9 December 2018
Grit, the power of passion and perseverance – Angela Duckworth
Part I: What Grit Is and Why It Matters
Our potential is one thing. What we do with it is quite another.
The “naturalness bias” is a hidden prejudice against those who’ve achieved what they have because they worked for it, and a hidden preference for those whom we think arrived at their place in life because they’re naturally talented. We may not admit to others this bias for naturals; we may not even admit it to ourselves. But the bias is evident in the choices we make.
Talent is how quickly your skills improve when you invest effort. Achievement is what happens when you take your acquired skills and use them. Of course, your opportunities — for example, having a great coach or teacher — matter tremendously, too, and maybe more than anything about the individual. My theory doesn’t address these outside forces, nor does it include luck. It’s about the psychology of achievement, but because psychology isn’t all that matters, it’s incomplete. Still, I think it’s useful. What this theory says is that when you consider individuals in identical circumstances, what each achieves depends on just two things, talent and effort. Talent — how fast we improve in skill — absolutely matters. But effort factors into the calculations twice, not once. Effort builds skill. At the very same time, effort makes skill productive.
The prolific writer and director Woody Allen, when asked about his advice for young artists, once said: My observation was that once a person actually completed a play or a novel he was well on his way to getting it produced or published, as opposed to a vast majority of people who tell me their ambition is to write, but who strike out on the very first level and indeed never write the play or book. Or, in Allen’s snappier formulation, “Eighty percent of success in life is showing up.”
Without effort, your talent is nothing more than your unmet potential. Without effort, your skill is nothing more than what you could have done but didn’t. With effort, talent becomes skill and, at the very same time, effort makes skill productive.
Grit has two components: passion and perseverance. If you want to dig a little deeper, you can calculate separate scores for each component: For your passion score, add up your points for the odd-numbered items and divide by 5. For your perseverance score, add up your points for the even-numbered items and divide by 5.
While taking the Grit Scale, you might have noticed that none of the passion questions asked how intensely you’re committed to your goals. (...) Rather than intensity, what comes up again and again in their remarks is the idea of consistency over time. (...) Enthusiasm is common. Endurance is rare.
Pete’s philosophy is: Do things better than they have ever been done before.
Setting up intermediate goals, weaved towards a top-level goal
Indulging in visions of a positive future without figuring out how to get there, chiefly by considering what obstacles stand in the way, has short-term payoffs but long-term costs. In the short-term, you feel pretty great about your aspiration to be a doctor. In the long-term, you live with the disappointment of not having achieved your goal.
Even more common, I think, is having a bunch of mid-level goals that don’t correspond to any unifying, top-level goal: Or having a few competing goal hierarchies that aren’t in any way connected with each other:
First, you write down a list of twenty-five career goals. Second, you do some soul-searching and circle the five highest-priority goals. Just five. Third, you take a good hard look at the twenty goals you didn’t circle. These you avoid at all costs. They’re what distract you; they eat away time and energy, taking your eye from the goals that matter more.
Interestingly, most of the goals I spontaneously thought of were mid-level goals. People generally default to that level of goal when they’re asked to write down a number of goals, not just one. To help me prioritize, I added columns that allowed me to sort out how interesting and important these projects were. I rated each goal on a scale from 1 to 10, from least to most interesting and then again from least to most important. I multiplied these numbers together to get a number from 1 to 100. None of my goals had an “interest x importance” rating as high as 100, but none were as low as 1, either. Then I tried to take Buffett’s advice and circle just a few of the most interesting and important goals, relegating the rest to the avoid-at-all-cost category. I tried, but I just couldn’t do it. After a day or so of wondering who was right — me or Warren Buffett — I realized that a lot of my goals were, in fact, related to one another. The majority, in fact, were means to ends, setting me up to make progress toward one ultimate goal: helping kids achieve and thrive. There were only a few professional goals for which this wasn’t true. Reluctantly, I decided to put those on the avoid-at-all-cost list.
Genes & experience
First: grit, talent, and all other psychological traits relevant to success in life are influenced by genes and also by experience. Second: there’s no single gene for grit, or indeed any other psychological trait.
