The Secret Ingredient of Successful People and Organizations: Grit

Angela Duckworth was an outstanding student growing up, so much so that she was admitted to Harvard University. All the while, however, she was reminded often by her beloved father that she was “no genius.” Many years later, with degrees from Harvard, Oxford, and the University of Pennsylvania under her belt, she was selected as a MacArthur Fellow. Rather ironically, given her father’s reminder, she was officially a genius, as the MacArthur Foundation confers “genius grants.”

To make this story yet a bit more ironic, Duckworth, who is a professor of psychology at Penn, studies grit, which she defines as a combination of perseverance and passion for especially challenging long-term goals. She believes grit is a better predictor for long-term success than our traditional understanding of genius as traits or talents that we are born with. In other words, though she was ordained as a genius, she lets us know there is no reason why we cannot be equally successful in our chosen areas of passion.

This month, Duckworth’s book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance was published. It offers invaluable lessons to business leaders, parents, recruiters, and almost anyone who wishes to have a roadmap to achieve greater levels of success personally, as well as methods to use to instill grit into our kids and our work teams.

Peter High: How did you determine that this would be at least a significant portion of your life work?

The Secret Ingredient of Successful People and Organizations: Grit
Professor Angela Duckworth

Angela Duckworth: I would date back to my first year of graduate school when I knew that I wanted to understand the psychology of high achievers. I basically believed then, and I do now, that almost anything can be studied, almost anything can be reverse engineered, so if we could put these high achievers under the microscope then we would be able to emulate, or imitate at least, their habits, their beliefs, and maybe replicate their experiences.

I started interviewing these high achievers in business, but also in sports; any high achiever that I could lay my hands on through connections of my advisor or myself. And two themes emerged from the conversations. One was “Wow, the people who are successful are relentlessly dedicated to what they do.” They have a kind of endurance in their effort; they do not get disappointed for long. It is not that they do not get disappointed, but they get back up again, and they are tirelessly working to get better. Perseverance. But there is also stamina in their interest: they are just never bored with what they do. They find it interesting and meaningful, and so they do not switch course a lot. They do not work hard at different things. They work hard at one thing.

High: It seems like every commencement address has a version of “follow your passion”, as though your passion is half a block ahead of you. You make the point that in some ways that is not the most productive way to think about this. You write that it is essential to try a variety of things and quit those things that do not create a spark of passion inside of you, until you find that one thing or series of things that will inspire grit. Can you talk about that?

Duckworth: One of the challenges of commencement speeches is that you have this older, wiser person who is accomplished talking to young, not-yet-so-wise, not-yet-accomplished adults, or in high school or middle school, even younger. There is a bit of a mis-match because the commencement speaker probably has found their passion and is pursuing it with verve every day. But when you are eighteen, or when you are twenty-two, and you have no idea what you want to do with your life, that can be terrifying.

Here is what I am going to say when I speak at commencement at Boys’ Latin of Philadelphia. It is important to realize that the process of “fostering” a passion takes trial and error. It takes experience; you cannot do it all in your head. And it takes a long time. One of the things about interest development is that you cannot predict from your own thoughts and imagination what you will like and what you do not like, and you cannot get into something until you do exactly that. You have to sign up for it, and you have to go to the practices. You have to talk to the other people on your team, and start reading blog posts. It is a process rather than a discovery.

High: You talk about how you have developed the “Hard Thing Rule” for your family. I wonder if you could provide an overview of the three levels of the Hard Thing Rule.

Duckworth: I was growing up at Penn where I did my PhD, both as a mom and as a psychologist at the same time. Every day when I came home I thought, “what are the implications of what I am studying for my own children?” My husband and I developed this Hard Thing Rule to basically help our kids develop habits that they would not develop on their own. The first thing is to do a hard thing; something that required truly deliberate practice, which is the term psychologists use for the effortful: at the edge of your ability practice that makes you better. We knew that at age five, which is when we started using the Hard Thing Rule, our little Kindergarten children would not be able to do maybe a minute of our deliberate practice, but we wanted them to have a taste of what it was like to work on something challenging with concentration and feedback, and then try it all over again and get better.

 The second part of the Hard Thing Rule is that they were not allowed to quit what they were doing until a natural stopping point. We felt like, with our kids, that on their own they would not learn to fulfill their commitments and to see things through to the end. So often they would ask us to quit things because, you know, the track meet did not go well, they did not like coming in last place, they did not like the way their teacher talked to them, they did not like that they had to put their hair in a bun for ballet.  We said to them that we understood how they felt, but that they needed to finish what they began and when the tuition payment was up, or the season was over, they could switch to a new Hard Thing. But not until then.

