“You’re no genius”: Her father’s shutdowns made Angela Duckworth a world expert on grit

Angela Duckworth knows grit—and how to get it.
Angela Duckworth knows grit—and how to get it.
Image: Alan Mark
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Angela Duckworth is the world’s leading expert on “grit,” the much-hyped ingredient in personal success. As Duckworth defines it, grit is passion and sustained persistence applied toward long-term achievement, with no particular concern for rewards or recognition along the way. It combines resilience, ambition, and self-control in the pursuit of goals that take months, years, or even decades.

The University of Pennsylvania psychologist’s studies of grit began when she was teaching math to seventh graders. She realized IQ wasn’t the only factor separating successful students from those who struggled, and that grit—holding steadfast to a goal through time—was highly predictive of success. She then spent years analyzing the short- and long term effects of grit on people’s performance in school, at work, and in personal relationships, and published her research in Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, a New York Times bestseller documenting how grit predicts long-term success in nearly every realm of life (a theory also explained in her viral TED Talk).

Today Duckworth is a sought-after speaker on human behavior and the founder and CEO of Character Lab, a nonprofit whose mission is to advance the science and practice of character development (including, but not limited to grit). Quartz caught up with her after her keynote address at the Qualtrics X4 Experience Management Summit, a conference about brand experience, held in March in Salt Lake City, Utah. The following transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Quartz: What’s your own “grit” story? How did you personally develop your grit?

Angela Duckworth: So, my dad definitely looms large in my biography, as I think dads do for a lot of people. Growing up I had a family headed by a father who was singularly obsessed with achievement—his own, and that of others. He was always asking: Who is the bigger genius, Mozart or Beethoven? Matisse or Picasso? These are the type of debates we would have over dinner.

So I did grow up to be someone who is ambitious, but also someone who never had the self-concept of being a genius or someone who is gifted. I think the way he regarded me did actually raise the question in my mind of, “So, if you’re not especially gifted, and you’re ambitious to do something—great, how are you going to do it?”

I don’t think it was conscious, but I’ve always had the identity of someone who is, you know, “I’ll show you.” These are the words that go through my head when people tell me I can’t do something, which is signature self-talk to the kind of people I study.

QZ: Can you unpack the psychology behind “I’ll show you” self-talk?

AD: It’s typically in response to “you cannot,” when someone says you’re not on the team, you didn’t make the cut, or you’re not good enough. “I’ll show you” is essentially “I’ll prove you wrong.”

Bill McRaven, the retired United States Navy admiral, in his book Make Your Bed, explains how he had one officer who he really believed in, and when he was going through weed-out challenges, he leaned over and whispered in his ear “prove me wrong.” These words are in the same vein as “I’ll show you”—McRaven was giving that officer encouragement. Many gritty people have the underdog mentality, and I think I’ve always had that, given the way I was raised.

QZ: Is the underdog mentality natural, and something that manifests at a young age, or can it can be developed?

AD: Most of the research and psychology says that people change much more after childhood than you first would think. There are all these Biblical phrases like “show me the child at seven, and I’ll show you the man,” or Freud, who thought everything interesting happened in childhood, that there was no growth after that. But neuroscience and longitudinal research on people suggests that people change a lot actually, and they change sometimes in dramatic ways.

If you look at the data on personality change, the first thing you note is that people’s personalities change in every dimension, but what that data obscures is that if you gather 100 people’s personality change, and you take their average, what the data looks like is gradual growth. For instance, most people become more conscientious, more dependable, more agreeable, more wise, and more emotionally stable as they mature.

But what those averages obscure is that really what’s going on is some people are not changing nearly at all, while some people are making dramatic changes. For example, psychotherapy has enormous effects that are lasting beyond the last therapy session, and that is proof that people can change the way they interact with the world. So I believe in change, and I think I was pretty gritty as a child, but I know I’ve gotten grittier as I’ve gotten older, and I don’t think my grit was welded in place when I was seven.

QZ: Do you think knowing about grit as a concept, and its benefits, makes you grittier?

AD: I don’t actually think it’s a panacea—so I don’t think if you know about grit, like you read a book about grit or understand it, that you automatically become grittier, but I think it can help.

For example, because I know the psychology of failure, and I’m able to quickly recognize when I fall victim to the unproductive self-talk people engage in after something doesn’t work out. When I find myself saying things like, “Oh my god, I’m never going to be able to do that, no one will ever give us money for our nonprofit,” it’s very helpful to have the metacognitive understanding that this self-talk is normal to experience, and that it’s not going to last forever.

The first time I was on Freakonomics, the podcast, Steven Dubner got me to tell him what I really thought—and I don’t have data on it—but what I really thought about people who are successful and happy. I said to him people who have some metacognitive understanding of themselves—like they can look at themselves and honestly understand like what they’re doing well and what they’re not doing well—eventually they will heal themselves.

Eventually, they will mediate their weaknesses and raise their strengths. People who have no self-awareness, they’re the ones you really worry about; they may be okay on certain dimensions, but they’re never going to grow. So yeah, I’m a big fan of metacognitive awareness.

