Angela Duckworth

Angela Duckworth

Psychologist Angela Duckworth became intrigued when, as a seventh-grade math teacher, she noticed her strongest performers didn’t necessarily have high IQs and her students with high IQs weren’t always her strong performers. In graduate school, she began studying what differentiates those who succeed and those who give up. What she discovered is a trait she calls “grit.

Duckworth, now a MacArthur Fellow and a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, defines grit as “passion and perseverance for long-term goals,” and further defines grit by what it isn’t — talent, luck or how badly we want something. “Instead, grit is about having what some researchers call an ‘ultimate concern’ — a goal you care about so much that it organizes and gives meaning to almost everything you do,” she says. “And grit is holding steadfast to that goal. Even when you fall down. Even when you screw up. Even when progress toward that goal is halting or slow.”

In her new book, “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance,” Duckworth argues that while talent and luck matter, grit matters at least as much, if not more. She spoke with Make It Better about cultivating grit in ourselves and in our children.

Make It Better: For your research, you’ve developed a series of questions that you call the “Grit Scale.” Can you explain how we can use it to measure our own grit?

Angela Duckworth: I think the questionnaire is useful as a prompt for self-reflection. For example, the University of North Carolina Tar Heels women’s soccer coach, Anson Dorrance — one of the winningest coaches in U.S. soccer history — gives the Grit Scale to his team every year so that his players can learn about themselves and what the team values.

However, it is less useful as a pre/post tool to tell if someone has grown grit. Your score not only reflects how gritty you are but also the standards to which you hold yourself, and when we challenge ourselves to do hard things, we begin holding ourselves to higher standards — our frame of reference changes. The test was not designed to be sensitive enough to pick up on those nuances.

To take the Grit Scale, visit Duckworth’s website; there are several versions, including one for children.

Can we parent with a focus on developing grit or is it more of an innate trait?

While grit is not externally motivated, it can be developed. However, grit shouldn’t be misappropriated to justify extreme parenting. Kids must have the freedom to choose activities that they might become passionate about. Passion is necessary to becoming great.

The challenge of parenting is figuring out how to do everything at once — it takes some discipline to make sure kids get practice but it’s also important to help them choose things they care about doing versus things we care about.

In our home, we have the “hard thing rule,” which is that everyone in our family has to choose one hard thing to work on. That means something that requires daily deliberate practice and typically involves a coach or teacher to help us improve. Even when my girls were as young as five years old, everyone in the family, including the parents, has had to do a hard thing.

The second part is making our kids finish when they start something. They can stop an activity at the natural end of their commitment (i.e., the end of the season or tuition period). The last part is the autonomy of allowing our kids to choose their own hard thing, even when they are little.

Can you give examples of some “hard things” that can develop grit?

My job is to become a better psychologist every day. I take classes, read hard papers and challenge myself to do new things like writing a theory paper. My husband also chose to develop in his career. We both have personal “hard things” too. For example, I do yoga, and while I’ll never be a yogi, I strive to get better. My husband is a runner and works to run faster and without injury.

The big difference between our adult goals and those of our kids is that they’ve cycled in and out of their hard things. They’ve done ballet, violin, gymnastics, viola, etc. One of my daughters has stuck with viola for three years. The trial and error can be a long and messy process, but you have to go through it to discover your passions. It’s not always easy.

Why are non-school activities more suited to developing grit in children?

Most kids are more passionate and more persevering at things they do outside of school like sports, instruments, dance or even paid work they do. One problem with our educational system is its narrowing of focus to academics while pruning extracurricular classes. There’s a further narrowing in schools’ focus on standardized test scores.

When we look at high school kids in our research and how they spend their time, we have been able to document their grit through their extracurricular activities. We can see multi-year involvement in activities with a progression that provides evidence of improvement. Non-school activities provide ways for kids to express and cultivate their own grit.

What role does failure play in developing grit in our children?

It’s a forgivable impulse to want to protect our kids. At the same time, it’s important for them to learn to live with and bear the consequences of their own choices and actions. Life is about learning to take responsibility and develop in those areas. The art of parenting, though, is knowing how much they can take. It differs from child to child.

It’s also important to acknowledge that kids and adults can change. Failure is not a fixed state. What leads to grit is when we say: “Whether we win or lose — it’s all information.” This promotes emotion-free mistake-making. The key is to learn from failure.

 

Duckworth will be speaking at three Family Action Network (FAN) events on Thursday, May 11 — two daytime events in Chicago and one evening event in Winnetka. All are free and open to the public.

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