doesn’t mention talent. You’re like oh the talent on the field today, Stefan Carey, you know, God given talent. And the question is do I believe those things or do I not? I do believe that there are differences in talent. I would like people to actually nail down what they mean by talent because I think we throw that word around. And sometimes people use talent to mean skill, you know. When companies say like we have to hire the talent. They’re often using that as we need people who are really, really good at what they do. The definition of talent that I think actually stands up to the intuitions that we really put on it is how fast you get good at things when you try. So, for example, you could say you’re not very talented at singing and then you use the example that oh gosh, look. I could do thousands of hours of singing practice. I’m never going to be Adele, right.
I think what you’re saying is that the rate at which you get better at singing is not the same rate at which Adele gets better at singing when she tries and when you try. And I absolutely agree with you. I have talents that other people don’t have. They have talents that I don’t have. My question is this. If we obsess about the rate at which we get better at something to the exclusion of the amount of time and the quality of time we put into it, we’re overlooking, you know, at least half of the equation in achievement. And I think that’s my concern. When we tell kids when they’re in second grade you’re talented and gifted but you’re not talented and gifted it sends a message that that’s basically all you would need to know about what you’re going to grow up to be.
Maria Konnikova: Well what about if you send a message that you’re talented and gifted in this. Like if you make it more domain specific which I think a lot of the things that you write about kind of seem to go along with because one of the messages that I get from book which I think is really important – I don’t want it to get lost is you shouldn’t be gritty at everything. I mean at some point it becomes stubbornness and stupidity. You need to know when to say done.
Angela Duckworth: You need to know when to quit so I agree about that. And then your question of whether praising somebody not just for being gifted in general but being gifted for example in writing, right. I mean I could say to you oh I loved your book. You’re such a gifted writer. You’re such a natural, right. Youi know you were born to be a writer.
Maria Konnikova: And I would get really mad.
Angela Duckworth: Well I wonder would you get mad. Like how would that make you feel?
Maria Konnikova: Well I would say, you know, I’ve worked for years and years and years to get to this point so it’s not – I think a lot of people have the perception that, you know, writing is easy. I’m going to sit down and I’ll write a book. I’ll say actually no, it’s taken me, you know, decades to be able to do that.
Angela Duckworth: So I think you’re making my very point. When we see excellence we like to think of people as naturals, right. We like to think – they don’t want to see all your rough drafts. And frankly you probably don’t want to show them either, right. I mean I think you want them to appreciate that there was a lot of hard work but I don’t want you to see the rough drafts of my book, right. I mean I would kind of love to walk out of here with you thinking that wow, she was brilliant, you know. So there’s an ambivalence there, right, about, you know, do we want to show effort or do we not want to show effort. But the truth is this. I think that when you tell people, you know, oh you’re so gifted, you’re so talented. Is it the end of the world? No. I have two daughters at home. Have I ever uttered the words like you have a knack for this? Like, you know, I think you could be really great at this? Like that was brilliant. Yes. But I think the fragility that that sometimes creates, you know. There’s so many kids that I teach at Penn, you know.
It’s like Ivy League school and there are some kids they come in and it’s like they have never failed, right. It’s like they’re a valedictorian. Not only valedictorian. They were captain of two sports teams. They’re also popular. Like, you know, they were prom queen. So when they get their first bad grade or their first rejection or the first Friday night where nobody actually calls them to go out it’s really, really hard. And I think that language of like oh you’re such a natural, oh you’re so talented sort of sets us up for that kind of fragility.
Maria Konnikova: Yeah, no. That makes a lot of sense. One of the phrases I’m going to probably misquote it. You talked about the Zen or Buddhist, the fall seven, rise eight. Is that…
Angela Duckworth: Yeah it’s a Japanese expression, right. And the Japanese it’s just four characters – fall, seven, rise, eight. And I think that’s hard to do if you don’t have practice falling, right. And so these kids that I was talking about I think of them as like the fragile perfects right. It’s not really their fault but they’ve, you know, skipped from one success to another. Since they have fallen down so few times they are really not used to and not practiced at getting up again. It doesn’t mean that they can’t learn it but I think it’s hard when that first failure comes when you’re like 20 years old.
