In this episode, we are joined by Angela Duckworth, who is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and author of Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, which proposes the concept of ‘grit’ as using passion and personal conscientiousness to achieve long-term goals. Angela has also been a winner of the MacArthur Genius Fellowship.
Well, Angela, it’s great to have you on the program. Let me start with getting into your book by Simon Sinek’s quote where he says, ‘I love an idea that challenges our conventional wisdom and Grit’ – your book – ‘does just that.’ So what piece of conventional wisdom does your book challenge?
Talent is so often our go-to answer. When we see someone do something really remarkable, I mean even before we think about it, out of our mouth comes something like, ‘Wow, what a natural,’ and I’ve gotten that compliment after whatever, a talk or maybe writing something that was better than average for me, and I resist that because talent is not always or necessarily what makes people great. In fact, I think when you look at greatness you very often find the common denominator is passion and perseverance.
And that’s at the heart of your definition of grit, I guess, is passion and perseverance?
Exactly. So, when I interviewed high achievers in the arts and in science, politics, and business at the very beginning of my research career it was very clear to me that these people had a kind of special stamina. They stayed interested, committed, and in love with their goals and they were incredibly hard-working about them.
And I guess you got a dose of that when you went to work in McKinsey, right? Because particularly the incredibly hard-working piece characterizes life as a new associate in McKinsey?
Well, what’s interesting is that at McKinsey I worked very long days. I mean I worked from pre-dawn to long after the sunset but I don’t think I had passion for what I did. I am sure there are many consultants who have passion for what they do but unless you really feel like, you know even in my off hours I’m thinking about this, that I don’t think that qualifies to me in the way that I’m using the word as grit. If you are however like ÉricRipert, the great three-star Michelin chef in New York, and you come home after a twenty-hour shift and first thing you do is make an omelet to see if you can make the omelet better than I think that’s grit.
And that’s a true story? Is that what he does?
That was a story from his youth and when he became more and more in love with cooking, and I want to emphasize that because some people think, ‘Oh, you know, it strikes you like a lightning bolt, your passion.’ In fact, it typically takes years to truly develop a passion, it gets deeper and deeper, but he found himself, it’s true, coming home after twenty-hour days, dead tired, can you imagine how hard that that life would be? And he wanted to cook, and he thought about cooking, and he did cook even in those if few off hours that he had.
And so let’s come back to passion in a minute but I mean this kind of bias you talk about it as the naturalness bias, this hidden prejudice against those who achieve things because they work for it versus a preference for those who we think arrive at their place in life because they’re naturally talented. What’s behind this? Why does this naturalness bias actually exist?
This is actually the work of my good friend and collaborator Chia-Jung Tsay who has found that when you look at expertise and you have somebody who is actually equivalent in skill to someone who is there because of a natural talent, so, on the one hand, you’ve got a striver who worked hard and then the other you have a natural who didn’t have to work as hard, that we have a bias, especially actually if we’re experts ourselves interestingly to favor the natural. Now, why is that? Chia and I are actually working on that very problem and we don’t have a complete answer, but I will say this, I think for many of us there’s a kind of shame in having to have had more hours under our belt to get to the same place and wouldn’t all of us rather be the natural who got there effortlessly?
Yeah. And there are certain organizations I guess where this bias is alive and well and it’s very much at the heart of its DNA I guess?
You know I think that for a lot of people who actually do great things they almost identify as the person who was really smart and then there are others who identify themselves as having gotten there through hard work, and I think the thing is this. When you’re winning and when everything is going well it doesn’t really matter that much which of these mindsets you have but if things are not going well and you have a couple of bad seasons or a few bad weeks at work then I think the natural mindset is very fragile, and I think of myself as someone who grew up never thinking she was a genius and I think in a way in the long run that benefited me. When things go badly as they sometimes do I don’t worry like, ‘Oh, maybe I’m not a genius.’ I just think, ‘Well, how can I work around this problem?’
And then there’s the other sort of angle to this which is the successful swimmers that were studied, and I think you said that where you can’t explain a success we defer to talent because it’s much easier to label, is it an easier label to put on it versus trying to explain how they’re successful?
