POINT OF VIEW

Rotman Management Magazine - - CONTENT - An­gela Duck­worth

WHY ARE SOME PEO­PLE more suc­cess­ful than oth­ers? One ob­vi­ous an­swer is tal­ent; another is op­por­tu­nity. But even peo­ple who have com­pa­ra­ble lev­els of tal­ent and op­por­tu­nity of­ten en­joy strik­ingly dif­fer­ent lev­els of suc­cess. Ap­ply­ing the sci­en­tific method to this age-old ques­tion has yielded im­por­tant new in­sights re­gard­ing the de­ter­mi­nants of both ev­ery­day suc­cess and ex­tra­or­di­nary achieve­ment. What is lack­ing — and of cen­tral in­ter­est to me as a re­searcher — is an in­te­gra­tive frame­work for un­der­stand­ing the re­quire­ments for these two kinds of suc­cess.

The idea that the de­ter­mi­nants of ev­ery­day suc­cess dif­fer from the de­ter­mi­nants of ex­tra­or­di­nary achieve­ment goes back to the ear­li­est days of psy­chol­ogy. Sir Fran­cis Gal­ton (1822-1911) con­trasted ‘self-de­nial’ in the face of ‘hourly temp­ta­tions’ with what he con­sid­ered, other than tal­ent, to be the es­sen­tial fea­tures of high achiev­ers — namely, “zeal [and] the ca­pac­ity for hard labour.” What Gal­ton termed ‘self-de­nial’ is now re­ferred to as self-con­trol, which in­cludes both in­hibit­ing strong, but ul­ti­mately un­de­sir­able im­pulses and ac­ti­vat­ing weak, but ul­ti­mately de­sir­able im­pulses.

Gal­ton’s con­cep­tion of zeal and the ca­pac­ity for hard work cor­re­sponds to what I re­fer to as grit — a newer con- struct de­fined as ‘pas­sion for and per­se­ver­ance to­ward es­pe­cially long-term goals’. To­day, ‘self-con­trol’ and ‘grit’ are some­times used in­ter­change­ably. How­ever, de­spite over­lap in key un­der­ly­ing psy­cho­log­i­cal pro­cesses, they are not iden­ti­cal.

Like Gal­ton, both Sig­mund Freud and Wil­liam James spec­u­lated that the ca­pac­ity to reg­u­late at­ten­tion, emo­tion and be­hav­iour was es­sen­tial to ev­ery­day suc­cess. Stud­ies have con­firmed that higher lev­els of self-con­trol ear­lier in life pre­dict later aca­demic achieve­ment and at­tain­ment, pro-so­cial be­hav­iour, em­ploy­ment, earn­ings, sav­ings, and phys­i­cal health. In fact, self-con­trol pre­dicts many con­se­quen­tial out­comes at least as well as ei­ther gen­eral in­tel­li­gence or so­cioe­co­nomic sta­tus.

The psy­cho­log­i­cal pro­cesses that un­der­lie self-con­trol, once re­ferred to as ‘willpower’, are now com­ing into fo­cus. It is now un­der­stood that self-con­trol is re­quired when there is a con­flict be­tween two pos­si­ble ac­tion ten­den­cies (i.e., im­pulses) — one cor­re­spond­ing to a mo­men­tar­ily al­lur­ing goal and the other cor­re­spond­ing to a more val­ued goal whose ben­e­fits are de­ferred in time, more ab­stract, or oth­er­wise more psy­cho­log­i­cally dis­tant. Re­gard­less of the par­tic­u­lar type of im­pulse that is en­gaged (e.g., gob­bling up one sweet and chewy marsh­mal­low im­me­di­ately vs. wait­ing for two;

watch­ing tele­vi­sion vs. go­ing to the gym), it seems that com­mon pre­frontal brain ar­eas are in­volved in suc­cess­ful top­down reg­u­la­tion.

In ad­di­tion to di­rectly mod­u­lat­ing bot­tom-up im­pulses, both chil­dren and adults are ca­pa­ble of de­ploy­ing an ar­ray of cog­ni­tive and be­havioural strate­gies sec­onds, min­utes, or even hours in ad­vance of con­fronting temp­ta­tions. In gen­eral, the ca­pac­ity to ex­er­cise self-con­trol ap­pears to im­prove from in­fancy through adult­hood, in par­al­lel with the mat­u­ra­tion of pre­frontal brain ar­eas and metacog­ni­tive abil­i­ties (‘think­ing about think­ing’).

A newer lit­er­a­ture has be­gun to ex­plore the con­se­quences of pur­su­ing a pas­sion­ate in­ter­est with de­ter­mi­na­tion and ef­fort over the course of years. Stud­ies show that grit pre­dicts the com­ple­tion of chal­leng­ing goals de­spite ob­sta­cles and set­backs. For in­stance, in my own re­search I have found that grit­tier high school ju­niors in Chicago pub­lic schools are more likely to grad­u­ate on time one year later; grit­tier cadets are more likely than their less gritty peers to make it through the first ar­du­ous sum­mer at West Point; grit­tier novice teach­ers are more likely to stay in teach­ing, and among the teach­ers who do stay, those who are grit­tier are more ef­fec­tive.