By way of explaining massive gains in certain IQ subtests but not in others, Flynn told a story about basketball and television. Basketball, at all levels of competition, has gotten more competitive over the last century. Flynn played a little ball himself as a student and remembers the game changing even within a few years. What happened? According to Flynn, what happened was television. Basketball was a great game to watch on the small screen and the exposure fueled the game’s popularity. Once television became a household fixture, more kids started playing the game, trying left-handed layups, crossover dribbles, graceful hook shots, and other skills that seemed routine among star players. And by getting better, each kid inadvertently enriched the learning environment for the kids he or she was playing against. Because one thing that makes you better at basketball is playing with kids who are just a little more skilled. Flynn called this virtuous cycle of skill improvement the social multiplier effect, and he used the same logic to explain generational changes in abstract reasoning. More and more, over the past century, our jobs and daily lives ask us to think analytically, logically. We go to school for longer, and in school, we’re asked, more and more, to reason rather than rely on rote memorization. Either small environmental differences, or genetic ones, can trigger a virtuous cycle. Either way, the effects are multiplied socially, through culture, because each of us enriches the environment of all of us.
Grit & age
The grittiest adults in my sample were in their late sixties or older; the least gritty were in their twenties. (...) It’s possible that adults in their seventh decade of life are grittier because they grew up in a very different cultural era, perhaps one whose values and norms emphasized sustained passion and perseverance more than has been the case recently. (...) Alternatively, it’s possible these age trends have nothing to do with generational changes in grit. Instead, what the data may be showing is how people mature over time.
Psychological traits: interest, practice, purpose, hope
Research reveals the psychological assets that mature paragons of grit have in common.
First comes interest. Passion begins with intrinsically enjoying what you do. Every gritty person I’ve studied can point to aspects of their work they enjoy less than others, and most have to put up with at least one or two chores they don’t enjoy at all. Nevertheless, they’re captivated by the endeavor as a whole.
Next comes the capacity to practice. One form of perseverance is the daily discipline of trying to do things better than we did yesterday.
Third is purpose. What ripens passion is the conviction that your work matters. For most people, interest without purpose is nearly impossible to sustain for a lifetime.
Finally, hope. Hope is a rising-to-the-occasion kind of perseverance. (...) From the very beginning to the very end, it is inestimably important to learn to keep going even when things are difficult, even when we have doubts.
Part II: Growing Grit from the Inside Out
Nobody is interested in everything, and everyone is interested in something. So matching your job to what captures your attention and imagination is a good idea. It may not guarantee happiness and success, but it sure helps the odds. That said, I don’t think most young people need encouragement to follow their passion. Most would do exactly that—in a heartbeat—if only they had a passion in the first place.
Most grit paragons I’ve interviewed told me they spent years exploring several different interests, and the one that eventually came to occupy all of their waking (and some sleeping) thoughts wasn’t recognizably their life’s destiny on first acquaintance.
While we might envy those who love what they do for a living, we shouldn’t assume that they started from a different place than the rest of us. Chances are, they took quite some time figuring out exactly what they wanted to do with their lives.
Passion for your work is a little bit of discovery, followed by a lot of development, and then a lifetime of deepening.
You can’t simply will yourself to like things, either. As Jeff Bezos has observed, “One of the big mistakes people make is that they try to force an interest on themselves.” Without experimenting, you can’t figure out which interests will stick, and which won’t.
Before those who’ve yet to fix on a passion are ready to spend hours a day diligently honing skills, they must goof around, triggering and retriggering interest. Of course, developing an interest requires time and energy, and yes, some discipline and sacrifice. But at this earliest stage, novices aren’t obsessed with getting better. They’re not thinking years and years into the future. They don’t know what their top-level, life-orienting goal will be. More than anything else, they’re having fun. In other words, even the most accomplished of experts start out as unserious beginners.
Encouragement during the early years is crucial because beginners are still figuring out whether they want to commit or cut bait.
A degree of autonomy during the early years is also important. Overbearing parents and teachers erode intrinsic motivation.
The grittier an individual is, the fewer career changes they’re likely to make. In contrast, we all know people who habitually throw themselves headlong into a new project, developing a fierce interest, only to move on after three or four or five years to something entirely different. There seems no harm in pursuing a variety of different hobbies, but endlessly dating new occupations, and never settling down with just one, is a more serious matter.
Even though getting tired of things after a while is common, it’s not inevitable. If you revisit the Grit Scale, you’ll see that half the items ask about how consistent your interests are over long stretches of time. This links back to the fact that grit paragons don’t just discover something they enjoy and develop that interest—they also learn to deepen it.
For the beginner, novelty is anything that hasn’t been encountered before. For the expert, novelty is nuance.
Some people get twenty years of experience, while others get one year of experience . . . twenty times in a row.
