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Why is it that some people succeed and others don’t? There are many reasons why we follow through on the tasks we begin, but our guest thinks that those who do succeed in the big things in life have something called “grit.” We discuss how passion, hope and perseverance all play into the ability for some individuals to keep on course –even when they face hurdles in their lives and their work — and accomplish great things.

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  • Angela Duckworth, Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, Scientific Director of the Character Lab, author of the book, Grit: The power of passion and perseverance

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Grit: Finding your passion and sticking to it

Gary Price: The great American inventor Thomas Edison said, “The three great essentials to achieve anything worthwhile are, first, hard work; second, stick-to-itiveness; third, common sense.” Edison should know. Although he had more than one thousand patents on inventions, he also failed many times in pursuit of those successes. What is it that makes some people persevere in the face of failure or rejection, and others give up? Angela Duckworth calls it “grit.” Duckworth is a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, Scientific Director of the Character Lab, and author of the book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. So what is “grit?”

Angela Duckworth: I define grit as a combination of two things: perseverance for a long-term goal, but also passion for that goal. So, pursuing something over the very long run that you care about deeply.

Price: Duckworth devised a “grit scale” and she tested it out at the United States Military Academy at West Point. The test presented participants with statements such as, “My interests change from year to year,” and “I am diligent. I never give up” and asked them to rate themselves on a 5-point scale that ranged from “Not at all like me” to “Very much like me.” Despite the obvious talent and intelligence of the cadets at the academy and the rigorous application process they go through just to get in, it was grit that determined if they would stick it out.

Duckworth: At West Point Military Academy their first summer of training is somewhat affectionately known as, “Beast Barracks,” or sometimes they just call it, “Beast.” You know, it’s a hard time for these young men and women even though these are some of the best and brightest, most able young adults in the country with the congressional recommendations, top marks – these are varsity athletes – but they often struggle because they’re being asked to do things that they can’t yet do. And for, you know, half of these cadets, they’re going to be in the bottom half, maybe for the first time in their life of a group of peers. And what we find is that the measure of talent that West Point has used for decades – it’s called the Whole Candidate Score, weighted average of your SATs, your high school rank, your physical ability based on things like the two-mile run and your leadership potential as appraised by experts psychologists – this has actually remarkably little to do with whether you finish this Beast training or not. Whereas grit, measured on day two of the training, is actually a reliable predictor.

Price: Duckworth says that the Whole Candidate Score is important, and if the cadets stay at West Point, it’s a good predictor of how well they’ll do in every aspect that the academy measures.

Duckworth: But it’s no guarantee that you’ll show up, you know, through the end of that first hard training. And I think that’s one of the lessons from my research; that it’s not that talent doesn’t matter at all – of course it does, of course it must – but talent is no guarantee that you’ll be the hardest worker or the one who sticks at things for the long run. And I think if we single-mindedly think about talent and IQ as the only determinants, then we are leaving out effort, the quality and the quantity of our effort.

Price: Many people go through life doing what they think they should do without really loving it. How do we find our passion?

Duckworth: I can speak personally to that. I was 32 when I started my Ph. D program and when I started down the path, formally, to become the psychologist that I am today. And, believe me, I would’ve started down that path many years earlier if I had actually figured it out. So, it was a struggle for me as well to identify – to develop – that passion. I think the first lesson is that it does take years for many people to fully develop a passion; it doesn’t happen in a moment in time. It doesn’t happen the way you think it might as a kind of epiphany that sort of drops out of the blue. For many of us, you know, we have these interests, they’re not quite developed, we start to do something, the more we learn about it, we get more and more interested in it, our interests deepen over time, and then ultimately, I think, what really becomes a passion is something that we not only find interesting, but also that we find meaningful, and for most people meaning comes from serving others. So, for me, as a psychologist, what makes me wake up in the morning with energy to get into the game again is that it’s interesting to me, but also I feel like my work will benefit children and other people if I do it well.

Price: Along with purpose, interest and practice, Duckworth says that “hope” is necessary to grow grit from the inside out. But it’s not the kind of hope that “tomorrow will be better than today.” The hope she’s talking about requires you to make tomorrow better than today.

Duckworth: I think the hope that psychologists really mean when they talk about hope and resilience and being an optimist is the hope that does focus you on what you can do even if you aren’t fully in charge of your situation, which, of course, none of us are, right? I mean, there is luck in life – good luck and bad luck – and there are opportunities. Sometimes those opportunities are available to us, and sometimes we see the opportunities that other people have that we don’t have: connections to people, that kind of thing. The interesting thing about the people that I study who are highly successful is they don’t ignore the fact that there’s luck in life and that there are unequal opportunities, but they have a bias to look at the things that they can change. They would rather spend their attention and their energy thinking about what they can do – even if it’s not everything, even if it’s not most things – but what small thing can they do to change their situation for the better?