You know, when we can’t figure something out we often just say, ‘Well, I guess it’s talent,’ and that is actually the insight of a sociologist who lived with swim teams from a swim team around the corner all the way up in competitiveness to Olympic hopefuls and his name is Dan Chambliss, and after six years of living with swimmers, and he himself having been a competitive swimmer for most of his life, he wrote a paper about how talent becomes this kind of catch-all term for, ‘Well, I don’t know how she does it,’ and I think the demystification of success is one of the things I hope to dedicate my whole life to because the sort of like, ‘Well, I guess it’s just mysterious. I don’t know what it is. Je ne sais quoi’ is a way of giving up and if we instead require ourselves to keep asking, ‘Well, it must be something,’ then some of those things we might find like height or how flexible your feet are you can’t really change very easily, but other things like your stroke, and your technique, and how you breathe, and your practice schedule, those other things we can do something about and that to me gives me hope.
Yeah, and there’s a great article, the title of the article, and I’m not sure how to pronounce this, it’s the Mundanity of excellence which struck me as being quite relevant here.
Exactly. In fact, it’s the work of the very same sociologist and his observation of these Olympic hopefuls was that when there would be journalists for example who would want to come from afar and see greatness in action they would quickly get bored because essentially what they would have to witness is practices at 04:30 in the morning that would last several hours, that would go through certain, ‘Well, we’re going to do five 100s, and then we’re going to do three 200s, and then we’re going to swim with our kickboards,’ and that would happen on a Monday, and then a Tuesday, and Wednesday, and by Thursday many of these journalists were kind of wondering when the magic would start happening, when it would look like it looks on television at the actual Olympics, and the mundanity of excellence across all the fields that I have studied is exactly that. There is a kind of daily ritual of working on your craft that isn’t especially glamorous and I think the people who become true champions learn to love that discipline and of course, they love the spotlight and those occasional dazzling days where everybody’s looking at you and you get to show everyone what you’ve earned, but you also begin to love and respect the daily grind.
Yeah. I mean it’s similar in this field of innovation because there’s so much hype around the Steve Jobs, the Elon Musks, and you have these breakthroughs and the people in the white coats, or it’s the people doing the coding where everything comes from but in actual fact it’s small, incremental improvements that compound over time, that’s where the bulk of innovation actually occurs from.
I completely agree. Now I will say this. It’s not that people never have insights, right? Epiphanies or jumps – no, you wake up and you just have a great idea, and you might say, ‘Well, that doesn’t seem very gradual at all, it was very sudden,’ but what enables somebody to have an insight that nobody else has had before? I contend that you have to have muddled on that problem and thought about it from every angle, and that’s how Isaac Newton came up with the laws of mechanics, that is how Einstein came up with the theory of relativity. It wasn’t that they just were doing other things and then one day had a revelation. If you want to have an original insight you have to think about something for a very, very long time.
Yeah, absolutely but of course it doesn’t sell books, and it doesn’t make good stories, and journalists don’t enjoy covering that side of it, but yeah. So, one of the things as I was reading through this book, Angela, my question was when to stop persevering, and I loved the Warren Buffett goals exercise because that sheds some light on that question?
You know there is a possibility that people are too persevering, but I think the more accurate way of phrasing that is that you could be too stubborn about the wrong goals. Now here’s what I mean. Say for example you’re working on a project or you’ve got a certain client that you’re courting and it’s just not going very well, and you’ve tried every which angle and it’s still not going well. Now if you’re stubborn and you won’t give up on that project or that client no matter what, you could actually be doing the wrong thing. For example, if you are dedicated to film cameras in the age of digital photography that’s a losing strategy. Now where you should be stubborn, and this is my advice to entrepreneurs and others, is that you should be stubborn about your top-level goals, those abstract things that really give you meaning and purpose. For example, if you work for Polaroid maybe your top-level goal is to help people share memories through visual media, but that can be film in the conventional sense, but it also can be digital photography and can be many other things. Stay true to your top-level goals and be infinitely flexible and adaptive about your lower level ones.
And this, as I said I mentioned Warren Buffett because he gave this advice I think to his pilot. I’d be fascinated if you could just share what was your experience taking and processing his advice in that context?