All of them demonstrate a striking desire to excel beyond their already remarkable level of expertise.
“It’s a persistent desire to do better,” Hester explained. “It’s the opposite of being complacent. But it’s a positive state of mind, not a negative one. It’s not looking backward with dissatisfaction. It’s looking forward and wanting to grow.”
This is how experts practice: First, they set a stretch goal, zeroing in on just one narrow aspect of their overall performance. Rather than focus on what they already do well, experts strive to improve specific weaknesses. They intentionally seek out challenges they can’t yet meet.
Then, with undivided attention and great effort, experts strive to reach their stretch goal.
Experts hungrily seek feedback on how they did.
Then experts do it all over again. Until they have finally mastered what they set out to do. Until what was a struggle before is now fluent and flawless.
Then experts start all over again with a new stretch goal.
First, know the science.
- A clearly defined stretch goal
- Full concentration and effort
- Immediate and informative feedback
- Repetition with reflection and refinement
Make it a habit. By this I mean, figure out when and where you’re most comfortable doing deliberate practice. Once you’ve made your selection, do deliberate practice then and there every day. Why? Because routines are a godsend when it comes to doing something hard.
Change the way you experience it.
If you try, you can learn to embrace challenge rather than fear it. You can do all the things you’re supposed to do during deliberate practice—a clear goal, feedback, all of it—and still feel great while you’re doing it. “It’s all about in-the-moment self-awareness without judgment.
Purpose means “the intention to contribute to the well-being of others.”
We’re social creatures. Why? Because the drive to connect with and serve others also promotes survival. How? Because people who cooperate are more likely to survive than loners. Society depends on stable interpersonal relationships, and society in so many ways keeps us fed, shelters us from the elements, and protects us from enemies. The desire to connect is as basic a human need as our appetite for pleasure.
It’s not that some kinds of occupations are necessarily jobs and others are careers and still others are callings. Instead what matters is whether the person doing the work believes that laying down the next brick is just something that has to be done, or instead something that will lead to further personal success, or, finally, work that connects the individual to something far greater than the self.
Firefighters who expressed prosocial motives (“Because I want to help others through my work”) and intrinsic interest in their work (“Because I enjoy it”) averaged more than 50 percent more overtime per week than others. When Adam asked the same question — “Why are you motivated to do your work?” — of 140 fund-raisers at a call center for a public university, he found nearly identical results. Only the fund-raisers who expressed stronger prosocial motives and who found the work intrinsically engaging made more calls and, in turn, raised more money.
Reflecting on how the work you’re already doing can make a positive contribution to society.
Thinking about how, in small but meaningful ways, you can change your current work to enhance its connection to your core values.
Finding inspiration in a purposeful role model.
Hope: growth mindset vs. fixed mindset
Here are four statements Carol uses to assess a person’s theory of intelligence. Read them now and consider how much you agree or disagree with each:
- Your intelligence is something very basic about you that you can’t change very much.
- You can learn new things, but you can’t really change how intelligent you are.
- No matter how much intelligence you have, you can always change it quite a bit.
- You can always substantially change how intelligent you are.
If you found yourself nodding affirmatively to the first two statements but shaking your head in disagreement with the last two, then Carol would say you have more of a fixed mindset. If you had the opposite reaction, then Carol would say you tend toward a growth mindset.
The scientific research is very clear that experiencing trauma without control can be debilitating. But I also worry about people who cruise through life, friction-free, for a long, long time before encountering their first real failure. They have so little practice falling and getting up again. They have so many reasons to stick with a fixed mindset.
A fixed mindset about ability leads to pessimistic explanations of adversity, and that, in turn, leads to both giving up on challenges and avoiding them in the first place. In contrast, a growth mindset leads to optimistic ways of explaining adversity, and that, in turn, leads to perseverance and seeking out new challenges that will ultimately make you even stronger.
Part III: Growing Grit from the Outside In
Wise parenting & coaching
How many of these statements would your child affirm without hesitation? You’ll notice that some of the items are italicized. These are “reverse-coded” items, meaning that if your child agrees with them, you may be less psychologically wise than you think.
- I can count on my parents to help me out if I have a problem.
- My parents spend time just talking to me.
- My parents and I do things that are fun together.
- My parents don’t really like me to tell them my troubles.
- My parents hardly ever praise me for doing well.
- My parents believe I have a right to my own point of view.
- My parents tell me that their ideas are correct and that I shouldn’t question them.
- My parents respect my privacy.
