What is grit, and how can it impact your success? According to Angela Duckworth, grit (passion + perseverance) is an essential ingredient to achieving success. Angela is the author of the New York Times bestseller Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, and a 2013 MacArthur “Genius” Fellow who has advised the White House and many Fortune 500 CEOs. She guides us through the four psychological aspects to grit. Learn why being supportive and demanding is best for your team, and how to move forward with your life goals without getting bogged down.
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Book: Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance
Bio: Angela Duckworth, PhD, is a 2013 MacArthur Fellow and professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. She has advised the White House, the World Bank, NBA and NFL teams, and Fortune 500 CEOs. She is also the Founder and Scientific Director of the Character Lab, a nonprofit whose mission is to advance the science and practice of character development. She completed her BA in neurobiology at Harvard, her MSc in neuroscience at Oxford, and her PhD in psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance is her first book and an instant New York Times bestseller.
Peter: Welcome to the Bregman Leadership Podcast. I’m Peter Bregman, CEO of Bregman Partners. We help companies achieve ambitious goals by strengthening leadership throughout the organization. I created this podcast to share ideas that you can use to become a more powerful and courageous leader.
With me today is Angela Duckworth. She is a genius, according to the 2013 MacArthur Fellowship she won. She’s a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. She’s advised the White House, the World Bank, NBA and NFL teams, and Fortune 500 CEOs. Before her career in research, she founded an award-winning summer school for low-income children. She is also the founder of the Character Lab and she has written an absolutely excellent book that I have just finished called Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. In it, she describes the underlying force behind success that people are able to achieve. We are lucky enough to have Angela with us here today. Angela, thank you so much for joining me on the Bregman Leadership Podcast.
Angela: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
Peter: Angela, I loved the book. Can you describe grit?
Angela: I define grit as a combination of perseverance and also passion for long term and challenging goals. It’s a kind of stamina, but not just stamina in your effort, also stamina in your interest. Not only working hard but working hard in the same direction.
Peter: I imagine it would be very difficult to have stamina without interest. Did you find people can have one without the other? I imagine you can have interest without stamina but could you have stamina without interest?
Peter: That ultimately does not lead to the kind of success that you’ve seen or grit?
Angela: You know, in my research I find it’s typically, and again especially when you talk about high achievement, really meaningful goals, that it’s the combination, that it’s not just being persevering but also yes, indeed, passionate and intrinsically motivated, loving what you do and feeling like it’s personally meaningful to you.
Peter: Your research was not just correlation but clearly predictive, meaning you looked at grit levels of people who were at West Point or grit levels of certain athletes. Then you looked two years later whether they were successful or not, and the levels of grit that they showed at younger ages materialized into success in whatever venture they were going into. Is that right?
Angela: Yeah, that’s correct. That’s right. Most of my research studies on grit, we tried to be longitudinal, to predict the future as opposed to just saying oh look, this is correlated. The studies that I’ve done at West Point have been that way. The spelling bee, sales, graduating from high school … There have been others where we just look cross-sectionally, like how happy are gritty people, or what’s the relationship between grit and age. I do do some cross-sectional work.
Peter: The other thing that I really liked about your research is that it’s not in a lab. There’s other variables that can come into play, but you’re really looking at this one variable and somehow this one variable supersedes all of the other variables. It’s in effect a stronger variable than anything else. If you have grit, that’s a stronger predictor of success in challenging situations than any other variable that you can think of.
Angela: Well let me actually clarify that, because I think it’s a really good question, and I think it can be easily misunderstood, what I’m saying. I do find that when you look at high achievement, you do find this really striking predictive power of grit. It doesn’t mean that grit is the only thing though that matters. For example, thinking about the Green Berets and the training for the Green Berets, yes, the grittier soldiers end up persisting and finishing, in fact, the hardest part of the training, the bottle neck to the rest of the Green Beret training, but it’s not the only predictor.
I’ll start with that. It doesn’t mean that grit’s the only thing that determines success. There’s talent, in the case of special forces, physical ability, etc. There’s luck, good luck, bad luck. There’s also other psychological characteristics like for example, in sales, it’s not only grit that makes you a successful salesperson. It’s also emotional intelligence, social charm. It’s not the only thing that matters. It’s not always the most predictive.
I think what’s striking about grit is that across domains, even where there are special talents for certain things, you need to be socially capable to be a salesperson, you need to have physical ability if you want to be a Green Beret. What’s remarkable to me is how reliable grit is across those domains, that it kind of cuts through and says this is a common denominator of people who go on to achieve things, but not the only thing. In any given domain, there could be more important things. I want to make that clarification.
