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In this must-read book for anyone striving to succeed, pioneering psychologist Angela Duckworth shows parents, educators, athletes, students, and business people-both seasoned and new-that the secret to outstanding achievement is not talent but a focused persistence called “grit.”Why do some people succeed and others fail?
Sharing new insights from her landmark research on grit, MacArthur “genius” Angela Duckworth explains why talent is hardly a guarantor of success. Rather, other factors can be even more crucial such as identifying our passions and following through on our commitments.
Drawing on her own powerful story as the daughter of a scientist who frequently bemoaned her lack of smarts, Duckworth describes her winding path through teaching, business consulting, and neuroscience, which led to the hypothesis that what really drives success is not “genius” but a special blend of passion and long-term perseverance. As a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Duckworth created her own “character lab” and set out to test her theory.
Here, she takes readers into the field to visit teachers working in some of the toughest schools, cadets struggling through their first days at West Point, and young finalists in the National Spelling Bee. She also mines fascinating insights from history and shows what can be gleaned from modern experiments in peak performance.
Finally, she shares what she’s learned from interviewing dozens of high achievers-from JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon to the cartoon editor of The New Yorker to Seattle Seahawks Coach Pete Carroll.
Winningly personal, insightful, and even life-changing, Grit is a book about what goes through your head when you fall down, and how that-not talent or luck-makes all the difference.
When I told my father I wouldn’t be taking the MCAT exam for medical school and, instead, would devote myself to creating the Summerbridge program, he was apoplectic. “Why do you care about poor kids? They’re not family! You don’t even know them!” I now realize why. All my life, I’d seen what one person—my mother—could do to help many others. I’d witnessed the power of purpose.
There’s an old Japanese saying:
Fall seven, rise eight
. If I were ever to get a tattoo, I’d get these four simple words indelibly inked.
What is hope?
One kind of hope is the expectation that tomorrow will be better than today. It’s the kind of hope that has us yearning for sunnier weather, or a smoother path ahead. It comes without the burden of responsibility. The onus is on the universe to make things better.
Grit depends on a different kind of hope. It rests on the expectation that our own efforts can improve our future.
I have a feeling tomorrow will be better
is different from
I resolve to make tomorrow better
. The hope that gritty people have has nothing to do with luck and everything to do with
getting up again.
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In the spring semester of my first year of college, I enrolled in neurobiology.
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I would come to each class early and sit in the front row, where I’d copy every equation and diagram into my notebook. Outside of lecture, I did all the assigned readings and required problem sets. Going into
the first quiz, I was a little shaky in a few areas—it was a tough course, and my high school biology coursework left a lot to be desired—but on the whole I felt pretty confident.
The quiz started out fine but quickly became more difficult. I began to panic, thinking over and over:
I’m not going to finish! I have no idea what I’m doing! I’m going to fail!
This, of course, was a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more my mind was crowded by those heart-palpitating thoughts, the less I could concentrate. Time ran out before I’d even read the last problem.
A few days later, the professor handed back the quiz. I looked down disconsolately at my miserable grade and, shortly thereafter, shuffled into the office of my assigned teaching assistant. “You should really consider dropping this course,” he advised. “You’re just a freshman. You have three more years. You can always take the class later.”
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“I took AP Bio in high school,” I countered.
“How did you do?”
“I got an A, but my teacher didn’t teach us much, which is probably why I didn’t take the actual AP exam.” This confirmed his intuition that I should drop the course.
Virtually the same scenario repeated itself with the midterm, for which I’d studied madly, and after which, I found myself in the teaching assistant’s office once again. This time his tone was more urgent. “You do
want a failing grade on your transcript. It’s not too late to withdraw from the course. If you do, nothing will get factored into your GPA.”
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I thanked him for his time and closed the door behind me. In the hallway, I surprised myself by not crying. Instead, I reviewed the facts of the situation: two failures and only one more exam—the final—before the end of the semester. I realized I should have started out in a lower-level course, and now, more than halfway through the semester, it was obvious my energetic studying wasn’t proving sufficient. If I stayed, there was a good chance I’d choke on the final and end up with an F on my transcript. If I dropped the course, I’d cut my losses.