So, the Warren Buffett advice is to make a list of all your goals and then to circle your five most important goals, and then make another list of your non-important goals, the ones you didn’t circle, and avoid them at all costs and that’s the real part of it, that you’re supposed to actually spend a lot of energy decidedly avoiding the things that are not priorities, and in fact when people struggle with priorities it’s not that they have a problem with the priorities, it’s a discipline of not thinking too much about the things that are not as important. I struggle with that as well and when I did the Warren Buffett exercise I found that I could go one step further, I saw what he meant by prioritizing and that was helpful, but I also tried to do one more thing and that is to find a theme among the five things that I circled. In other words, of the things that are important to me why is it that these stand out and the others fade? And for me it ended up being a theme about kids, I care more about kids than other people, and it was about psychological science. That is my tool for helping kids and it could be other things for other people, so for me, everything that I do I try to now line up with, ‘Does this help kids?’ and, ‘Is it working to my strengths as a psychological scientist?’
Fascinating. A powerful exercise. I have to say I loved reading your description of it and I still haven’t done it because I’m a little bit scared about it. I think it’s-
It’s your homework. You should do it tonight.
I know, I know. So, there are four assets in the second half of the book that you talk about and we’ve touched on a couple of them but maybe we can just go through them very quickly. Let’s start with, let me hand it over to you, can you just give us an outline of the four assets?
Let me tell you about these assets in the developmental order in which they appear. First, usually during middle childhood and maybe early adolescence, there’s the beginning of an interest, something that makes you curious, and it’s around that time, our early teenage years, that we begin to have interests that are sharply defined or at least more sharply than childhood where everything’s interesting to you. So, for some of us it will be people and maybe that will incline you to sales and for others, it will be art and drawing. So, that’s the first stage is to really identify and to cultivate a personal, intrinsically interesting pursuit. The second developmental stage tends to happen during later adolescence and early adulthood and that is the beginning of deliberate practice, a routine of working on weaknesses with feedback and repetition. The kind of work that we were talking about just a moment ago with those swimmers but in fact, deliberate practice is possible and in fact necessary in any field whether you’re going to be a mathematician or a salesperson.
Can I interrupt you there, Angela, because there was something in there that really stood out. I think you mention in the book this could be up to 70% solo, behind the scenes practice. Did I read that correctly?
It’s very often the case that people, when they are truly practicing at the edge of their skills, are doing it alone as opposed to in a group or in a room where there’s other people. For example, the great basketball legend, Kevin Durant, said that 70% or more of his time in basketball is practicing alone. Now that’s extraordinarily interesting given that basketball is a team sport. Now I think there are people out there who are not going to be able to think of how they could practice alone, it’s just the nature of what they do. I mean, maybe you’re a leader and how do you practice leading alone? So, I think the question is why is the alone thing there at all and I think it’s because of concentration and focus. The lesson for all of us is when you are practicing deliberately you must be as focused as possible and for many of us that’s just harder to do when we’ve got a lot of other people around us, and whatever you do for a living you should think, ‘How do I get to 100% focus?’
Yeah, but as I read that I was thinking when I’ve had some big presentations to investors for instance, because I was with a public company before, the amount of preparation I did, I didn’t calculate it, I mean I did a huge amount, but 70% is an enormous number isn’t it?
It really is and again I think people should take that number and just figure out what works for them, but I’m sure you have done work, you know when you really have to solve a hard problem, my guess is that you don’t do it with a lot of other people who are talking to you. There’s some amount of quietness or solitude where you just have to concentrate, and I think that’s the ideal.
Yeah, perfect. So, that’s second, and then into purpose which we touched on at the beginning. Maybe you could say a bit about that?
