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How to Get Gritty: An Interview with Angela Duckworth

Talent may hog the spotlight, but it’s perseverance, passion for a goal (like, graduating college) and believing you will succeed that are the real keys to success.

The semester’s humming along just fine—you’ve been managing your workload, your social life’s not too shabby, and then … you hit a roadblock. One of your (required) courses is leaving you frustrated and overwhelmed. You’ve had a hard time following the last few lectures—nothing makes sense. At these low points, it’s human nature to think, Maybe I’m just not smart enough or talented enough,” “I don’t have what it takes,” or “Everyone else has a higher IQ. That’s why it seems like a breeze to them.”

If Angela Duckworth, psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania and author of Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, could read your mind as these self-defeating thoughts are churning, she’d hold up a big red STOP sign. Then she’d sit you down and tell you that talent and raw IQ are overrated, not the surefire on-ramps to success that you think they are, though they’ve “hogged a disproportionate share of the spotlight in [our] culture.”  Her research has shown that sustained effort, hard work, passion for a long-term goal (in your case, graduating college), and—really important—the optimistic belief that you will succeed are the real determinants of future achievement.

This combination of interest, practice, purpose, and hope? It’s called grit.

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“To be gritty is to keep putting one foot in front of the other …  to hold fast to an interesting and purposeful goal,” Duckworth writes in her book. And when things look bleak, grit means having the inner strength to keep trying, practicing, and shoring up your weak spots in the face of failure, and the optimism to believe that things will improve.

When we see successful people achieving great things, she says, we’re focusing on the end result. Whether they’re Olympic athletes or spelling bee champions, we forget the deliberate practice and determination it took them to get there. That part is invisible to us. “Of course talent counts,” she adds. Talent helps us develop a skill quickly and easily. “If I have a talent for math, I’m going to get farther than you, even if you apply yourself equally. But effort counts twice—first to build a skill and then to apply that skill. You need that effort a second time in order to produce tangible achievements.”

Intelligence and even personality are not set in stone, Duckworth says. Anyone at any time in their life can grow beyond their perceived limitations.

Duckworth’s Character Lab

Duckworth is passionate about spreading the message that grit is vital to succeed in all aspects of life, especially for those from disadvantaged backgrounds. She recently mentored a young man who grew up in poverty with no real support system. “When he entered college, it was a new world academically. There were a lot of ups and downs, lots of rough patches,” she says. He was also challenged by the lack of structure in college. With Duckworth’s help and a lot of hard work, he succeeded and recently graduated from Wharton.

Her belief that strength of character is so important in helping students succeed inspired her to found Character Lab, a nonprofit located on the Penn campus in Philadelphia. Targeting middle and high school students, Character Lab’s goal is to advance the science and practice of character development—caring, doing, and thinking—and create educational materials including videos, lesson plans, and worksheets that help students learn character-building strengths and strategies.

Angela Duckworth’s Grit-Building Advice

Long-term goals are a marathon, and grit keeps you in the race

“Long-term goals mean the most to us. Educational degrees, for example, require a sustained commitment to the goal of graduating, a stick-to-itiveness. They’re not easy things to get for most people. They require a mental toughness, and a consistency of focus over time. That’s why grit predicts completing educational degrees.

“For goals that take a long time to complete—not minutes, days, or weeks—it’s a matter of showing up and continuously trying to make progress.”

Grit is more about stamina than intensity

“This is somewhat surprising to some people. When we think about grit, or about passion in particular, there’s a kind of intensity to it. Like, that person’s intensely hardworking. But I think that consistency is what’s important. As any physical trainer will tell you, it’s not necessarily that you should kill yourself in one workout, it’s whether you’re going to do your exercises every day. It’s a consistency of your effort, and your focus, over time.”

Dedicate yourself to getting better

“I define perseverance as the capacity to do daily practice to get better. Trying to get a little better at something you’re doing compared to the day before.

“It’s not being negative, not self-flagellating or looking backward, or going to sleep thinking you’re a loser. It’s a future-oriented outlook, optimistic, looking forward to learning and growing. It’s ‘What could I do the next time to make something better?’, never expecting perfection but always chasing it, having a taste for always being challenged and for the process as well as the outcome.