I curled my hands into fists, clenched my jaw, and marched directly to the registrar’s office. At that moment, I’d resolved to stay enrolled in—and, in fact,
Looking back on that pivotal day, I can see that I’d been knocked down—or, more accurately, tripped on my own two feet and fell flat on my face. Regardless, it was a moment when I could have stayed down. I could have said to myself:
I’m an idiot! Nothing I do is good enough!
And I could have dropped the class.
Instead, my self-talk was defiantly hopeful:
I won’t quit! I can figure this out!
For the rest of the semester, I not only tried harder, I tried things I hadn’t done before. I went to every teaching assistants’ office hours. I asked for extra work. I practiced doing the most difficult problems under time pressure—mimicking the conditions under which I needed to produce a flawless performance. I knew my nerves were going to be a problem at exam time, so I resolved to attain a level of mastery where nothing could surprise me. By the time the final exam came around, I felt like I could have written it myself.
I aced the final. My overall grade in the course was a B—the lowest grade I’d get in four years, but, ultimately, the one that made me the proudest.
Little did I know when I was foundering in my neurobiology class that I was re-creating the conditions of a famous psychology experiment.
Let me wind back the clock to 1964. Two first-year psychology doctoral students named Marty Seligman and Steve Maier are in a windowless laboratory, watching a caged dog receive electric shocks to its back paws. The shocks come randomly and without warning. If the dog does nothing, the shock lasts five seconds, but if the dog pushes its nose against a panel at the front of the cage, the shock ends early. In a separate cage, another dog is receiving the same shocks at exactly the
same intervals, but there’s no panel to push on. In other words, both dogs get the exact same dosage of shock at the exact same times, but only the first dog is in control of how long each shock lasts. After sixty-four shocks, both dogs go back to their home cages, and new dogs are brought in for the same procedure.
The next day, one by one, all the dogs are placed in a different cage called a shuttle box. In the middle, there’s a low wall, just high enough that the dogs can leap the barrier if they try. A high-pitched tone plays, heralding an impending shock, which comes through the floor of the half of the shuttle box where the dog is standing. Nearly all the dogs who had control over the shocks the previous day learn to leap the barrier. They hear the tone and jump over the wall to safety. In contrast, two-thirds of the dogs who had
control over the shocks the previous day just lie down whimpering, passively waiting for
the punishments to stop.
This seminal experiment proved for the first time that it isn’t suffering that leads to hopelessness. It’s suffering you think you can’t control.
Many years after deciding to major in the subject I was failing, I sat in a graduate student cubicle a few doors down from Marty’s office, reading about this experiment on learned helplessness. I quickly saw the parallels to my earlier experience. The first neurobiology quiz brought unexpected pain. I struggled to improve my situation, but when the midterm came, I got shocked again. The shuttle box was the rest of the semester. Would I conclude from my earlier experience that I was helpless to change my situation? After all, my immediate experience suggested that two disastrous outcomes would be followed by a third.
Or would I be like the few dogs who, despite recent memories of uncontrollable pain, held fast to hope? Would I consider my earlier suffering to be the result of particular mistakes I could avoid in the future? Would I expand my focus beyond the recent past, remembering the many times I’d shrugged off failure and eventually prevailed?
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As it turns out, I behaved like the one-third of dogs in Marty and Steve’s study that persevered. I got up again and kept fighting.
In the decade following that 1964 experiment, additional experiments revealed that suffering without control reliably produces symptoms of clinical depression, including changes in appetite and physical activity, sleep problems, and poor concentration.
When Marty and Steve first proposed that animals and people can
that they are helpless, their theory was considered downright absurd by fellow researchers. Nobody at the time took seriously the possibility that dogs could have thoughts that then influenced their behavior. In fact, few psychologists entertained the possibility that
had thoughts that influenced their behavior. Instead, the received wisdom was that
living animals simply respond mechanically to punishments and rewards.
