Angela Duckworth: The Psychology of ‘Grit’

Angela Duckworth is a world-leading psychologist, who left her demanding job in management consulting to teach seventh grade mathematics in New York.

While she was teaching, she noticed that IQ wasn’t the only factor that separated her best and worst students. Some of her smartest students weren’t doing as well as they could, and some of her strongest performers did not have amazing SAT scores.

In her TED Talk, Angela explains that, “the one thing we know how to measure best in education is IQ. But what if doing well in school and in life, depends on much more than learning quickly and easily?”

What Angela was referring to – and is now a world-expert in - is grit. Grit is a combination of passion and persistence towards a long-term goal, with no particular concern for rewards or recognition along the way.

It combines resilience, ambition, and self-control, treating life like a marathon rather than a sprint. “Grit is having stamina, and sticking with your future, day in and day out, not just for the week or month, and working really hard to make that future a reality.”

Angela left her teaching job and went to graduate school to become a psychologist. She studied children and adults in all kinds of settings: personnel in a military academy; competitors, parents and judges at the National Spelling Bee and teachers and their pupils in schools in tough neighbourhoods. In every setting, she asked the same question: Who is successful here, and why?

Across all of the contexts Angela studied these people in, the one characteristic that emerged as a significant predictor of success was grit! Indeed, grit, not IQ, but sheer determination and tenacity.

Following this, Angela Duckworth started studying grit in Chicago public schools. She asked thousands of high school students to take grit questionnaires, and then waited around more than a year to find out who would graduate. She found that the ‘grittier’ students were, the more likely they were to graduate. Even when matched on every other factor (variable) like SAT scores, family income, and even how safe they felt when they were at school, grit proved to be the winning point.

Can we become ‘grittier’?

There is little scientific knowledge about grit, and how to grow it. It is certain that talent doesn’t make you gritty, as there are many talented individuals who do not follow through on their commitments and who, despite their talent, do not become successful.

So when it's not talent that makes us succeed, the closest idea we have to building grit in ourselves is something called the ‘growth mindset.’ This idea was developed at Stanford University by Carol Dweck, and it is the belief that the ability to learn is not fixed (IQ) – but that it can change with effort. If one puts in the work and effort, the brain’s capacity can grow and will prove to be much more able than the brain of someone with high IQ which is stationary.

Clever people who just rely on their brain to get where they want to go, but do not do much work, will almost always be academically less successful than their more studious and curious peers.

Dweck has shown that when teenagers read about the brain and how it changes and grows in response to challenges, they’re much more likely to persevere when they fail, because they realise that failure is not a permanent condition.

So, in the words of Angela Duckworth, to build grit: “we need to take our best ideas, our strongest intuitions, and we need to test them. We have to be willing to fail, to be wrong, and to start over with lessons learned”. That is what makes us successful.

Recommended Links: – Angela Duckworth’s Ted Talk

‘Mindset ‘the psychology of success’ by Dr Carol Dweck. 2017