“Grit” author Angela Duckworth on what truly makes people successful

The University of Pennsylvania psychologist says that the most successful people tend to share the same four qualities

Angela Duckworth

Angela Duckworth giving her TED talk on grit in 2013. (TED)

Success is a topic of enduring fascination for most people, but especially psychologist Angela Duckworth. The ex-McKinsey consultant, school teacher and Harvard, Oxford and University of Pennsylvania alum is an expert in the qualities of successful people. In her new book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, she shares her decade of research on the topic, and finds that “genius” is not a requirement; what’s more important is your “grit,” or perseverance in the face of setbacks. We chatted with her about the myth of talent, how to build resilience and ways to become grittier:

How do you define grit?

I define grit as perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Perseverance is about stamina in your effort, where you are really trying to do something hard, day in and day out, despite setbacks. Passion is about stamina in your interest and being committed to something and staying interested in it over a long time.

What are the characteristics of people with grit?

From my research, I found that people who have grit share four common qualities: interest, practice, purpose and hope. First, they are deeply interested in what they do. Yesterday, I met with my communications consultant for this book, and every time we turn on the television, he’d say “See what she did there? She put her water bottle down. Let me show you these seven other videos of people putting their water bottle down while you’re having an interview.” It’s that kind of nuance and I’ll-never-be-bored interest in something.

Second, it’s the capacity to practice things you can’t yet do because you think it will make you better. That kind of practice is called “deliberate practice.” It’s not the type of practice that most people like to do since it requires full focus and is extremely effortful.

Third would be a sense of purpose beyond the self. A sense that what you’re doing is not just interesting but meaningful.

And fourth would be the kind of resilience or hope that enables you to get back up again when things are not going well.

 When it comes to achievement, how much of it can be attributed to one’s grit versus one’s talent?

I think the question of which is more important has an answer rooted in what achievement really is. For example, if you get really good at writing articles, you have a skill. But say you decide to stop writing articles or you only write one article a year. Then to me, you really haven’t achieved much, because the metric of your achievement is the number of great articles you write.

Achievement can be thought of as the product of your skills and effort, so your effort is necessary to turn those skills into actual accomplishments. But that poses another question: where do skills come from? I think skills are the product of your talent (your potential to learn something) and your effort again. So effort counts twice in the sense that your talent is only made into skill by effort. But your skills, once you have acquired them, are also made into accomplishments by virtue of effort. So in that sense, I think effort counts twice.

Why do you think society puts so much emphasis on talent?

There’s an explanation that goes all the way back to the German philosopher Nietzsche, who in the 19th century made the observation that we have a romance with genius and talent because it allows us to think those successes are not attainable to the rest of us, and therefore not our responsibility. It’s as if we are saying they have something that we don’t because we weren’t born with it. And because of that, we don’t have to try.

What are the dangers of that?  

I think it’s untrue. As somebody who has been called a “natural” and won a Genius Grant, I’ve revised my research papers dozens and in some cases hundreds of times. If people could see all of the drafts where the introduction didn’t make sense and the method section was too long, would they still think I was a natural?

I think young people in particular have this mythology that people who are really great at what they do are incredibly talented in that area. I’m not saying successful people don’t have talent. But there’s also so much struggle and effort.

Most of the people I talked to have been very clear that their expertise has been earned. I think a lot of them will say they are talented. I just interviewed Abby Wambach, who is the highest goal-scoring female soccer player in history—when she was five years old, she scored 27 goals in her first three games. She thinks she’s really talented, but she also said if she wasn’t a fiercely hard worker, there’s no way she’d become world class. It’s not “either-or.” It’s absolutely “both-and.” But I think the danger is that people get distracted by the talented part and prematurely give up before they give themselves a chance.  

What’s the right way to deal with failures and setbacks?

Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JPMorgan Chase, has given many speeches where failure ends up being one of the essential themes. When I interviewed him, the first story he wanted to tell me about was how he got fired. He’s well-known for saying that failures and how you deal with them may be the most important thing to determining how successful you ultimately will be.

There are big failures like getting fired and little failures like sending the wrong email, or writing a paragraph that could have been better. I think you have to be able to deal with both. Everyday when you go in and try to do something a little better means that everyday you are setting yourself up to fail in small ways. Everybody I talked to, including Jamie Dimon, sees that having a mature, responsible, healthy learning mindset about failure is crucial to being successful in the long run.

How can we develop grit?

When you see somebody and you think “God, they’re just a math person” or “she’s just a natural salesperson,” that’s leaving things at a level of abstraction that makes it impossible to learn. One key to building grit is to understand grit. To say: grit’s two things—it’s passion and perseverance. Let’s double-click on passion: passion is interest and a sense of beyond-the-self purpose. If you’re interested in something and you feel like it’s important to other people, you will be passionate about it. What about perseverance? There’s a part of perseverance which is about hope and another part which is about being able to do the daily practice that’s really hard. So understanding is key to developing grit.

The second thing I’ll say is I think other people really matter. Whoever is your boss, that person has the opportunity to make you “grittier” or impede your grit. If they’re the former, they’re going to be both demanding and supportive. Having the right mentor and being in a company, family or school where grit is modelled are really important.

What does “deliberate practice” feel like?

The general experience of deliberate practice is effortful and not fun and flow-like. You’re failing, getting told what you did wrong constantly, and trying again and again. When you’re doing deliberate practice, you’re doing things that are too hard. But deliberate practice is rewarding in the sense that you know you’re really growing. Some people get these rare moments of flow when you have used all those acquired skills at their optimum and there is a sort of high to being in flow.

How important is passion?

When you look at people who are really working hard and you assume they’re gritty, you have to ask the question: why are they working so hard? Maybe they have to for financial reasons, or because they are forced by parents. But that’s not the grit, that’s drudgery. When you’re genuinely gritty, you are pursuing something that is of interest to you and meaningful to other people. The paragons of grit all say “I love what I do.” When you double click on that, they find what they do infinitely interesting and invariably feel like it matters to other people.

You can cultivate a passion for almost anything, even wine tasting. On the surface, wine tasting seems like an indulgent, selfish thing, but this wine taster I met said “I think what I do matters, and I’m on a mission to help people enjoy wine, which has been a huge part of my life.” That’s purpose.

Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance is out on May 3.