Else­where, re­searchers found that in the Na­tional Spell­ing Bee, grit­tier com­peti­tors ac­cu­mu­late more hours of de­lib­er­ate prac­tice over the course of years, which in turn fully me­di­ates the ef­fect of grit on fi­nal rank­ing. Re­lated re­search has iden­ti­fied ‘har­mo­nious pas­sion’ (i.e., the in­ter­nal­iza­tion of a pas­sion­ate ac­tiv­ity into one’s iden­tity) as a pre­dic­tor of de­lib­er­ate prac­tice and, in turn, per­for­mance.

Many other stud­ies of ex­pert per­form­ers in di­verse do­mains have found that thou­sands of hours of ex­tremely ef­fort­ful de­lib­er­ate prac­tice are pre­req­ui­site for achiev­ing world-class lev­els of skill. If, as Woody Allen has sug­gested, ‘show­ing up’ is crucial to suc­cess in any en­deav­our, and if highly ef­fort­ful, fo­cused prac­tice is a nec­es­sary means to im­prov­ing in skill, then it may be that grit pre­dicts high achieve­ment by in­clin­ing in­di­vid­u­als to both show up and work very hard, con­tin­u­ously, to­wards a highly val­ued goal for years.

A Hi­er­ar­chi­cal Goal Frame­work

It is per­haps no won­der that self-con­trol and grit are of­ten used in­ter­change­ably. These two de­ter­mi­nants of suc­cess are highly cor­re­lated, and both pre­dict suc­cess out­comes over and above in­tel­li­gence. How­ever, some paragons of self-con­trol lead undis­tin­guished lives de­void of a fo­cused life-long pas­sion, and some gritty and ex­cep­tion­ally suc­cess­ful peo­ple are fa­mously undis­ci­plined in life do­mains other than their cho­sen pas­sion.

How are self-con­trol and grit sim­i­lar, and how are they dif­fer­ent? My col­leagues and I pro­pose that both their sim­i­lar­i­ties and their dif­fer­ences can be un­der­stood within a Hi­er­ar­chi­cal Goal Frame­work (see Fig­ure One). Fol­low­ing prom­i­nent mo­ti­va­tional ac­counts, we as­sume that goals are typ­i­cally or­ga­nized hi­er­ar­chi­cally, with lower-or­der goals serv­ing higher-or­der goals. Lower-or­der goals are more nu­mer­ous, con­text spe­cific, short-term, and sub­sti­tutable,

Self-con­trol pre­dicts con­se­quen­tial life out­comes at least as well as ei­ther gen­eral in­tel­li­gence or so­cioe­co­nomic sta­tus.

whereas higher-or­der goals are typ­i­cally fewer in num­ber, more ab­stract, more en­dur­ing, and more im­por­tant to the in­di­vid­ual. At any level in the goal hi­er­ar­chy, goals are more likely to be ac­ti­vated if they are ap­praised as be­ing both fea­si­ble and de­sir­able.

In­di­vid­u­als can have not only mul­ti­ple goals but also mul­ti­ple goal hi­er­ar­chies, and this mul­ti­plic­ity of mo­tives can lead to con­flicts. Within this frame­work, self-con­trol refers to the suc­cess­ful res­o­lu­tion of a con­flict be­tween two ac­tion im­pulses — one that cor­re­sponds to a goal that is more val­ued in the mo­ment, and another that cor­re­sponds to a goal that is of greater en­dur­ing value.

For ex­am­ple, Mon­day morn­ing may find a pro­fes­sor torn be­tween edit­ing a sec­tion of her grad­u­ate stu­dent’s man­u­script or, al­ter­na­tively, check­ing Us Weekly for the lat­est Hol­ly­wood gos­sip. The for­mer ac­tion is more valu­able in the long run, ad­vanc­ing the goals of sup­port­ing her stu­dent’s de­vel­op­ment and of pub­lish­ing em­pir­i­cal stud­ies. In con­trast, the ri­val ac­tion is mo­men­tar­ily more al­lur­ing — guar­an­teed to be ef­fort­less and amus­ing — but alas, in the long run, less valu­able in­so­far as it merely ad­vances the goal of hav­ing fun. So, whether by mod­u­lat­ing her ac­tion ten­den­cies in the heat of the mo­ment or, prefer­ably, by de­ploy­ing cog­ni­tive and be­havioural self-con­trol strate­gies ear­lier in time, the pro­fes­sor hopes to ex­er­cise self-con­trol and choose the man­u­script over the tabloid.