Also, I think there’s a … I don’t know how technical to get. I’m trying not to get too technical, but in statistics, when I say that grit predicts over and above other variables, what that actually means is that if you control for these other variables, grit is still predictive. It doesn’t necessarily mean that in the horse race, grit is number one. That is a discovery that I made, a kind of a understanding that people could maybe not get that statistical language. Even within the last year, I was like oh, when people hear over and above, they probably don’t know the statistical meaning of it. I study grit because it is signature to high achievers in every field that I’ve studied, but it is not the only, and in some cases is not even the most important, competency that predicts success.
Peter: When you look back on people who are successful, you probably almost always see some level of grit, but I also can think of a tremendous number of people – I think of friends of mine who go into acting and who have tremendous grit and it’s a passion of theirs and they work really hard at it, but honestly, they never make it. I can think of friends of mine who go into music and it’s the same kind of situation. They work very hard and they’re passionate about it, and yet they never really make it from a success perspective.
Maybe if you look at it as the inverse, which is that if you look at successful people, they have grit. It doesn’t mean that everybody who has grit will end up being super successful, but it’s a necessary ingredient to achieving that kind of success. There’s other things like luck and talent that play into it. I might have a tremendous amount of grit. I’m never going to be a professional singer because maybe I just don’t have the talent, but if a professional singer does attain a degree of success, you’d be hard pressed to find that they don’t have grit. Am I thinking about this correctly?
Angela: I would completely agree with you. Absolutely. You could absolutely … You put it so well. I don’t know if I should just say like yeah, totally. I totally agree that when you look at high achievement, you find all these gritty people, it doesn’t mean that they didn’t have other things. Luck, which you almost can’t study as a scientist, I mean luck is random. That’s what it means to be called luck, but it absolutely is a determinant of what happens. I mean what if you accidentally strain your voice, or if you’re an athlete and you accidentally have an injury that you can’t come back from. There’s also good luck, right? Being in the right place at the right time, not because you’re gritty, not because you’re smart, just because of luck. These things totally matter as does talent.
I think the thing that I would say about when it’s you and you have to decide am I going to go into singing, should I keep going or not, you do have to account for luck and understand that’s going to affect you one way or another. You do have to, I think, take an honest accounting of your talent, but I also think that you want to make sure that you understand that effort and grit do matter too. I think sometimes people underweight effort. It’s not to say it’s the only thing that has weight, but sometimes these other things kind of overshadow the enormous importance that the quality and the quantity of our effort have over the long run.
Peter: What about people who have too much grit? How does someone who has a naturally high degree of grit know when to quit?
Angela: I have wondered myself whether there is a kind of point in the scale. If you’re 4.9 out of 5 or 5 out of 5, are you now less functional than somebody who was 4 out of 5, just to give an example of the idea that it could be dangerous to have too much grit. I haven’t found in my own research yet that there’s a downside to too much grit. In other words, I haven’t found a point at which the grittiest people are now worse off than the people who are less gritty. In general, I find the grittier, the more accomplishment and also the happier, but that doesn’t mean that we’ll never find that.
I think that, in particular, you can be gritty at the wrong level of goal. Here’s what I mean. If you are extremely tenacious about your top level life giving goal, this is what Pete Carroll, the Seahawks football coach would call your life philosophy, your telos as David Brooks would call it, the sort of this is what I’m all about kind of goal. For me, simply it is to use psychological science to help children thrive. I can’t see too many downsides to being extremely tenacious about that abstract goal, but I can see being too gritty about lower level goals, like get this article into Psychological Science, the journal. What if I get rejected three times for that article? Am I going to just spend the rest of my life stalking the editor and making every effort to get the same article into that journal?
Well that would be foolish, but the lower level the goal, the more flexible I should be because those lower level goals, get this article into this journal, get this person to talk to me, those are just means to an end. When I get to the higher level ones, I should be more gritty and tenacious. When I think about the lower level ones, I should be more flexible. When you look at really gritty people, I’m thinking of Tom Deierlein. He’s a West Point graduate. Now he’s a very successful CEO. He’s a war veteran. He will tell you the exact same advice, that he is extremely gritty but in order to be gritty, he must be flexible about his lowest level goals.
Peter: You have this great matrix to help other people get to grit, in effect, to encourage grit in other people – a matrix of supportive and demanding. I used that matrix with a client in a conversation right before this podcast, and it had a lot of impact. Can you describe it for people briefly?