“Of course outcomes matter—an athlete always wants to win the gold—but the process of getting better is at least as important to them.”

Work on your weaknesses

“Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. It’s how we approach them that can make a difference in our lives and careers.”

— Angela Duckworth, psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania and author of Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance

“Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. It’s how we approach them that can make a difference in our lives and careers. The most successful people not only practice longer than others, they deliberately practice on improving their weaknesses. They are constantly setting up ‘stretch goals,’ and once they achieve them, they set another. Rather than focus on what they already do well, they intentionally seek out challenges they can’t yet meet.”

Keep hope in the face of adversity

“I’m not talking about the little things that happen to you every day, but, for instance, if you’re an athlete and you get injured, or you’re in sales and you catastrophically blow it with a big client. It’s resilience in the face of those kinds of emotional setbacks and failures.”

Cultivate a growth mindset

“Human beings are designed to grow, and learn, and adapt. There’s plasticity in every facet of human nature. We used to think that at some point, growth stops. Now we’re learning that we continue to learn throughout our lives. And I think we can do that with intention.

“Students with a growth mindset understand they can get smarter through hard work, the use of effective strategies, and with help from others when needed. You can have a growth mindset, where you believe you can rise to a challenge, or a fixed mindset, where you see no reason to get up again if you’ve fallen down. A growth mindset means there’s a belief in change.”

A fixed mindset will keep you stuck in one place

“If you think you can’t compete with someone who’s talented, you stop the effort, stop achieving. That’s a fixed mindset.

“When we say, I’ll never be Usain Bolt, or Einstein—I don’t have that God-given talent—we let ourselves off the hook. We think, ‘He’s a different creature with completely different wiring, so I’m going to relax on this couch and watch it, and appreciate it, but never wonder whether I should be out there competing, doing something almost as wonderful.

“There’s a magical, romantic view of high achievement, which isn’t necessarily terrible, but it inadvertently creates false limits on what we do. We don’t need to believe that we can be the fastest person on the planet, or the smartest, but almost all of us could be so much more than we believe we could be. It’s my belief that in the right circumstances, with the right support, the right mindset, the right optimism, people can do marvelous things. We ought not to put ceilings on ourselves too early and we ought not to build those ceilings too low.”

Break down big goals into small victories

“High performers are able to celebrate small victories along the way, find ways to see progress in smaller forms. They break down the long-term goal into tiny parts so there are these more immediate victories, and they focus on small wins. That’s essential to accomplishing long-term goals. That keeps them going.

“When you break a big goal down into smaller, learnable, doable components, you can advance yourself, be a little grittier today than you were yesterday.”

Greatness is doable!

“Greatness is many, many individual feats, and each of them is doable. Excellence in the aggregate, meaning when you just see it all at once in its final form—for instance, the winning performance of an Olympic swimmer—seems inaccessible, from heaven. But what you don’t see are the hours of practice—refine the left elbow on this one stroke, again and again for hours and hours. We need to realize that this marvelous final product took many, many iterations to come about. And there were these tiny little components, all practicable, all doable. When we think about it that way, it makes things accessible.

“One of the pieces of advice I give to students struggling to figure out what they’re going to do with their life—you don’t know things until you do them.”

— Angela Duckworth, psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania and author of Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance

“Thinking of myself, I never imagined I could write a book! I’d see them on the bookshelf, and I thought, ‘I’m not the sort of person who could ever do that.’ But when I sat down and broke it down into, well, first you need a table of contents, and now I’m going to work on the first chapter, and now I’m going to break the chapter down into four parts, and work on the first part of the first part…. It’s not easy, but yeah, it’s doable. And I finished the book. You only learn once you get into it.

 “One of the pieces of advice I give to students struggling to figure out what they’re going to do with their life—you don’t know things until you do them. High achievers that I’ve spoken to, they just keep signing themselves up for things they can’t do! They’ll have to figure it out.

“Whatever you dream you can do, do it! Action has power, magic, and beauty to it. Dig into it! You can never learn something from the outside. You have to be on the inside.”

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