© 2024 WKNO FM
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Forget Talent, Success Comes From 'Grit'


You know that Thomas Edison quote genius is 1 percent inspiration, 99 percent perspiration? Well, that's pretty much the basis of our next guest's work. Psychologist Angela Duckworth is best known for her research on grit, and it's become a buzzword in the field of education. Duckworth started her career as a teacher, and she was puzzled by something she repeatedly saw in her classroom.

Some of her students were quick studies, picking up the material easily. But they didn't necessarily do all that well in her class. Meanwhile, other students who struggled at first but tried and tried again, they did really well. She's done lots of research on why that is - what makes people successful in the classroom, in the boardroom and on the field. Angela Duckworth lays it all out in her new book called "Grit." She joins us now on the line. Angela, thanks for being with us.

ANGELA DUCKWORTH: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Define grit for me.

DUCKWORTH: Grit, in a word, is stamina. But it's not just stamina in your effort. It's also stamina in your direction, stamina in your interests. If you are working on different things but all of them very hard, you're not really going to get anywhere. You'll never become an expert.

MARTIN: So that means focus to some degree.

DUCKWORTH: Exactly, but focus over time, not just in the moment.

MARTIN: If someone unequivocally demonstrates the qualities that you define as gritty, can they quit something?

DUCKWORTH: You're not gritty if you're, like, gritty about some, you know, very particular item on your to-do list like get the email sent to this one particular person. That's not what grit's about. Grit is typically about an overarching, generally abstract goal that motivates everything that you do.

Let me give you an example. When kids are, as they should be, exploring new interests - taking up a sport for the first time, figure out whether they like biology, you know, trying to know whether they're going to be a doctor when they grow up or a baker - it's very important that they quit things because quitting is necessary for exploration. The older you get, however, I think the more we should try, at least, to find things that we can do for a little longer so that there's something that we could call a deepening expertise. And that, I think, is something you for sure see in mature, paragon of grit, someone who really exemplifies passion and perseverance.

MARTIN: Well, and this is the mucky area of parenting too, right? If your kid comes to you after trying a new sport or an instrument for just a month and just says this is just not for me, Mom.

DUCKWORTH: I haven't met a parent yet who has not encountered that exact dilemma, right? I mean, my daughters wanted to quit things, you know, just like anybody else's sons or daughters. Here's my advice. It's a very good thing to teach kids to finish what they started in the sense of fulfilling their commitments. So when my daughter told me on the second track meet that she was done with it because she discovered she didn't like competing, I made her finish the season. And when my other daughter came home crying because her ballet teacher scolded her for not holding her arms the right way and said I quit, I said I'm going to let you quit as soon as this tuition payment is over.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

DUCKWORTH: It's a natural ending. You fulfilled your - until then, you're going back to that ballet class and you do your best.

MARTIN: So let's talk about measuring grit because this is something that's been debated in terms of education and standards. And you have weighed in on this. You wrote an op-ed in The New York Times saying that while schools have kind of recognized now that grit is a good thing, that it shouldn't necessarily be an official academic assessment. Why not?

DUCKWORTH: It is both inappropriate and frankly, at this point, impossible to accurately gauge grit for any kind of high-stakes accountability, either rewarding or punishing the kid for their grit or lack thereof or their teacher or school. The measures are simply not precise enough. They're entirely fakeable (ph). I finish whatever I begin. I think any clever person would be able to figure out the, quote, "right answer" to that one.

I think the very idea of character, of developing not just grit, but empathy and curiosity, emotional intelligence - you know, the things that I want my own daughters to develop, the idea that we're going to get there through rewards and punishments seems completely at odds with the idea of character itself.

MARTIN: Does it frustrate you at all that your research has been used as a way to create yet another measurement in public schools, one that you disagree with?

DUCKWORTH: Well, I think any researcher who has their articles read by more than seven other human beings...

MARTIN: (Laughter).

DUCKWORTH: ...Does a little bit of a jig of joy because it's an unusual occurrence. And in the sense that my work has helped, I think, change the conversation a bit to talk about what's going on with schools and how we are encouraging effort, that's great. But to the extent that we kind of take those findings and go farther than the science is able to inform us that it's ready to go, I think that's very dangerous.

MARTIN: Angela Duckworth is a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. Her new book is called "Grit." Thanks so much for talking with us.

DUCKWORTH: Thank you. It's been a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.