People — 03 March 2017
Angela Duckworth speaks at Broward series

By Greg Carannante

City & Shore Magazine

As this year’s Super Bowl hoopla fades, the big story in football is still the brain, and the damage done to it by playing the helmet-bashing game. One NFL head coach, however, has taken an additional interest in his players’ gray matter – specifically, how it can make them grittier.

In 2013, the Seattle Seahawks’ Pete Carroll took in a TED Talks video by Penn professor Angela Duckworth about a psychological phenomenon she’d been studying. She called it “grit.” Not a word about Xs and Os was uttered, but it was as if this unknown woman on the web was talking about his team.

The coach reached out to the prof, and after she visited and spoke to the Seahawks, the two formed an unlikely bond exchanging ideas and eventually sharing a stage at the University of Seattle for a conversation to promote her book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.  

Oh, and in case you don’t remember – Carroll’s team not only went on to win the Super Bowl that season, it came this close the next. And that TED talk? It’s logged almost 10 million views.

“Grit is passion and perseverance for very long-term goals,” Duckworth says in that TED talk. “Grit is having stamina. Grit is sticking with your future, day in, day out, not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years – and working really hard to make that future a reality. Grit is living life like it’s a marathon, not a sprint.”

The 2013 MacArthur “Genius” Fellow on Wednesday (4/5) got down to the nitty-gritty in Fort Lauderdale for the finale of this year’s Broward College Speaker Series. Her sold-out talk  answered the question: “True Grit: The Science of Success. Who succeeds in life?”

She apparently speaks from experience. Born in 1970 to Chinese immigrants, she graduated magna cum laude from Harvard College with a degree in advanced neurobiology. She went on to earn a master’s in neuroscience at Oxford University and a PhD in psychology at the University of Pennsylvania.

In a relatively short career, her distinguished resume spans from public school teacher to distinguished professor of psychology; from founder of a summer school for low-income children that celebrated its 20th year in 2012 to founder of the Character Lab, a nonprofit to turn her findings into tools for students and educators.

And, in addition to the Seahawks, she’s advised other pro teams as well as the White House, the World Bank and Fortune 500 CEOs. Then, of course, there’s her 2016 best-seller, which helped turn “grit” into the buzzword of the education-policy world and even work its way into the curriculum and culture of a school district or two.

“One way to think about grit is to consider what grit isn’t,” she says in an interview on her website, “Grit isn’t talent. Grit isn’t luck. Grit isn’t how intensely, for the moment, you want something.

“Instead, grit is about having what some researchers call an ‘ultimate concern’ – a goal you care about so much that it organizes and gives meaning to almost everything you do.”

Her “ultimate concern” began to emerge at age 27 when she left a high-powered career in management consulting to become a New York City public school math teacher. She came to realize that students with the highest IQs didn’t always make the best grades. That was where grit came in. It was her ah-ha moment.

Following her hunch, she left teaching to become a graduate student in psychology and started studying kids and adults in various challenging settings: West Point cadets, spelling bee contestants, inner-city teachers, pro sports teams, salespeople.

“In every study my question was, who is successful here and why?” she says in her TED talk. And what she found was that the grittier did better.

“In all those very different contexts,” she says, “one characteristic emerged as a significant predictor of success. And it wasn’t social intelligence. It wasn’t good looks, physical health, and it wasn’t IQ. It was grit.”

A later study asked thousands of Chicago public high school juniors to take grit questionnaires, and followed up the next year to see who graduated.

“Turns out,” she says, “that grittier kids were significantly more likely to graduate, even when I matched them on every characteristic I could measure – things like family income, standardized achievement test scores, even how safe kids felt when they were at school. So it’s not just at West Point or the National Spelling Bee that grit matters. It’s also in school, especially for kids at risk for dropping out.”

“Talent and luck matter to success,” she admits. “But talent and luck are no guarantee of grit. And in the very long run, I think grit may matter as least as much, if not more.

“This is the grit message in my words: Grit may not be sufficient for success, but it sure is necessary.”



Got Grit?

The Grit Scale is Angela Duckworth’s questionnaire to test your passion and perseverance. There are no wrong answers. For each statement, choose an answer from the following range, considering how you compare to most people:

Very much like me

Mostly like me

Somewhat like me

Not much like me

Not like me at all

1. New ideas and projects sometimes distract me from previous ones.

2. Setbacks don’t discourage me. I don’t give up easily.

3. I often set a goal but later choose to pursue a different one.

4. I am a hard worker.

5. I have difficulty maintaining my focus on projects that take more than a few months to complete.

6. I finish whatever I begin.

7. My interests change from year to year.

8. I am diligent. I never give up.

9. I have been obsessed with a certain idea or project for a short time but later lost interest.

10. I have overcome setbacks to conquer an important challenge.

To get your score, enter your answers on Duckworth’s website:


It’s college admissions season, and Dr. Duckworth Wednesday night answered a question (from a student) about how to respond to the hard-knock of a college rejection letter. Here’s an excerpt:

Q. How can you take corrective feedback when the correction defines itself as a concrete setback to a well-articulated dream. For example, a college rejection letter to a dream school?

A.D. I think the feedback that you got from a rejection letter – this is actually admissions season, as many of you know – there’s two kinds of feedback that scientists study. The feedback that’s  important [in this study] is called formative feedback, feedback that by definition, it has a signal and you can learn from it and then you can go at it again. And so you throw a foul shot and you can see that it goes right instead of going into the basket, that’s formative feedback because you can go, ‘oh, it went to the right, and you can have a muscle memory of what you did, and then you can try it again – that’s formative feedback. But I don’t think actually rejection letters from colleges fall into that category, they’re what we usually call summative feedback, and that is feedback that is not designed for learning – it’s just a decision. It’s like, you’re not admitted or you are admitted. And furthermore, one of the reasons why I think that feedback is not useful for learning is that – I will tell you as somebody who has been on the other side of admissions – it’s not always because you’re not good enough, there’s just a tremendous amount of – I won’t call it arbitrariness – but when you’re trying to squeeze through a lot of applications through a very small place, what does that rejection letter really mean? I have a colleague at Swarthmore, which is a very competitive college, and he has been proposing for the last 20 years – but no one’s listening to him – that admissions should just be a straight-up lottery, no essay, nothing. You want to listen for the formative feedback in your life. If someone says, ‘you know what, that essay’s too long, I think it was too many pages, I felt bored,’ that is formative feedback. You can take that feedback and make that essay shorter and better. If someone says you talk too much in class and so nobody else gets to talk – that’s formative feedback, because in the next class you watch yourself and you go, ‘oh my God, I actually do talk all the time.’ But you also want to be careful to not confuse formative feedback with summative feedback and summative feedback is when you get information like a rejection letter, there’s nothing that you can learn from it that much. There’s no try again. And you can just say, ‘oh, I’ll put that in this other column, that’s not necessarily feedback that I can learn from, but it is feedback that I can deal with.



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