QZ: So back to your life a bit. You grew up in household where it was really encouraged to be hyper-successful, and yet you didn’t think of yourself as a genius. Which is ironic, given you’re literally a MacArthur Genius. What made you think that you weren’t extremely intelligent then, and how did that change as you got older?

My father would literally say things like “you’re no genius,” to me. (There was, in fact, a great irony and redemption to the MacArthur Fellowship.) But he would also say things to my mother, who was an amateur painter, like “you’re no Picasso.” He would say to my sister and me, “you’re never going to win a beauty pageant.” He would say these things, and it makes him sound like a horrible person, but I think really what was going on is that people often talk to themselves while they’re talking to you. So I think he was not measuring up to his own aspirations, and it was just leaking out of him.

The blessing of all this is that I never did think I was a genius. I’ve never been that kind of fragile person who felt like everything was supposed to be perfect and that I was supposed to be the smartest person in the room. I think some people are brought up with their parents saying, “you’re perfect,” you know, “everything you do is right.” And then as life happens, it’s not that way, and it’s really harder for them than for people who got that dosage all along.

Small wins are enormously important. We look at people and we say, “Oh, they have this outside confidence,” but really one of the things that builds confidence is actual evidence that you’re on the right path.

For example, when I was a graduate student in psychology I submitted my first paper to a top-tier journal—and it got in. I mean, yes, it had to be revised. But that victory fueled my confidence, and gave me the chutzpah to try the next thing. So if you’re trying to motivate yourself, or a team member, or kid, you can’t just talk people into confidence. If they have a track record of failure after failure, then you do need to figure out, how do I make it possible for this person to have a small win?

QZ: How do you set up situations that will facilitate small wins? Say you have an employee who is mediocre, not great, doesn’t make more money for the company than anyone else, but isn’t an abject failure. How do you steer them, as a manager, into a world in which they can have a small win?

AD: You need to break down big goals into smaller and smaller parts, and then you need to give them the part that they’re almost able to do, and with support can do. Actually, that’s a lesson from child psychology. If you look at little kids who are learning to walk or learning to read, they might not be able to take the next developmental step on their own, but with a little support this next step becomes just within their reach.

It’s called the zone of proximal development—you’re supposed to have kids just proximal to what they can do, just proximal to the next frontier.

And if you’re a good manager or a good coach, that’s what you do, too. Great coaches can take a back handspring and fractionate it into tiny parts. If you’re a great manager, you will give somebody something that they’re just able to do with support, then once they’re able to do that [on their own], you give them the next thing they’re just able to do, and that’s how they grow.

QZ: How does feedback play into small wins—is it important to call out, praise, or reinforce each small win?

I think, personally, that people need to be praised. Human beings don’t learn very well when there’s no feedback. It’s the job of the manager to give both praise and critique.

For example on my team, after everything we do, we give two pieces of feedback—one positive, one critical. For critical feedback we do an “NTT” which stands for “Next Time Try.” So if I was up on stage giving a presentation, the next day my team will give me my “next time tries”: Next time try to use the left side of stage, next time speak slower, or speak faster. Then we do an “IWEW,” which stands for “It Was Effective When,” like, it was effective when you said this anecdote, or when you asked this question. 

NTTs and IWEWs are particularly helpful because they’re action-oriented—after saying “it was effective when you,” you have to say a verb, and you have to be specific. In general feedback is much better when it’s specific, and when it’s really direct.

I have a colleague whose done studies of expert tutors. He looks at the top 1% of tutors, and what he finds is that they don’t waste a lot of time saying like, “You’re smart,” or “You’re great at math,” or “You’re bad at math.” They spend 99% of their attention on the actual workso their feedback is very specific, it’s like, “Oh no, don’t divide by seven,” or, “You have to divide on both sides.”

I think that’s a good lesson for managers—you have to take a big goal, fraction it in tiny parts, and realize that whoever it is that you’re mentoring, they’re going to be where they are. You can’t give them something to do that they can’t yet do. And then your feedback should be very specific, even if it sounds overly simplistic. Like: “It was really great that you wrote that memo. I liked that it had a really strong executive summary, and it was spell-checked, awesome job.” That enforces the small win. Then you can say, “Ok, what’s the next challenge?”

QZ: What does grit look like when you’re already successful? What do you envision your own sense of grit looking like 10 years from now?

AD: Like everyone I study, as soon as I’m in a comfortable place, I make myself uncomfortable again. If you asked me how was last week, I would not say, “Oh, it was great, it was easy.” I would tell you about how I had a meeting with a funder who I thought was going to give me $1.5 million, and it looks like she’s going to pass this year. I would tell you that I did a meeting with a team, which I thought could’ve been more effective, and I could have been more supportive. I’m constantly thinking about what I haven’t done.

It’s often said of people who write books that there’s a mini-depression after you write it. And I think it’s because human beings are actually happiest in the pursuit of goals; maybe that’s why our founding fathers said the “pursuit of happiness,” not the obtaining of happiness.

When you have that small depression after you write a story, or after you write a book, or after you win some prize, the antidote is to set another goal. So my sights are now set on trying to understand character—which is not just grit, it’s a lot of things that I don’t know very much about, like curiosity, empathy, gratitude, and generosity. That’s the next goal.

This story is part of How We’ll Win, a project exploring the fight for gender equality at work. Read more stories here.