Q&A: Grit Psychologist Angela Duckworth Wins Genius Grant

This article was originally published on The Psych Report before it became part of the Behavioral Scientist in 2017.

Angela Duckworth, associate professor of psychology at University of Pennsylvania, is already well known for her research on “grit” and self-control. She’s given TED Talks, is called to consult with companies and schools around the country, and runs her own positive psychology lab at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Now, Duckworth will join the ranks of less than a dozen fellow psychologists honored with the prestigious “Genius Grant” from the MacArthur Foundation since it was founded in 1978. We spoke with Duckworth following the official announcement to talk about receiving the award, her plans for the money, and what her lab is currently working on.

Max Nesterak: It’s rather mysterious how MacArthur Fellows are nominated and selected. How did you find out you were selected for the so-called “Genius Grant”?

Angela Duckworth: I was in my office meeting with my research team, and I saw a phone number come up that was Chicago, Illinois on my cell phone. Then I saw that the same number came up on my phone so I answered it. Then they just said, are you alone, this is the MacArthur Foundation, and I guess at that point I had a clue that they were going to tell me something good. So that was it. There’s no ceremony or anything so that’s the extent of the ritual.

MN: What were your initial reactions?

AD: So initially, shock and awe, but very quickly, and I think this is the interesting thing for a psychologist to think about, an overwhelming sense of gratitude, that actually stayed with me for weeks. I would still argue that I’m still feeling grateful today. Not so much to the MacArthur Foundation itself, though that’s a part of it, but really it’s all the people that really helped me. All of a sudden, I remembered my English teacher in high school and my French teacher and certain things that they had said I could remember verbatim. Particular professors that I had in college and particular mentors that I’ve been lucky enough to have since then as a graduate student and young professor. So I took the opportunity in the 3 weeks I had between knowing and being able to tell everybody – because you’re only allowed to tell one person and I told my husband – but I took the opportunity to send gratitude notes to people.

MN: Now this is a no-strings-attached-prize meaning you’re not required to do anything in particular, and you will receive some $625,000 over the course of five years. Do you have any particular plans for the money?

AD: In terms of money, I have been thinking about it somewhat, without too much of a satisfying answer until recently. I thought to myself the question here is, how would you use a sum of money in ways that you couldn’t use alternative funds? If I want to get a research project funded, I write a grant proposal. What could I not get funded through conventional mechanisms that I think would be really valuable? I’ve decided on two directions and the specifics haven’t been figured out yet.

One is to work much more actively with teachers. There are so many great teachers a in the world who have been thinking about the same things that I’ve been thinking about. How do you sustain motivation over the long term? Why do some people lose interest in the middle of what they’re doing? What would make it easier for kids to exercise self-control vs. get distracted? I want to work with those teachers. So we’re starting at the end of this month, we’re going to have a Sunday grit workshop. It’s invitation only, but we’ve accumulated a small cadre of teachers from as far as Maine to as close as Philadelphia. We’re going to start monthly workshops where the majority of the people are not the academics, but the majority of the people are the teachers.

There are so many great teachers a in the world who have been thinking about the same things that I’ve been thinking about…I want to work with those teachers.

Another direction is if teachers come up with a really good idea, we can provide the support and the funding to test the idea. One that thing that happens in education is that teachers have good ideas and they test them by doing them. What they don’t have the training or the resources to do is to measure in a systematic way changes from pre to post, to think about how they would make a comparison group or a control group. So we want to help them do that, and – if this ever scaled up and became common practice, we would have a country where teachers would be thought of as innovators and scientists the way they are in countries like Finland. There, teachers are really actively engaged, and it’s not just a tiny minority of teachers, most teachers consider a part of their work to figure out how to do it better. That’s exciting to us.

Also, and even more recent than that, we’ve decided that we want to engage with kids, and it’s actually been a long time since I’ve struggled to do my homework or felt like doing something else like talking to my friends, so we thought, why are we not engaging kids in the research itself? So we’re coming together around the idea of a student advisory board, trying to figure out how to get kids from different walks of life, different ages, to not only react to our ideas but also solicit from them what they see to be the problems and the solutions in their own lives.

MN: A big benefit of the grant is that it will bring a lot of attention to you and the work your lab do, but that also increases the chances of your work being misunderstood in the media. Can you talk about and misrepresentations of your work that you’ve seen and maybe clarify those misconceptions.

AD: I think often times the nuanced point that I’m trying to make in my research is that the effects of effort and being self-controlled and being gritty are dramatic. Perhaps in our daily lives we underestimate how important effort is, how important resisting temptations and sticking with things really is. I’m not making the claim that it’s these competencies – self-control and grit – are the only things that matter. I think a lot of times my work is interpreted to mean that everyone is equally talented, everybody could be Einstein, everybody could win an Olympic gold medal, and it’s just about practice and effort. I don’t believe that. I think for reasons that we don’t fully understand, we do seem to differ in out aptitudes for things and particularly in our interest for things. That point has been very hard to make. I feel like journalists often have had an either/or mentality. It’s either talent or grit, and they like to run a horse race.

