by Peter High, published on Forbes
Angela Duckworth was an outstanding student growing up, so much so that she was admitted to Harvard University. All the while, however, she was reminded often by her beloved father that she was “no genius.” Many years later, with degrees from Harvard, Oxford, and the University of Pennsylvania under her belt, she was selected as a MacArthur Fellow. Rather ironically, given her father’s reminder, she was officially a genius, as the MacArthur Foundation confers “genius grants.”
To make this story yet a bit more ironic, Duckworth, who is a professor of psychology at Penn, studies grit, which she defines as a combination of perseverance and passion for especially challenging long-term goals. She believes grit is a better predictor for long-term success than our traditional understanding of genius as traits or talents that we are born with. In other words, though she was ordained as a genius, she lets us know there is no reason why we cannot be equally successful in our chosen areas of passion.
This month, Duckworth’s book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance was published. It offers invaluable lessons to business leaders, parents, recruiters, and almost anyone who wishes to have a roadmap to achieve greater levels of success personally, as well as methods to use to instill grit into our kids and our work teams.
(To listen to an unabridged audio version of this interview, please click this link.)
Peter High: How did you determine that this would be at least a significant portion of your life work?
Angela Duckworth: I would date back to my first year of graduate school when I knew that I wanted to understand the psychology of high achievers. I basically believed then, and I do now, that almost anything can be studied, almost anything can be reverse engineered, so if we could put these high achievers under the microscope then we would be able to emulate, or imitate at least, their habits, their beliefs, and maybe replicate their experiences.
I started interviewing these high achievers in business, but also in sports; any high achiever that I could lay my hands on through connections of my advisor or myself. And two themes emerged from the conversations. One was “Wow, the people who are successful are relentlessly dedicated to what they do.” They have a kind of endurance in their effort; they do not get disappointed for long. It is not that they do not get disappointed, but they get back up again, and they are tirelessly working to get better. Perseverance. But there is also stamina in their interest: they are just never bored with what they do. They find it interesting and meaningful, and so they do not switch course a lot. They do not work hard at different things. They work hard at one thing.
High: It seems like every commencement address has a version of “follow your passion”, as though your passion is half a block ahead of you. You make the point that in some ways that is not the most productive way to think about this. You write that it is essential to try a variety of things and quit those things that do not create a spark of passion inside of you, until you find that one thing or series of things that will inspire grit. Can you talk about that?