The last thing is choice. Children need us to respect their perspective. So the last thing in the Hard Thing Rule is that nobody gets to choose your Hard Thing but you. Even when our kids were young, we let them choose. It was multiple choice, not fill in the blank, such as, “Do you want to go to gymnastics, which is five blocks from our house? Or you can go to ballet school and that is across the street? Or grandma has an old piano, we can find someone to give you piano lessons.” So they had limited choice, but they were able to choose.  If you are a young person who is wanting to develop a passion, you cannot expect anyone else to tell you what that passion would be.

High: You make the point that for a child, school is often hard and not interesting. On the other hand, texting is interesting, but not hard. Finding a third thing, which may be some extracurricular activity like a sport or a musical instrument which is both challenging and interesting is an important way to build grit in a child. Please explain the rationale.

Duckworth: When a lot of adults think back about where their interests evolved, where they learned lessons about being disciplined, practicing, getting up again, being resilient. One of the great tragedies of American education is that extracurricular activities are becoming marginalized. We care so much about our kids’ test scores and we think that we have to maximize the amount of time that they are drilled for one end of the year test.  It is important that these kids have these other ways to not only express their grit, but develop their grit.

High: You talk about four different traits of “gritty” people: interest, practice, purpose, and hope. You note that they should be pursued in that order. We have talked about interest. You have mentioned how it is human nature to seek the novel and how we need to learn to substitute nuance for novelty.  Can we go through the four different traits?

Duckworth: We did touch on interest. Substituting nuance for novelty is what experts do and that is why they are never bored. Two weeks ago I took a pasta making class with Marc Vetri who is a master chef in Philadelphia and he was making the dough and milling the flour in front of us. None of us watching him had any idea of the difference between one bowl of flour and the next. He was feeling it with his fingers, running it through the mixer, feeling it again and then putting just a drop of water in, and then feeling it again. That is what experts do. They are sensitive to these nuances and I do think there is a special pleasure in that which is different from the kind of cheap thrill that we all get from watching a cat video or a stupid stunt that someone sends us the YouTube video for.

After having developed an interest, and you have gotten into something in a usually kind of fun way, not a super disciplined kind of way, there is a second stage where you learn to practice and to improve in your skill through this deliberate practice that I mentioned. It is incredibly straightforward. When I say these four things, you might think “Well, why isn’t everybody doing deliberate practice all the time?” One is, you have to be working on something you cannot yet do. Second, you have to concentrate and try hard. Third, you need feedback to know what you did right and what could be better. And fourth, you need to reflect, make a refinement, and repeat from the beginning, which is to do something you cannot yet do. So why not do it all the time? If you put these things all together, you get an experience which for most people, not all, is not fun.

By the way, interest never ends and practice never ends but you are sort of layering on. In the third stage you are still practicing and you are still interested, but you develop a sense of meaning or purpose in your work. I have never interviewed an adult paragon of grit who did not have a sense that their work was not just interesting, but important, and important to other people.  That is a fundamental human motive, so that is partly why you find it in grit paragons. If they only had interest, it would be like only having one engine on out of two. 

The fourth thing that I mention in the book is that you have to maintain a sense of hope. When you ask the question “why do people give up on things?”, sometimes they lose interest, sometimes they have not developed a habit of practicing and they do not have the capacity for that, sometimes they do not see the greater purpose, but most often they lose hope. They feel like they cannot do it. The kind of hope that I am talking about is believing that there is something, even a little thing, that you can do to change your future. It does not mean you think everything is going to be perfect. It does not mean that you think there is no such thing as luck. It means that you believe that there is something, even a little thing, that you can do to change your future.

High: After undergrad, you taught seventh grade math in New York City and you tell stories about the differences from a hope perspective. There are some people who have good reason, perhaps, to think they are structurally held down and there is some sort of force that is beyond their abilities to overcome that is going to keep them from doing things to reach their dreams. Do you have sort of insights into how to turn that a bit?

Duckworth: When you think about an individual and their character, we always think about the person versus the situation. “Oh well, you know, they stole because of the situation, not because of who they are.” But it is much more complicated than that. If you ask the question ‘where did the grit come from’, or ‘where did the honesty come from’, it came from a lifetime of experiences. The situation and the individual are braided together. So, for example, when you have kids who give up easily, and are frustrated and do not try, I always ask the question “what made them that way?” If you are a kid who grows up with no role models for grit or other character strengths and you do not have support and challenge—that kind of magic combination that seems to encourage things like grit—then it is just a plain reality that this kid could have been more gritty if their situation had been different.

At the end of the day, kids, like all individuals, are rational. Kids are sane. They do not do things that they think are not going to work out. They do not do things that they think are going to hurt themselves. They do things that make sense to them at the moment. For kids who are growing up with a lot of disadvantage, they have not had the life experiences, in many cases, that would encourage the kind of skills, habits, and the beliefs that are adaptive. If there is one last thing that I am going to do on the planet it is to do as much as I can to figure out how we can give kids the experiences that would bring them closer to a life that would be good for them and good for other people.

Continue reading: Page 4; Forbes