People often ask me if you can teach these things, if this character can be cultivated. This is the answer I’d like to give – I think so.

The other thing is, and it’s not as egregious, but I think people often ask me if you can teach these things, if this character can be cultivated. This is the answer I’d like to give – I think so. But we know very little about how to do that. We know more and more everyday, but we don’t have enough to say, very convincingly, that you just have to do x, y, and z. We don’t know what parenting interactions are important. We don’t know which early educational experiences are crucial. We don’t know what kind of teacher you meet. Maybe it’s none of those things. Maybe it’s having a lot of hardship. Maybe adversity earlier is better than success. It could be the opposite. So our ignorance is vast. To quote Sir John Templeton, who actually indirectly through his foundation provided my first funding as a graduate student to work on this, “How little we know, how eager to learn.” That’s my answer for the question “Can perseverance be taught?”: I think so, but we’re just getting started.

MN: You say in your TED Talk that we need to be grittier about making our kids grittier. Now that you’ve already said you don’t know, could you point to any leads that you have that you possibly think could make us grittier?

AD: When I did the TED Talk for PBS they said, well you can’t give a normal, long TED Talk. And I just had to laugh because they said it’s not going to be 17 or 18 minutes, and that’s the long version. What I was able to say in 4 ½ minutes wasn’t much, but I did point to, but it may have been edited out, was Carol Dweck’s work on mindset at Stanford University. Her work has shown that believing that you can change in terms of your ability to learn something new, believing that intelligence can grow with effort, is an essential thing that a) determines perseverance and grit, and b) can be taught. That’s the best idea I’ve heard about increasing grit – growth mindset. People change. I do remember this, both from being a classroom teacher, which is what I did before psychology, and also from being a kid. When things are bad, when teachers are so frustrated trying to get them to do something, or as a student you’re so frustrated you keep screwing up, it feels permanent; it really does. It feels like it will never get better. The research suggests that that feeling, though of course it’s real in that sense, is inaccurate. The rate at which you learn something, your facility for something, can change. The brain is plastic and it does evolve.

We’re working on other ideas as well. The way we’re framing our work is trying to understand why people give up. Instead of working on perseverance, we’re working on the psychology of giving up. Our assumption, is that people, when they give up, are doing so out of some rational, albeit flawed, but rational basis. In other words, they give up when they don’t think they can succeed. Or they give up because they lose value for the goal. Or they give up because the costs seem inordinately high, it’s not justifying the reward. We’re trying to think about it in that sort of way; it’s a very economic, neoclassical economic framework for approaching those things. So it’s not like we don’t know anything, but I don’t think it’s going to be an easy solution.

MN: This makes me think about how hard it is to change behaviors to meet the goal rather than simply change the goal to match the behaviors.

 AD: That’s right. The distinction I try to make with teachers because teachers will often use this word “motivated” to contrast the students who are motivated to those who are not motivated. As a psychologist I want to say, there’s two things: there’s “motivation” which is wanting to do well. I would argue, and our data suggests that kids are, by and large, very motivated to do well. But there’s this other thing called “volition,” and that is not wanting, that is willing. That is doing things in the moment that are not pleasant but in the long run have this pay off or sticking with something for years and years when there are innumerable aversions. Volition could be defined as the extent to which motivation is guarded over time.

MN: Can you talk about the latest experiment that you’re doing?

AD: There is this strategy that kids can use to be more self-controlled and that is simply changing their physical environments. So one of the very important insights that came out of Walter Mischel’s seminal work on delayed gratification was that children in his research that were able to wait the longest for say two marshmallows instead of one, employed strategies like putting paper over the marshmallow so they couldn’t see it or looking away. Recently with James Gross at Stanford and Tamar Gendler at Yale, we tried to categorize these different self-control strategies and the argument we make is that strategies that you deploy earlier, well in advance of encountering temptation, are efficient. They work and they save you psychological costs. Everyone knows what it feels like to be actively willing yourself not to eat the cake or to check the email. But if you take the temptation away, if no one ever offered you the cake, then it would make everybody happier – everybody in yourself, and we really are multiple selves. There’s the part of you that wants the cake and there’s the part of you that doesn’t want the cake, and the way to avoid this active conflict, which is really aversive, is to actually change your environment physically. So we have a study going on right now where we have undergraduates who are trying to change things about their physical space that makes studying easier and temptations like texting or facebook less potent.

MN: That’s so great, but also so hard. I do all my work on the computer and it’s a nightmare with email and Facebook.

AD: Me too. I have the same problem. I’ll tell you what I just did. I wanted to spend a half an hour reading something that I’m writing, and I wanted to be really doing it with concentration and not checking my next 31 emails. I just closed the browser. Of course, I could open the browser and of course you can reverse these things but I’m trying to put a few more steps between me and just looking over.

Angela Duckworth serves on The Psych Report’s Advisory Board. She is the author of numerous articles including “What No Child Left Behind Leaves Behind” and “Self-Discipline Outdoes IQ in Predicting Academic Performance of Adolescents.”