The Washington Post Sunday
What a bit of “grit” could add to your business venture.
The buzzy concept of “grit” — made famous by University of Pennsylvania psychologist Angela Duckworth, who won a MacArthur Fellowship for her work on the topic and whose “TED Talk” on it has been viewed more than 8 million times — is most commonly associated with schools.
In recent years, Duckworth’s concept, which says that a combination of perseverance and passion helps predict a person’s success, has become both a popular and controversial idea in the education world. Some schools have even rushed to adopt ways of measuring it and testing for it — an idea to which Duckworth, a former teacher herself, is opposed.
But in her new book, “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance,” Duckworth writes about “grit” in many other settings: on the athletic field, in the military and in business. She interviews or highlights how leaders from a variety of fields — JPMorgan Chase chief executive Jamie Dimon, Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill women’s soccer coach Anson Dorrance, Philadelphia Mural Arts Program Executive Director Jane Golden — think about grit.
We spoke with Duckworth, who also founded Character Lab, a nonprofit organization that aims to advance research on character development. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What’s it like to win the MacArthur Fellowship — often called a “genius grant” — when you heard your father say, growing up, “you’re no genius,” as you wrote in the preface of your book?
I was of course elated and grateful. But as soon as those emotions got a little bit under control, I thought back to my dad. I knew he would be proud of me, because he’s so interested in outward accomplishments.
As I said in the book, particularly in the last chapter, I have a “growth mind-set” about my parents, too. The father I had as a little girl was not the same father I had as a teenager or as a young woman in her 20s or now a woman in my 40s. My dad was not a still shot. My dad also grew up, like every parent does. I think he was both genuinely proud of me, and also, I think he had a slightly wiser perspective on life by that point.
You mention “growth mindset,” a term from Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck’s work. Can you explain that?
In the most general terms, having a growth mind-set is believing that people are by nature learning, growing creatures.
Indeed, one argument of your book is that you can grow “grit.” But let’s define the concept first.
I think that the most succinct definition of grit is stamina. The heart of grit is really about sticking with things, as opposed to dropping out of them. There’s two ways that’s important. One is stamina of your effort: You keep trying, even when things are going badly. Part of grit is stamina of your efforts in the face of adversity, but there’s also just the everyday stamina of, say, getting up at 4:30 in the morning and just going to the pool again or sitting down at your computer and working.
There’s also stamina in your passion. One thing that’s true of gritty people is they love what they do and they keep loving what they do. [New York Times crossword puzzle editor] Will Shortz is still interested in crossword puzzles. He’s been doing crossword puzzles since he was 8. He says if you’re bored of puzzles, you’re bored of life. Most people who are enduringly interested in something eventually find that it’s important, too — and important to other people. Few people can keep going
their whole life doing something and feel like it’s merely personally fascinating. Most people who develop a sense of purpose in their work are gritty.
Do business leaders do a good job of measuring this concept?
I haven’t met the company who has said to me, “we figured everything out, we absolutely know how to hire these gritty people.”
Grit, by definition, is sticking with things for a long time. How are you going to get at that in a 45-minute interview? It’s not a trivial problem to solve. My best idea so far is to look for evidence of grit in something, even if it’s unrelated to what you’re hiring for. I know a lot of CEOs who are looking for three- to four-year varsity athletes — not necessarily because these people are going to be doing push-ups or spiking volleyballs in the workplace, but because they’re looking for that continuity, that person who was gritty about something.
There’s a chapter in the book titled “A Culture of Grit.” How can leaders develop an environment that helps people be more persistent and passionate?
I’m of the school of thought that leaders do matter. I think that a strong leader is emulated — not just imitated. If you want a gritty culture, you should have a gritty leader, because they will set the pace for the organization.
I think one of the things that’s true about leadership is also true about parenting — the best combination is to be challenging or tough but also supportive or loving. That expression “tough love” actually has some scientific basis. People grow up best — whether they’re in a company or a family — when the people who are in charge are challenging. They often say things like, “this isn’t good enough; I think we could do better.” At the same time, they are, in a really authentic way, unconditionally supportive.
Just before the call today, I finished a board meeting for my nonprofit. And let me tell you, this board is challenging and supportive. There’s nothing I told them that they didn’t give me 300 ways it could be better: “Great — but did you do this, this and this?” I know they have my back, and they think this work is important.
But how do you create that culture?
As [Seattle Seahawks head coach] Pete Carroll said to me, “It’s not one thing, it’s a million things.” But there are some themes. One is language. It’s important to have a vocabulary that’s used within that organization, and not to use synonyms. The second is rituals: You can ritualize things like working on your weaknesses — at the Seahawks, they call it “Tell the Truth Monday,” so it becomes a routine. On Mondays, we look at the things we’re doing wrong. Tuesdays, we do something different. I think that’s helpful.
The third is that in group psychology, you basically create an identity. When people who work in a very strong culture identify themselves, they often use a noun form, such as a West Pointer. Or at KIPP, the charter school, you call yourself a KIPPster. When you break down what a culture is, it’s reinforcing an identity of “this is who we are.”
That Princeton professor who put this résumé of his failures together made me think of your book. Would you like to see more leaders do that?
I think it’s so brilliant, which is why I tweeted about it. In my own lab, I send out all my rejection letters as soon as I get them. You get these really long, singlespaced rejection letters from journals saying how poorly written it was, how uninteresting it was, how methodologically flawed it was — it goes on and on and on in excruciating detail. I don’t want to shame people, but when it’s my own work, I always send it out.
Being strong enough to show people when you’re weak — it’s a goal of mine, and it’s also something I noted about a lot of the gritty individuals whom I profiled.