The third and final stage of the evolution of a gritty high performer is a stage that really actually can last the rest of your life, right? So, you started off with a childhood interest and then you’ve cultivated it and you started practicing deliberately, maybe around your late teenage years or early adulthood, and now the final stage can last for the rest of your life and that is to have a feeling that your work though it’s just a childhood interest to some, for you, has a purpose and a meaning, it gives meaning to all you do. Now when you ask the question, ‘Well, what does that mean really to people?’ it very often, in fact, I’ve never seen an exception to this, means that you can see how your work benefits others. I’m guessing you feel like that about this very podcast, about the work you’ve done prior to this. I feel like that and that’s what it means to be human, to be important, to matter. So, this is something that I think people can cultivate just like they can cultivate curiosity or cultivate a habit of expert practice, and by that I mean look for the ways in which your work allies to other people’s interests and in fact shape your work, cultivate more of that, and I think if you asked me about the older people that I’ve interviewed I’ve never met one who was truly fulfilled in a purposeful way who was unhappy. That’s the third and final stage but you might ask, ‘Well, why did you have four chapters then?’ The fourth chapter is on hope. It’s on having a mindset of optimism and growth that you really need actually no matter how old you are whether you’re 7 or 87 and that is because life is hard, and that is because you will fail, and that is because failure feels embarrassing and shameful, it rocks you to your core whether you’re 7 or 87, and the mindset that enables you to get up again is a mindset that says, ‘Whatever I am and whatever I’ve done I know I can do better tomorrow,’ and that belief that human nature is malleable, that abilities can develop, that lessons can be learned and internalized is what makes some people get up, and of course the lack of that helps encourage people to do the opposite which is just to lay down and not try again.
Yeah, and I’m reminded of the Stockdale paradox which I don’t know if it’s in the book or not, I don’t think it is. Are you familiar with that?
I’m not. Can you tell me?
I think it was from an American prisoner of war veteran who then I think went on to be a senator, but he talked about the reason that people survived, he was in, I think, a Vietnamese camp being tortured, horrendous story, but he was asked afterward how he survived and he said, ‘I survived because I was able to hold these two very, very conflicting views. One was that I was living in hell and the world was terrifyingly bad and not going to get any better, and the other was that actually, I will emerge coming out the other side,’ so being able to hold these two views, and the people who didn’t make it were either hopelessly optimistic or hopelessly pessimistic but he was able to hold both of those and manage that ambiguity, and that’s what he put down to his survival if you like.
No, I think that’s really insightful and by hopefulness, I don’t mean the kind of blind optimism that says, ‘Oh, it’s going to turn out okay no matter what.’ That’s not actually the kind of optimism that helps you because that doesn’t get you to do anything either, right? And actually that turns you into a real easy target for enemies, and predators, and people who want to use you, so I think that’s exactly the point I’m trying to make which is that the optimism is not that everything’s going to turn out, the optimism is that I can do something here, and when we look at depressed people, an affliction which affects many more people than we might at first imagine, it’s at the core, depression is a lack of hope, to really kind of lost that, and I think the fact that people do recover from depression actually is a lesson as well because hopelessness is not a permanent condition and people can find ways of understanding their world and making sense of what’s happened to them that gives hope as opposed to the opposite.
Yeah, yeah. So, switching gears a little bit now, Angela, a lot of people will be listening and thinking, ‘Okay, I want to make’ – if they’re running a large organization or a business unit – ‘I want to train my organization, make it grittier, make the organization have more grit,’ what can a leader do to render their organization gritty?
Yeah, I just wrote an article for this that was published, I think, last week for Harvard Business Review on the gritty organization and I did that in part because I got this question from a lot of gritty leaders. Now there are a lot of gritty artists who don’t ask this question or gritty solo performers but if you are a gritty leader the first question you wake up with is, ‘How do I get everyone else in this organization to be gritty as well?’ The lesson in part is modeling and I know that every leader is a role model just by default, but I think there can be an intentionality around that. I’ll give you an example. So, in my role as a professor I get rejected a lot and I have learned how to get rejected and how to learn from those rejections because usually, you get lots of very specific ways in which you were terrible from the reviewers on your articles, and I’ve learned to get up again but I’m trying to intentionally role model that to my students by sending them my rejections. I literally forward them by email the rejections that say that I’m a total idiot and here’s why, and I showed them by the way also that I’m a human. I mean, I will tell them if I cried about it or if I was completely devastated but I also model for them that one day, two days, maybe it takes a week, sometimes later, that I get up again, and I look at those reviews, and I highlight them, and I make notes, and then I revise my article and I send it out again. A role model is always a role model, but an intentional role model can be very powerful indeed.