Price: Hope is particularly important when things aren’t going well. Duckworth says that you need to focus on what you can do to make the situation better for yourself instead of dwelling on the disappointment.

Duckworth: Hope is really the thing that we rely on when you’ve been disappointed by, you know, a project that you worked very hard on that didn’t work out, you got fired maybe, you got a negative review from your boss, you didn’t get into the school you wanted. It’s there where if you can focus on, “Okay, moving forward, what is there I can do to make my situation better?” that you’re much better off than if you dwell on what you can’t change.

Price: Duckworth says that bringing up children to have more perseverance and not walk away from difficult tasks is the job of adults, and she charges all of the grown-ups in a kid’s life to pitch in and help them by setting a good example — as she did with her daughter.

Duckworth: I think all adults in a child’s life do have a role to play in modeling for that child what it means to struggle a little bit, not to be perfect, not to be invulnerable – you know, I cry in front of my children, I show them my disappointments – but to model for them what it means to get up again. They see me go to bed weeping because I couldn’t write the next chapter of my book, but they saw me get up again and have a cup of coffee and sit down and take a deep breath and try again. And when she grew up, not only did we try to model for her, grit, and to share with her our own vulnerabilities and our own, you know, imperfection, our own struggle to find our passion, to develop that passion, we also tried to get her to be involved in activities with other, quote-on-quote, parents: other teachers and coaches who would be able to teach her those lessons. And she was hugely benefitted, I think, by having a great viola teacher and a great track coach, and I think those many experiences do add up. No child, I think, is born knowing what they need to do and no child is born having all the grit that we hope that they might have.

Price: Not only do adults need to model grit for their kids, Duckworth says that leaders in the workplace should do the same for their employees.

Duckworth: I think that some of the greatest leaders that I’ve talked to, I’m thinking of J.P. Morgan’s CEO, Jamie Dimon, or the general who’s in charge of West Point Military Academy, they will so often spontaneously bring up in conversation their own role as parents. And I think they see a symmetry there that what it means to be a great leader at work is in some ways the same thing as it means to be a great parent to children, and that is to provide not only role modeling, but two additional things: to set a culture that is high-expectations, that is challenging, that people are constantly being asked to do things a little better than they did before, and with that, support. I mean, the idea that you’ve got the back of the people who are working with and for you. So, the kind of things that you’d want to do as a parent – challenging your kids, but telling them everyday, “This is a joint project, like, we are in it to make you successful. Both you and I have a role to play, and I’ll never desert you. You know, I respect you and I’m here for you” – I think that’s what the greatest leaders that I’ve studied do, and in doing that, I think they really do encourage grit.

Price: Duckworth says that we need perseverance in other aspects of our lives but it’s not the same thing as having “grit.” If you want to save more money, lose weight or start that exercise program you need to focus on it, but that kind of dedication falls under a different category.

Duckworth: Those other things are important, you know, so is paying your taxes and abiding by the laws, but for those things, I think it’s actually not necessarily grit but a close cousin that I also study as a psychologist, and that is self-control. I do think that it’s important to say that grit is the hallmark of the high-achievers that I have studied in every domain, and I do think that there is something about the combination of being enduringly passionate and persevering about a goal that helps you succeed, but it’s not the only thing. There are other responsibilities that we have: pay our taxes, stay on the diet, do the things that we need to do, and for those we need things like self-control, conscientiousness, and of course, if you really want to ask the question about an overall successful life, then you need many other things like being grateful and honest, kind and curious, and none of those things are identical to grit.

Price: So, if you don’t make that long-haul goal you set, if you bow out of West Point before the summer is over or if you can’t make the cut to become the concert pianist you always wanted to be, are you a failure?

Duckworth: I think the most important thing about the research that I’m doing, and that other psychologists are doing, is to recognize that people really are growing, learning, adaptive creatures. We’re not fixed, we’re not static, and so, sometimes when things like this happen, we’re like, “Ugh, I’m a loser,” or, “Ugh, I’m a failure,” but I think the idea is that, no, you’re a human being, you know. You make decisions the best you can, and you’re constantly learning. One of the things that psychologists like to talk about when they talk about development over the life course is the maturity principle, and that is that qualities like grit, conscientiousness, being nice – I mean, very positive, desirable qualities that we consider to be what a mature, wise person would be like – these actually do increase over the lifespan; so I think we should be compassionate about ourselves and not expect perfection. I spent too much time as a young woman trying to be perfect. I think that, in a way, was unnecessary roughness. I should’ve just recognized that I was doing my best and I was evolving, and you know, I made a lot of good decisions, I made some bad ones, and I learned from all of them.

Price: You can learn more about her research into what makes people succeed in Angela Duckworth’s book, Grit, available now in stores and online. She also invites listeners to visit her website at AngelaDuckworth.com where you can find out where you land on her “Grit Scale.” For more information about all of our guests, log onto our site at ViewpointsOnline.net. You can find archives of past programs there and on iTunes and Stitcher. I’m Gary Price.