Angela Duckworth is the founder and CEO of Character Lab, a non-profit whose mission is to advance scientific insights that help children thrive. She is also the Rosa Lee and Egbert Chang Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, faculty co-director of the Penn-Wharton Behavior Change for Good Initiative, and faculty co-director of Wharton People Analytics.
A 2013 MacArthur Fellow, Angela has advised the World Bank, NBA and NFL teams, and Fortune 500 CEOs. Prior to her career in research, Angela founded a summer school for underserved children that was profiled as a Harvard Kennedy School case study and, in 2018, celebrated its 25th anniversary. She has also been a McKinsey management consultant and a math and science teacher at public schools in New York City, San Francisco, and Philadelphia.
Angela’s TED talk is among the most viewed of all time. Her book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance is a #1 New York Times best seller. Angela is also co-host, with Stephen Dubner, of the podcast No Stupid Questions.
In this interview, I talk to Angela Duckworth about the true nature of grit, passion and perseverance. We talk about what it takes to succeed in life, to achieve great things, and the importance of goals in reaching the pinnacle of accomplishment.
Q: Do we need to redefine achievement and success?
[Angela Duckworth]: Achievement and success can be different, and often are. Success- perhaps- is a more holistic look at what life is for. On my last day, when I look back and wonder if I had a good life? The answer to that question is broadly what would constitute success – it includes being a good person, being honest, decent, falling in love, and hopefully staying in love. If success is broad, achievement is a narrow facet of that broad concept – and to me, relates to accomplishing goals that are meaningful to you and ideally others.
Q: What led you to find- and examine- grit as a concept?
[Angela Duckworth]: My Dad was very preoccupied with achievement, especially that narrow aspect of accomplishing goals. He loved to read out the names of the Nobel Prize Winners when they were announced… he was always thinking about who the greatest artist was, the greatest scientist…. I was also a classroom teacher and saw how some students accomplished the things they really wanted to (or at least said they wanted to), and others fell short of the mark. Those personal experiences, early in my life, made me question what it is that enables people to achieve their goals – it was clearly more than their innate talent. That question led me on a journey where I tried to unravel the mystery of human effort. The idea of grit is being able to sustain effort and commitment to goals that take a really long time. That’s the part of the equation that sometimes gets overlooked.
Q: Where can we see grit in our lives?
[Angela Duckworth]: Anything that you want to accomplish, that takes a lot of stamina and time, requires grit. It’s rare for greatness to be built overnight – even fairytales have drama, setbacks, wrong-turns, bankruptcies, disasters and poor-decisions. The story of social movements is the same- anything that’s worth fighting for will not be a done-deal in a short amount of time. We need to build the psychological mindset, techniques and strategies to tackle-things over the long-term. That’s where grit happens.
Q: How important are goals?
[Angela Duckworth]: Goals aren’t just for the ambitious- all of us have goals- it’s part of being human. Psychologists would define a goal as a desired future state – and the science of goals says that this may be one of the defining features of human beings compared to other lower order animals.
It’s not clear that animals have long-term goals in the same way that human beings do. We can perceive desired future states that are not yet true such as building a business and it growing to have thousands of employees. That’s powerful… it gives direction.
If you think of a candle- it’s bright, but the light goes out in all directions, like a sphere. If you think of a laser beam- the light is concentrated in one direction, and it can be much more powerful than a candle. Goals focus our energy in the same way – we’ve seen this first hand during the pandemic with the development of the vaccines. They are illustrative of the power of clear, specific, challenging, urgent goals.
Q: To what extent are effective goals self vs other centred?
[Angela Duckworth]: Most people we have worked with who have accomplished great things have an other-centred purpose, and that’s never just ‘make a lot of money…’ – it could be to make women’s lives easier, to close the inequality gap, to change the world, it’s something which isn’t strictly personal and selfish.
Investors tell me the same thing. When they look at the people in their portfolio who are the most successful overall- it’s because they’re motivated beyond self-purpose to a ‘higher’ bottom-line. That’s a powerful reminder about where motivation comes from.
Obviously, we do have selfish desires. I want to have a nice lunch today… I would like to go on a nice vacation… it’s not that we don’t have these selfish desires, but when you talk about the kind of long-term engagement and sacrifice needed to accomplish something – that’s much more likely to come from areas beyond self-centred desires.
Q: How should we be thinking of talent vs effort?
[Angela Duckworth]: Successful entrepreneurs rarely have a mindset of, ‘great, I have $100, now I have $1000, now I have $2000’ and so on – at a certain point, the only thing money does is keep score.