Maria Konnikova: Yeah, no. I couldn’t agree more. Let’s talk about one of the groups that I was really interested in the swimmers. Can you just walk the audience here through the swimmers study.
Angela Duckworth: And so I first want to say that how I found out about the study is a friend of mine named Scott Kaufman who, like me, is a psychologist who studies achievement. He sends me this article, right. We all get sent things from our friends and sometimes you flag them. This was I think it was like either New Year’s Eve or Christmas Eve. It was one of those eves that you’re supposed to like do something other than, you know, read the pdf on your phone of like this 25 page academic paper that your friend sends you. But I thought like I’ll read the title, The Mundanity of Excellence. Not exactly a page turner. The Mundanity of Excellence. Then I read the abstract. It’s like this is a sociologist who spent six years living with swimmers all the way from the club team around the corner all the way up to Olympic hopefuls. And he just watched them and observed as a sociologist would do what makes them different from the rest of us. So I start reading this article. I sank down into a chair and I didn’t – I think I missed the party. I read that article from the first word to the last word and then I started over and read it again. So what was so captivating about mundanity here it is.
The thesis is from this sociologist that when you actually watch world class performers in their daily life, in all of the hours and moments that are not captured on film because they’re really not that fun to watch, you find out that they are working on tiny, tiny aspects of their craft, right. So I think we both know this as writers or as researchers. Like little things like the first sentence of the method – like, you know, how do I get that to be a good first sentence. Not just that but another thing. Dozens, hundreds, thousands of those tiny little things, each of them the sociologist whose named Dan Chambliss himself a former swimmer. Each of these things is doable. Really each of these things if you break them down to their can I write a good first sentence of that method section. Yes, right. How about the second sentence, right. How are my last sentences? Like how is my framing? If you break down any performance into its components you discover that each of them is doable and the honing, you know, the crafting of each of those is mundane.
That’s the title of the work. So what was so interesting to me is that what he was able to say in that article is that talent is a kind of lazy explanation for excellence. We see somebody like you see in Bolt or like Adele or like Taylor Swift who’s my favorite singer. And we say oh it’s God given, it’s talent. But really those individuals have worked on these, you know, micro aspects of their overall performance diligently day in and day out with there were no cameras on them. And by doing that all together it adds up to something spectacular.
Maria Konnikova: And you followed up with him, right?
Angela Duckworth: I did. I just saw him.
Maria Konnikova: And you asked him if he still believed that. And he added another element to the equation.
Angela Duckworth: Yeah. I can give you the postscript even from the book, right. So of course I had to interview him. Of course I had to ask him, you know, do you still believe decades later. Because he did that first study I think it was his first study as an assistant professor. It was like, you know, all his eggs in the basket of this one study. He’s moved on. He studied nurses in emergency rooms. He studied higher education. And given his perspective what does he think now? So he said to me I believe 99 percent of what I wrote in that article. But here’s the one percent that might be the most important thing. The thing that I learned about becoming a great swimmer is that if that’s your aim join a great swim team. And more recently I had him come and give a talk at Penn to unpack that a little bit. And here’s how he began. If you want to learn French you can buy a French book and practice. You’re probably not going to learn French. If you want to learn French you can get like an online MOOC and practice. Probably not going to learn French very well but maybe a little better. If you want to learn French you can sign up for community classes. Better shot still, probably not going to be fluent. Finally you could get a tutor, right. Sit down with you, speak French every breakfast or something.
He said the way to speak French is to be born in France. And by that he meant that when we are immersed in a culture where everybody is doing something like speaking French or waking up at 4:30 in the morning and getting into a pool and swimming our hearts out we do what everybody else is doing. And so I think this lesson is if you really want to be gritty or you want to be some other characteristic find people who are that already and like any other human being you will go along with the herd and you will develop those qualities even without as much intention as it might require otherwise.
Maria Konnikova: Well that is a beautiful final word. Let’s give a round of applause to Angela.
Angela Duckworth: Yeah, that was really fun.
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