Angela: Yeah. If you look, for example, in the parenting research and you ask the question what’s the best way to parent your kids, you’ll find that historically, there was the idea that you were either supportive or demanding. Decades ago, parents were thought to be somewhere along the continuum from extraordinarily strict and high expectations to extremely permissive and lax on the other end. It turns out that in more contemporary parenting research, that it’s not one dimension. There are two dimensions. In other words, you can be anywhere along the continuum of being a challenging, demanding parent. You can be anywhere along the continuum of being a supportive or unsupportive, apathetic parent. The ideal combination for parenting is to be both challenging and supportive.
There’s also evidence that this is true in other contexts where we’re mentoring other people. For example, in the workplace, you want a boss who challenges you to do things you can not yet do, but also is unconditionally supportive, who really feels like your success is their success. Not easy to do, maybe, but not impossible to do, and really it’s that quadrant that, you know, in that space where you’re both that. I think you foster not only grit but other capabilities in the people that you care about.
Peter: It’s hard because they’re not mutually exclusive. What you’re saying is that you have the capacity to be really strong in both, and yet there’s a lot of people I know who feel that being supportive makes it impossible for them to be demanding because then they’re not going to be supportive. But giving somebody really strong, clear, compassionate feedback is demanding and supportive. There’s ways of holding both of those in one hand.
Angela: Yeah. That’s really well put. I’m just thinking about a conversation I had pretty late last night, actually. I run a non-profit called the Character Lab, and I have a board, which means I have a boss. His name is Feroz and he’s the chair of my board. We had an hour-long call last night. It had to be last night because he’s in Singapore, which is the morning for him. We were talking about things that I need to do better and ways that I need to be more effective.
At the end of that conversation, he said “Before we leave, before we hand up, I just want you to know that I am telling you all these things because I completely believe in you. This is a great idea and you’re the person to do it. Everything that I say, everything that I say, you know we should do this and you should call this person and you need to do this differently, it’s because I believe in you.” That’s the kind of leadership that is helping me be grittier, and I told him this. I was like all these young people that I’m recruiting, all these 22 year olds who are now working with me, I say the exact same thing to them.
Peter: It’s interesting because I’m thinking about the personal stories that you’ve written in the book about you and your father. It gives me chills. It’s like that’s the conversation I imagine you would want to have from your father – not just the first part but that second part as well.
Angela: Yeah. My dad was … He would never tell you he had been the perfect parent. I would say that it would’ve been great if at the same time as my dad said, you know you’re no genius, and when he was telling my mom, who is an artist, you know you’re no Picasso, at the same time as he was kind of setting a very high bar about what it meant to be successful in our family, it would have been wonderful for him to say something else about how he really believed that we could do better and better everyday. He wasn’t so great on the supportive. He was very demanding. Interestingly, in my family, I think my mom was very, very supportive and I don’t have the scientific evidence for it, but I do have anecdotal. I have these stories from the people that I’ve interviewed that they will sometimes tell me that one parent was demanding and the other was supportive, so in effect they got the combination but they didn’t quite get it all from the same person at the same time.
Peter: The combination itself is what’s needed, as long as you have equal respect and attentiveness to both your mother and your father, one’s supportive and one’s demanding, that ultimately you get that combination. I find that absolutely fascinating and I think it’s interesting for us as leaders because we’re not going to be perfect leaders out there in organizations, but if you know yourself well enough to know that you’re a demanding leader, make sure that there’s a supportive leader who’s co-leading with you and can offer you that too. That might actually end up creating the combination very effectively for the people that you’re leading.
Angela: Yeah. It makes a lot of sense. Make sure you build in structures for that. Sometimes we do a really good job in organizations making sure people get feedback on things that they need to get better at, but where is the structure in place to make sure that people know that they’re part of team, that it’s a family, that no matter what they do, they have our loyalty and our trust. We should be as good at that as we are performance reviews.
Peter: We’ve talked about developing grit in other people. What could we do for ourselves in order to foster grit?
Angela: I think the very first step to evolving as a person in any dimension that you care about, maybe you care about grit, maybe you care about being good with other people, or you name it, I think the first step is self-awareness. I really believe this old adage, know thyself. It is the opening of the door. If you want to be grittier, understand where you are and also understand what grit is. Really, that’s why I wrote this book. I felt that if you could unpack these things and not just have one word for them but to understand the mechanics of who are gritty people, where do they come from, what were their early experiences, what kind of mentors did they have, how did they manage their life, what habits do they have, what beliefs do they carry around. When you can understand that, and understand yourself along those dimensions, to me that’s the most important and the first step to developing a competency, a quality like grit.
Peter: You talk about the psychological aspects of grit, the interest, practice, purpose, and hope.