After a mountain of data had accumulated, ruling out every conceivable alternative explanation, the scientific community was, at long last, convinced.
Having thoroughly plumbed the disastrous consequences of uncontrollable stress in the laboratory, Marty grew more and more interested in what could be done about it. He decided to retrain as a clinical psychologist. Wisely, he chose to do so under the wing of Aaron Beck, a psychiatrist and fellow pioneer in understanding the root causes and
practical antidotes for depression.
What followed was a vigorous exploration of the flip side of learned helplessness, which Marty later dubbed
. The crucial insight that seeded Marty’s new work was available from the very beginning: While two-thirds of the dogs that had experienced uncontrollable shock later gave up trying to help themselves, about a third remained resilient. Despite their earlier trauma, they kept trying maneuvers that would bring relief from pain.
It was those resilient dogs that led Marty to study the analogous
I won’t quit
response to adversity in people. Optimists, Marty soon discovered, are just as likely to encounter bad events as pessimists. Where they diverge is in their explanations: optimists habitually search for temporary and specific causes of their suffering, whereas pessimists assume permanent and pervasive causes are to blame.
Here’s an example from the test Marty and his students developed to
distinguish optimists from pessimists:
Imagine: You can’t get all the work done that others expect of you. Now imagine one major cause for this event. What leaps to mind?
After you read that hypothetical scenario, you write down your response, and then, after you’re offered more scenarios, your responses are rated for how temporary (versus permanent) and how specific (versus pervasive) they are.
If you’re a pessimist, you might say,
I screw up everything.
I’m a loser.
These explanations are all permanent; there’s not much you can do to change them. They’re also pervasive; they’re likely to influence lots of life situations, not just your job performance. Permanent and pervasive explanations for adversity turn minor complications into major catastrophes. They make it seem logical to give up. If, on the other hand, you’re an optimist, you might say,
I mismanaged my time
I didn’t work efficiently because of distractions.
These explanations are all temporary and specific; their “fixability” motivates you to start clearing them away as problems.
Using this test, Marty confirmed that, compared to optimists, pessimists are more likely to
suffer from depression and anxiety. What’s more, optimists fare better in domains not directly related to mental health. For instance, optimistic undergraduates tend to earn higher grades and are less likely to
drop out of school. Optimistic young adults
stay healthier throughout middle age and, ultimately, live longer than pessimists. Optimists are more
satisfied with their marriages. A one-year field study of MetLife insurance agents found that optimists are twice as likely to stay in their jobs, and that they
sell about 25 percent more insurance
than their pessimistic colleagues. Likewise, studies of salespeople in telecommunications, real estate, office products, car sales, banking, and other industries have shown that optimists outsell pessimists by 20 to 40 percent.
In one study, elite swimmers, many of whom were training for the U.S. Olympic trials, took Marty’s optimism test. Next, coaches asked each swimmer to
swim in his or her best event and then deliberately told each swimmer they’d swum just a little
than was actually the case. Given the opportunity to repeat their event, optimists did at least as well as in their first attempt, but pessimists performed substantially worse.
How do grit paragons think about setbacks? Overwhelmingly, I’ve found that they explain events optimistically. Journalist Hester Lacey finds the same striking pattern in her interviews with remarkably creative people. “What has been your greatest disappointment?” she asks each of them. Whether they’re artists or entrepreneurs or community activists, their response is nearly identical. “Well, I don’t really think in terms of disappointment. I tend to think that everything that happens is something I can learn from. I tend to think, ‘Well okay, that didn’t go so well, but I guess
I will just carry on.’ ”
Around the time Marty Seligman took his two-year hiatus from laboratory research, his new mentor Aaron Beck was questioning his own training in Freudian psychoanalysis. Like most psychiatrists at the time, Beck had been taught that all forms of mental illness were rooted in unconscious childhood conflicts.