Love it, love it. And from an individual point of view, I guess we’ve touched on some of these things before, it’s making sure these four assets are in place and you’re intentional about nurturing particularly the hope of the optimism piece?
Yes, that’s right. I think that there is something that any of us on our own as individuals can do when we diagnose what it is that makes us less gritty than we would like. I mean maybe we don’t feel like we have curiosity about what we do, maybe we don’t feel like we have a daily discipline of practice, maybe we feel like we’ve lost touch with the larger purpose of our work, or maybe we feel like we slip into a pessimistic, ‘This is never going to change mindset.’ You can diagnose yourself and you can certainly use the science on this for human capabilities and to work on them, but I would like to say that people do not generally become gritty on their own. In fact, the paradox of this might be that there is an enormous amount of support and investment in the development of gritty individuals that begins at the earliest days of childhood and it is a blessing if you feel like you came from a family like that, and if you didn’t then it’s up to you, I think, to then seek out those mentors, role models and, lifelong relationships that will help you be your best.
Yeah. Tell me, just thinking, where does grit get in the way?
Well, I think that one of the interesting possible conflicts with grit is this idea of creativity and thinking outside the box. I’ve had a longstanding debate about this with my very good friend and collaborator, Adam Grant, who studies creativity and originality, and I think it’s not necessarily the case, and neither would Adam say this, that to be gritty means that you’re unoriginal or to be original means that you’re not gritty. Picasso, for example, exemplified both. A ferociously hard worker with sustained passion from very early days to the very last breath he took, and then enormous maybe unparalleled creativity, but I do think there is something about wanting to try new things which is a little bit at odds with staying on a course. The resolution of this is like I mentioned earlier, to be creative and original about your tactics. Picasso, for example, there was no medium. He could take a bicycle seat and turn it into a sculpture which he did you, right? He drew on the back of napkins in cafes, worked in very conventional media as well like oil, but also there was a constancy, a kind of commitment, abiding love of the visual arts and that was his top-level goal. So, the lesson I think that Adam and I would both give is be original, creative, and outside the box, thinking about all the ways that you can accomplish your goal but if you keep changing the top-level goal you’re also unlikely to get anywhere.
Yeah, absolutely, that comes back to the Warren Buffet piece as well, I guess. As you talk about Picasso, I saw his exhibition last month and it’s almost like this drumbeat that went throughout his whole career but which showed up in slightly different manifestations be it food, be it pottery, be it paintings, and I absolutely see it’s how you frame the question, I suppose, or it’s how you frame your purpose I guess?
Yeah, I mean you’ll notice that Picasso didn’t decide to become like a jazz trumpetist and a politician, he stuck with being an artist and then in that domain, he was enormously creative, and I think that is actually good advice for those of us, by the way, who make that choice. You know some people ask me, ‘Well what if I don’t want that? I don’t want to have a career that is in one direction?’ I don’t think it’s a moral choice to be gritty or not, you can be a very, very good person without being gritty, but for many of us and I will count myself among them, there’s a kind of dissatisfaction when you are starting over again and again, and always a beginner, and never an expert.
Yeah, yeah. Wonderful. Final question before we get to the three questions I sent you. You’re publishing, the book’s coming out in paperback and doubtless will be an enormous success as the hardback was. What are the new frontiers that you’re exploring around this topic, Angela?
I am really interested in the difficulty that people have in developing their passion. I think that for some they might think, ‘Oh well, the hard work part, that’s the hard part, the resilience part,’ but actually so many young people in particular and some who are not so young have asked me, ‘I am a hard worker, I’ve got a tremendous work ethic, I just don’t know what I want to do with my life,’ and so that’s work that I’m doing now. I actually think that the conversation we’ve had is a flag in that direction because really what people need to do is to begin to develop their hierarchy of goals and to understand what for them will be a goal that they will be willing to and may be enthusiastic really about sticking to for the rest of their lives, so I think that’s one important direction. And then the second as you said is, how do you help a whole organization develop a culture of grit? How can we craft gritty cultures?