Angela: Yeah. I think the reason that I laid those out in the middle of the book in that order is that if you look, for example, at the work of Benjamin Bloom, a psychologist who in the 1980s interviewed 120 world-class performers and their families and their teachers and their coaches. He identified three stages of growth. In the first stage, we develop our interest. It’s kind of fun. I’m kind of liking this psychology thing. Maybe I’ll learn more about it. In the second stage, you practice. You put in the hours to get better, to know more, to get feedback and refine your craft. In the third stage, you’re not only interested. You’re not only practicing, but you’ve added another dimension and that is a sense of purpose, a sense about what your work means to other people, other-oriented purpose. Those three stages tend to happen in that sequence. People don’t usually have purpose first and then interest. It really does happen as interest, practice, then purpose.
Hope I describe last, but it’s not because it comes last. Hope I think you need all along. You have to have some resilience to come back from a bad day or a bad season because I’ll tell you what. I’ve never interviewed somebody who had an easy life. Not even the billionaires that I have interviewed would I have truly friction-free, trouble-free, problem-free life. That’s why resilience is so important. It is really coming back from adversity, from going two steps backward, from screw ups that you have to take your own responsibility for. I think you need that at every stage.
Peter: I know so many people who don’t know their purpose, and ultimately it stalls them out. They’re not willing to just do the play that helps them understand their interest. When I figure out my interest, or if I have five interests, I don’t have to choose between them. Let me just start to practice them and see what rises to the surface. The experiential route to discovering what you’re going to devote yourself to, what you’re going build your grit around is a purposeful process, in effect, but purpose does not launch it necessarily.
Angela: Yeah. The great psychologist Chris Peterson was fond of saying that life is a contact sport. I would say that in addition to saying that self-awareness is the first step, understanding yourself, where you are, understanding what grit is and where if comes from, I think the other very important piece of advice is that you can’t really do this all in your head. If you wonder whether you should be a civil rights activist or an artist or an investor, you have to start and do it. It’s experience. There’s no substitute for that and I see too many 21 and 22 year olds wringing their hands, angst-ridden about what they’re going to do. I’m like just try something, you know?
Peter: Anything. Just do anything, and then it’ll give you some information. It’ll give you data.
Peter: I was thinking about people who achieve success very young. For some reason, maybe because I have young children, Selena Gomez came to mind. These people who achieve success at 10 and 12 and 15, and they’re on the Disney Channel or wherever. I imagine that really can’t be grit necessarily because it’s a little young to have shown the sort of dedicated commitment that you need for grit, but maybe I’m wrong. Is that grit and they’ve just shown it at a very early age? Is it that talent and luck, or maybe just luck has gotten them there and if they end up becoming adult stars, then that’s grit. If they end up becoming drug addicts, that was lack of grit. I’m curious about how to think about people who seem to succeed without the long-standing effort of so many people who achieve success in the adult world.
Angela: When you look at spelling bee contestants, the youngest this year was six.
Peter: Oh that’s a great point.
Angela: Right. I did find in that study that the gritter the kids, the more hours of practice that they accumulated. For example, the year that I did the second study on that, I think it was 2006 and the winner, Kerry Close, she had thousands of hours of practice even though she was only 14. She’d already been practicing and competing in spelling bees for at least 5 years before she won the championship. I wouldn’t say that when a kid becomes successful and they’re only 17 or like Taylor Swift, you can’t say that there wasn’t hard work at play there, that there wasn’t passion at play there. It’s true that they weren’t working on things for decades because they weren’t alive long enough, but typically those are actually pretty hardworking people and that there is a sustained commitment, even if the time scale isn’t decades or a lifetime yet.
I will also say that for those kids and for anybody else, no matter their age, it is important and I hope that people would understand my position on this, luck matters, connections matter, opportunity, talent, and none of those things are meted out equally. I think it’s not … The message of this book is not that the only thing that matters is grit. The message of this book is that grit is an enormously important strength and that you can develop it should you want to.
Peter: The book is Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. It is among those rare books that is both deeply researched, highly informative, super fun to read, and incredibly useful. Angela, thank you so much for sharing your wisdom, both in the book and on the podcast. Thanks for being on the Bregman Leadership Podcast.
Angela: Thank you, Peter. It’s been a true pleasure.
Peter: If you enjoyed this episode of the Bregman Leadership Podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes. For more information about the Bregman Leadership Intensive, as well as access to my articles, videos and podcasts, visit peterbregman.com. Thank you to Claire Marshall for producing this episode and to Brian Wood who created our music. Thanks for listening, and stay tuned for the next great conversation.