Grit for Success: Angela Duckworth investigates the root causes of success

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

By Sacha Adorno

Why do some people succeed and others fail? Is it raw talent or intelligence? Or something more? Angela Duckworth, professor of psychology, posits the answer is simply, but powerfully, grit—a steely combination of passion and long-term perseverance for a singular goal. The pioneering educator and researcher discusses the implications of stick-to-itivness and tenacity in Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, her first book.

Grit offers new insights into Duckworth’s landmark research on stamina, self-control, and other non-IQ competencies that predict success. Among these insights: Why effort counts twice toward goals, how lifelong interest is triggered, if warm embraces or high standards are better for children, and whether grit can be learned regardless of IQ or environmental, economic, and other circumstances.

Duckworth shares lessons from history, literature, and her own interviews with high-profile, high-grit people in tech, sports, media, science, finance, education, arts and culture, and more. She also walks readers through two places—West Point and the National Spelling Bee—where stratospheric IQ scores abound but grit often determines who remains standing.

Angela Duckworth, professor of psychology

Photo credit: Max Nesterak

The book argues that accomplished people in these areas share similar characteristics. “No matter the domain, the highly successful had a kind of ferocious determination that played out in two ways,” says Duckworth. “First, these exemplars were unusually resilient and hardworking. Second, they knew in a very deep way what it was they wanted. They not only had determination, they had direction.”

Duckworth came to this interest in character by way of her personal experiences as a former McKinsey management consultant; math teacher in Philadelphia, New York, and San Francisco’s toughest public schools; and founder of a summer school for children from disinvested communities.

Although she has spent years studying the subject, her research can guide all of us who are looking to develop grit or encourage it in others. “Really, everyone is a psychologist,” Duckworth explains. “We’re always trying to figure out ourselves, our kids, the people with whom we work. Why do we do what we do? Why do we sometimes give up on things we care about, and how do we come to care about those things in the first place? In this book, I use both stories and statistics to communicate some fundamental insights about the psychology of achievement.”

Published in early May, Grit is making waves—a distinguished and diverse group of notables have praised it and media outlets like PBS Newshour, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, CNN, and Freakanomics Radio have covered it.

“I’m thrilled the book is being read! Writing it was the hardest thing, by far, I’ve ever done,” reflects Duckworth, a 2013 MacArthur Fellow and founder and scientific director of Character Lab, a national nonprofit with the mission to advance the science and practice of character development. “My husband insisted that a book that put together the most important scientific insights into the psychology of high achievers would be appreciated. I guess he was right!”