Yes, yes, yes. Fascinating. Well, I look forward to following your work because those are two very interesting dimensions. Yeah, fantastic. So, I sent you some questions before, Angela, and I don’t want to blindside you so let’s see where we get to on this. First question – what have you changed your mind about recently?
I think one thing I’ve changed my mind about is that the grit scale which I’ve published in the book and is a helpful tool for reflection, it’s actually what my research is based on, I see the limitations and I see the limitations in particular in these passion items, so if you take the grit scale you get items like, you know, I’ve had interests that have stayed the same from year to year and I don’t get bored of things, I mean those kinds of items to give you a flavor of them, and I think that one thing I could have done better, and I just want to say this to those who are listening, is that there is a kind of voluntary obsession that I don’t think these items quite get to, a kind of intensity and as one poet put it to me, it’s like a dog with the rag in its teeth but I’m not the dog, I’m the rag. So, I’m really interested in how we can get better and I can get better at measuring passion. I would say that’s one of the things and then I also think that understanding more and more about the limitations of what you can do in an environment for example in healthcare, levels of burnout are epidemic, and I can’t believe that’s because doctors and nurses are less gritty. It must be because of things in that healthcare industry that are really eroding people’s ability to be their best.
Yeah. Excellent. Second question – where do you go to get fresh perspectives to stay innovative and creative?
I mostly enjoy talking to people who are not scientists. So, for example, yesterday I spent my morning with a doctor named Scott Levin, he’s a hand surgeon who is just a case study in grit. He was rejected by 30 medical schools. The last medical school to reject him was his alma mater, he was at undergraduate university called Duke University in the United States and on that day he walked down the graduation aisle, he may have had the rejection letter in his hand, and he muttered to himself, ‘I’ll show you,’ and then, in fact, that’s exactly what he did. He’s now a pioneer in the field, he’s the president of the society of physicians who specialize in his domain, and I would say that when I talk to a hand surgeon, or a ballerina, or a swimmer I learn just as much as when I read a scientific article.
Brilliant, brilliant. And then the final question – what’s been your most significant failure or low, what have you learned from it, and how do you apply that learning?
You know, I’m not especially brilliant at parenting despite writing about it and thinking about a lot. I’m a mother of a sixteen-year-old and a fifteen-year-old and maybe it’s their age but they’re very quick to point out all of their mother’s limitations, and they’re very accurate actually. I will just say that, I want to be empathic to all those leaders and parents out there, when you have bad days and you think, ‘Well, I said exactly the wrong thing, I did exactly the wrong thing,’ to have some compassion as well because grit is not easy to be, it is not easy to cultivate, but we should be gritty in doing it, right? We should have some compassion for ourselves and we should get up again and try to do a better job the next day as a mother, as a father, as a CEO, and as anyone else who cares about being their best self.
Yeah. No, I’m a parent as well of a similar age and I read something that helped me yesterday actually. Parenting is less like carpentry and it’s more like gardening, and we beat ourselves up when our carpentry falls a foul but actually it’s about creating the environment and the conditions which is harder to measure, right?
I love that, I love that, and also there’s a lot of things that you can’t control in gardening like the weather.
It’s the perfect metaphor for it. That’s terrific.
Absolutely. So, Angela, where can people get in touch with you?
I have a website, I have two, but I will tell you the one that I would love to have people visit. It’s www.characterlab.org. So, that’s where we put up all of our scientific evidence translated into actionable advice for parents and teachers. It’s philanthropically funded so everything is free and downloadable, and you can use it without permission. I also have a personal website, www.angeladuckworth.com, and so there are some other free resources there. So, whether you’re a parent or teacher, or whether you’re someone else hopefully these two websites will help you.
Wonderful. Well, Angela, very pleased to meet you. As I said, I loved your book. I’m sure our audience will enjoy this interview and be encouraged to go out and get the book because it’s a great read and there’s a huge number of people who’ve commented, many of whom are well known, on the front cover, so it’s a wonderful read. Thanks for your work. Look forward to perhaps having you back on the show when you answer some of the other questions you referred to earlier on.
I would love that. Thank you, I really enjoyed this conversation. I really enjoyed your questions.
Great. Well, have a great day. Thanks.