- My parents give me a lot of freedom.
- My parents make most of the decisions about what I can do.
- My parents really expect me to follow family rules.
- My parents really let me get away with things.
- My parents point out ways I could do better.
- When I do something wrong, my parents don’t punish me.
- My parents expect me to do my best even when it’s hard.
Wise parenting encourages children to emulate their parents. To a certain extent, of course, young children imitate their mothers and fathers. And yet, there’s a world of difference between imitation and emulation.
On half of the essays, researchers affixed a Post-it note that read: I’m giving you these comments so that you’ll have feedback on your paper. This was the placebo control condition. On the other half of the essays, researchers affixed a Post-it note that read: I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them. This was the wise feedback condition.
Students who received the wise feedback Post-it—“I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them”—made twice as many edits to their essays as students in the placebo control condition.
Value of extracurricular activities
When kids are in class, they report feeling challenged — but especially unmotivated. Hanging out with friends, in contrast, is not very challenging but super fun. And what about extracurricular activities? When kids are playing sports or music or rehearsing for the school play, they’re both challenged and having fun. There’s no other experience in the lives of young people that reliably provides this combination of challenge and intrinsic motivation.
Longer-term studies come to the same conclusion: more participation in activities predicts better outcomes. The same research clearly indicates that overdosing on extracurriculars is pretty rare. These days, the average American teenager reports spending more than three hours a day watching television and playing video games. Additional time is drained away checking social media feeds, texting (...) which makes it hard to argue that time can’t be spared for the chess club or the school play, or just about any other structured, skill-focused, adult-guided activity.
“The follow-through rating involved evidence of purposeful, continuous commitment to certain types of activities (in high school) versus sporadic efforts in diverse areas.”
Follow-through in high school extracurriculars predicted graduating from college with academic honors better than any variable. Likewise, follow-through was the single best predictor of holding an appointed or elected leadership position in young adulthood. And, finally, better than any of the more than one hundred personal characteristics Willingham had measured, follow-through predicted notable accomplishments for a young adult in all domains, from the arts and writing to entrepreneurism and community service.
Extracurricular activities are a way for young people to practice, and therefore develop passion and perseverance, for long-term goals. But it’s also possible that following through with extracurriculars is something only gritty people do. These explanations aren’t mutually exclusive: it’s entirely possible that both factors — cultivation and selection — are at play. My best guess is that following through on our commitments while we grow up both requires grit and, at the same time, builds it.
Not all parents are able or willing to drive their kids to and from practices and games. For music, the cost of private lessons and instruments can be prohibitive. Just as Putnam would have predicted, there is a worrisome correlation between family income and Grit Grid scores.
The association between working hard and reward can be learned. Bob will go further and say that without directly experiencing the connection between effort and reward, animals, whether they’re rats or people, default to laziness.
I struggled to provide the sort of feedback I knew my children needed. I found myself enthusiastically praising them no matter what they did. And this is one of the reasons extracurricular activities offer superior playing fields for grit — coaches and teachers are tasked with bringing forth grit in children who are not their own.
If a student forgot to wear their leotard that day, or left their ballet shoes at home, they sat and watched the other children for the entire class and weren’t allowed to participate. When a move was executed incorrectly, there were endless repetitions and adjustments until, at last, this teacher’s high standards were satisfied.
The Hard Thing Rule
In our family, we live by the Hard Thing Rule. It has three parts. The first is that everyone — including Mom and Dad — has to do a hard thing.
Second part of the Hard Thing Rule: You can quit. But you can’t quit until the season is over, the tuition payment is up, or some other “natural” stopping point has arrived. You must, at least for the interval to which you’ve committed yourself, finish whatever you begin.
The Hard Thing Rule states that you get to pick your hard thing.
A fourth requirement will be added: each girl must commit to at least one activity, either something new or the piano and viola they’ve already started, for at least two years.
If you want to be grittier, find a gritty culture and join it. If you’re a leader, and you want the people in your organization to be grittier, create a gritty culture.
Reciprocal effect of a team’s particular culture on the person who joins it.
“It takes relentless — absolutely relentless — communication. It’s what you say and how you say it.” It may also be how often you say it.
Each year that you play soccer for Anson Dorrance, you must memorize three different literary quotes, each handpicked to communicate a different core value. “You will be tested in front of the team in preseason,” his memo to the team reads, “and then tested again in every player conference. Not only do you have to memorize them, but you have to understand them. So reflect on them as well. . . .”