In our frame­work, grit en­tails hav­ing a dom­i­nant su­per­or­di­nate goal and tena­ciously work­ing to­ward it in the face of ob­sta­cles and set­backs. This su­per­or­di­nate goal sits at the top of a well-or­ga­nized goal hi­er­ar­chy in which lower-or­der goals are tightly aligned with the su­per­or­di­nate goal, and these lower-or­der goals in turn give rise to ef­fec­tive ac­tions that ad­vance the in­di­vid­ual to­ward the su­per­or­di­nate goal.

When faced with set­backs, gritty in­di­vid­u­als find a way for­ward by ‘sprout­ing’ new lower-or­der goals (or ac­tions). For in­stance, if a grant pro­posal or man­u­script is re­jected, tears may be shed, but soon enough, another fun­der or jour­nal out­let is iden­ti­fied and pur­sued. In other words, in a gritty in­di­vid­ual’s do­main of pas­sion­ate in­ter­est, goals or ac­tions deemed un­fea­si­ble are met with the re­sponse of an ac­tive search for — or even in­ven­tion of — vi­able al­ter­na­tives.

Viewed in this light, it is ev­i­dent that self-con­trol and grit both in­volve the de­fense of val­ued goals in the face of ad­ver­sity. Where they prin­ci­pally dif­fer is in the types of goals that are be­ing de­fended, the na­ture of the ‘en­emy’, and the timescale that is in­volved. Self-con­trol is re­quired to ad­ju­di­cate be­tween lower-level goals en­tail­ing nec­es­sar­ily con­flict­ing ac­tions. One can­not eat one’s cake and have it later, too. In con­trast, grit en­tails main­tain­ing al­le­giance to a high­est-level goal over long stretches of time and in the face of dis­ap­point­ments and set­backs.

Self-con­trol and grit have at­tracted in­creased in­ter­est in re­cent years, in no small part be­cause they seem more amenable to in­ter­ven­tion than other de­ter­mi­nants of suc­cess such as cog­ni­tive abil­ity and so­cioe­co­nomic sta­tus. We are op­ti­mistic that a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of the psy­cho­log­i­cal pro­cesses un­der­ly­ing self-con­trol and grit could, in fact, lead to high-im­pact, cost-ef­fec­tive in­ter­ven­tions.

With re­spect to in­ter­ven­tions, the pro­posed frame­work im­plies that self-con­trol is a skill or ca­pac­ity, which, like other skills and ca­pac­i­ties, might be im­proved with train­ing and prac­tice.

Grit, in con­trast, is as much about mo­ti­va­tion as vo­li­tion. Stud­ies be­gin­ning in child­hood and ex­tend­ing across the life course are needed to ex­am­ine how in­di­vid­u­als de­velop su­per­or­di­nate goals of such com­pelling per­sonal sig­nif­i­cance that that they in­spire life­long al­le­giance de­spite in­nu­mer­able al­ter­na­tive pur­suits and in­evitable mis­takes, fail­ures, and other ob­sta­cles. Very gen­er­ally, we as­sume that com­mit­ment to a su­per­or­di­nate goal is a func­tion of that goal’s fea­si­bil­ity and de­sir­abil­ity, and thus that the di­verse psy­cho­log­i­cal an­tecedents to such val­u­a­tions (e.g., growth mind­set, op­ti­mism, at­tri­bu­tion style, lo­cus of con­trol, coun­ter­fac­tual style, core self-eval­u­a­tion, in­trin­sic mo­ti­va­tion, in­ter­est, ap­proaches to hap­pi­ness) are log­i­cal tar­gets for in­ter­ven­tion and in­quiry.

In clos­ing

Re­search on self-con­trol has il­lu­mi­nated the im­por­tance — and in­her­ent dif­fi­culty — of align­ing ac­tions with val­ued goals when mo­men­tar­ily more re­ward­ing ac­tions be­come avail­able. Sep­a­rate re­search on grit has sug­gested that in­di­vid­u­als dif­fer in their pur­suit of su­per­or­di­nate goals of en­dur­ing sig­nif­i­cance. Our hi­er­ar­chi­cal-goal per­spec­tive on self-con­trol and grit ad­vances the un­der­stand­ing of the re­lated but dis­tinct psy­cho­log­i­cal mech­a­nisms that un­der­lie these two key de­ter­mi­nants of suc­cess.

An­gela Duck­worth is the Christo­pher Browne Dis­tin­guished Pro­fes­sor of Psy­chol­ogy at the Univer­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia and the au­thor of Grit:

The Power of Pas­sion and Perserver­ance (Collins, 2016). She is also the founder and sci­en­tific di­rec­tor of the Char­ac­ter Lab, whose mis­sion is to ad­vance the sci­ence and prac­tice of char­ac­ter de­vel­op­ment. This ar­ti­cle sum­ma­rizes her pa­per, “Self-con­trol and Grit: Re­lated but Sep­a­ra­ble De­ter­mi­nants of Suc­cess”, co-au­thored with Stan­ford’s James Gross and pub­lished in Cur­rent Di­rec­tions in Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sci­ence.

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