I created the grit scale which allows you to self-assess your passion and perseverance. It asks you to measure yourself against statements like, ‘I finish whatever I begin…’ and ‘I’m an especially hard worker…’ The scale has close to zero correlation with measures of IQ and physical talent. In other words, it’s not the same as IQ or physical talent, it’s not a negative correlation. The grit scale measures how hard someone tries- how motivated they are over the long-run.
What it comes down to, for a lot of people, is that they are just trying to reach some threshold level of okay. For example, you could be a great student of mathematics and learn quickly, but your goal might be to get an A or an A- or to get some threshold of understanding. Beyond that, your motivation will fall. I think that’s the reality for most people. People who learn fast and who have some level of ‘natural’ talent may go home from practice early because they don’t have to work as hard as others to get to their target level of achievement, but when you study super-achievers, you find that instead of going home early, they work late, and really pull-away from the crowd.
Q: Do experts practice differently?
[Angela Duckworth]: Scientists refer to what is called deliberate practice, this can be distinguished from mindless practice where- for example- I had to play the piano as a little girl because my parents made me, meaning I tried to get through that 30 minute of practice without really being intentional or receiving meaningful feedback. If you look at the way that experts practice in any field, there’s intentionality. They are setting goals- and coming back to them. They constantly ask what they’re trying to get out of practice… whether their actions ‘look’ like success to them. It doesn’t matter how good you are. It doesn’t matter if you’re David Beckham or Michael Jordan. You can continue to improve perpetually if you do constant, deliberate practice.
Q: Does everyone have the capacity to build grit?
[Angela Duckworth]: I genuinely believe that anyone can build grit or- indeed- any other trait such as kindness, empathy, curiosity, energy or cheerfulness. I don’t want to say that we can all end-up being the exact same-person, but we can be different tomorrow to the person we are today. This- again- is a unique feature of human nature. Dogs, chipmunks, squirrels, fish and dolphins do not have a meta-cognitive understanding of themselves. A dog can feel sad (we think) but cannot have a meta-cognitive understanding of the fact they feel sad and what to therefore do about. For example, if you’re depressed and you’re a human-being you can say, ‘hmm… I’m depressed’ – you have an awareness that you’re depressed, and you can proactively do something about it. The human mind can shape itself – the human mind can take itself as an object and change – no other living creature on the planet can do that, and it gives me tremendous optimism. If you want to take the grand-sweep of human history from millennia ago till today and into the future, there’s been enormous progress – and much of this can be linked to the mind considering itself. We can ponder, take action, move things in certain directions – it’s miraculous.
Q: What is the link between grit and emotional intelligence?
[Angela Duckworth]: The greatest leaders I’ve met are compassionate and emotionally in-touch. That is not the same thing as grit. When I started a non-profit I quite deliberately didn’t call it grit lab, but character lab. Character is a mix of emotional intelligence, creativity and many things that aren’t just grit.
Emotional intelligence and empathic concern are hugely important- they speak to having a sense of other people’s viewpoints as being different from your own. Even on the battlefield, you meet 5-star military generals who are extremely emotionally in-touch – how else could you lead 10,000 soldiers into battle unless you have a sense of the emotional life in your mind, and in the mind of others?
Q: What predisposes people to grit?
[Angela Duckworth]: You have to think of life as a constant evolution. You shouldn’t think of yourself as the person you are now – you are constantly changing – this is often called a growth mindset. When you think about human nature, you think of it as malleable, as something constantly growing and in-flux rather than something fixed.
People sometimes ascribe grit to having had terrible childhoods, or terrible life events, and it’s true that strength comes from adversity but there are just as many people who exhibit grit who have come from very wholesome or privileged backgrounds.
You don’t need adversity in life to grow stronger- but you do need to think of yourself as constantly evolving. You have to think of yourself as constantly evolving – like the chapter of a book – where your character is developing over time. This is more accurate too from what we now know scientifically – that we are constantly changing.
Q: What do you hope your legacy will be?
[Angela Duckworth]: Asking about legacy is the same as asking about a top-level goal. Asking what you hope someone’s legacy will be is the same as asking what the mission of their life is.
For me, legacy is about increasing psychological literacy. There was a time where nobody knew how to read- and now most of the world is literate. There was a time when nobody knew how to add, subtract, or do complex mathematics – now? Most of the world’s children are mathematically numerate. I imagine that kind of equivalent literacy around human nature. To deeply understand the nature of motivation, effort, feelings, empathy, curiosity, memory – to understand those things is psychological literacy, and that will be the revolution. Literacy and numeracy vaulted human civilization forward to where we are now – the next revolution will be humankind understanding itself, and its’ nature.