Grit: Why Talent Needs Drive To Succeed

Penn’s Angela Duckworth discusses her book on the importance of grit.

What is grit? Angela Duckworth, a psychology professor at University of Pennsylvania’s School of Arts and Sciences, says it is the capacity to work hard and stay focused. In her recent book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, she explains why grit is necessary in addition to talent, and why talent needs the drive that grit provides in order for one be successful. Duckworth, a 2013 MacArthur Fellow, discussed her ideas on the Knowledge@Wharton show on Wharton Business Radio on SiriusXM channel 111. (Listen to the podcast at the top of this page.)


Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth

[drizzle]An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Knowledge@Wharton: Could you talk about grit affecting our successes? Where did the idea have its genesis?

Angela Duckworth: I could date it back to being a teacher, teaching math in the New York City public schools and seeing many kids. Just by sitting next to them and talking to them at lunch time, you knew they were smart enough to learn everything that you needed to teach them, but still weren’t succeeding [and] weren’t fulfilling that potential. I could date my interest in grit to that point, but it would be probably more complete if I dated it to childhood. I grew up with a father who was obsessed with achievement and I think I may [have] modeled or inherited an interest in what makes people successful from him.

Knowledge@Wharton: But taking a job in the New York Public School system after working in a corporate community required a little bit of grit in itself, correct?

Duckworth: Yes. the decision in some ways looked like a left turn or a detour. But in many ways, it was getting back to what was more meaningful to me as a person. I had spent my entire college career working with kids and the community in my spare time. Right after college, I started a summer school for low-income children and ran that full-time for two years. So in some ways, maybe the corporate world was the digression.

“Whatever your talent, you have to engage to realize that talent. We all have seen talent wasted.”

Knowledge@Wharton: Does it mean that maybe we need to have a little bit of philosophy in how we teach in schools and maybe what we see in schools?

Duckworth: As somebody that studies an individual’s capacity to work very hard and stay focused on things that matter to them, I would like to say, “Yes, a change in focus,” but maybe not the change in focus that most people would think I mean.

Many times, I hear, “If it really matters how hard you work, I’m going to put the responsibility on the shoulders of these kids. And if they don’t do well, it’s even more their fault than I used to think.” That’s exactly the wrong message. As educators and all of us in society, when a kid is not focused and when they are not achieving, the first question is, “What are we doing that isn’t actually working?”

The idea is: Can we be more psychologically wise about what we teach and how we teach? In fact, it rarely is exerting kids to work harder.

Knowledge@Wharton: Talent is obviously a factor in this, but sometimes, it’s not always talent. It has to be more the drive to be able to of reach your goals.

Duckworth: It’s not that talent doesn’t matter. I believe that talent exists. Some people prefer a world where we’re all equally talented in everything. Whether you prefer that world or not, I don’t think that world exists. But whatever your talent, you have to engage to realize that talent. We all have seen talent wasted. The engagement, the effort matters enormously.

“Drive can be encouraged by a wonderful teacher, an awesome soccer team — and it can be squashed as well.”

When people think of the word “drive,” they often think you have it or you don’t, and that’s where we’re wrong. Drive is something that can be encouraged by a wonderful teacher, by a terrific classroom environment, by an awesome soccer team that you are on, and it can be squashed as well.

Knowledge@Wharton: Several people talk about grit being something that you have. You may even be born with it. But you say in your book that this is something that also can be learned.

Duckworth: The “also” is crucial. People have always been asking, “Is it nature or nurture?” Are you born with it or do you develop it? The answer is, “Absolutely both.” It would be naive to discount the role of genes. But there’s also an enormous role for the people around them to nurture that nature. The real question is, what can we do with our genes, whatever they are, to be our best self?

Knowledge@Wharton: Data will prove whether or not this is proof of future success than, say, the SAT or an IQ test.

Duckworth: I will draw from the research of Jim Heckman, an economist at the University of Chicago. We collaborate closely. He has probably done the most comprehensive work on human capital and what predicts achievement in as many domains as you can name — crime, employment, relationships, stability, income or wealth.

Jim Heckman would say that what’s clear is that in the 20th century, economists thought it was largely a cognitive ability or IQ, and in the 21st century, we’re realizing that these “non-IQ” [factors] or your “character strengths” matter at least as much. Many things matter other than our measured intelligence, so let’s get to work on them.

Knowledge@Wharton: So it’s that next level of learning in society that we’re putting in because we’re in this timeframe where the data and the information are as important as the process itself?

Duckworth: Yes, one could argue that the 20th century’s major step forward was the semiconductor, because that led to computers. Now, information — like what you’re dispensing right now, talking to each other — is free. So, there are no more barriers to entry to knowledge. What will be the semiconductor of the 21st century? My argument is that the ‘semiconductor’ of the 21st century will be a solution to understanding behavior and behavior change.

Knowledge@Wharton: In terms of passing this information onto students or corporations, what’s the most important thing for them to understand about the difference between grit and talent? There’s probably a large difference between the two and how that can affect your future success.

Duckworth: Well, as Wharton students probably know already, people in business use the word “talent” in different ways. Sometimes HR or the CEO who’s looking for a new hire uses it broadly to mean everything they’re looking for — just everything. Other people use it more narrowly, including me. I define talent as the rate at which you get better at something when you try. To be very talented means you get better faster and more easily than other people or other things that you try.

“The ‘semiconductor’ of the 21st century will be a solution to understanding behavior and behavior change.”

Effort is your engagement. It’s the

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