Interview: Researcher Angela Duckworth on Psychology, Parenting and Great Teachers — and Why ‘It’s More Important to Be Honest than To Be Gritty’
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Angela Duckworth is well-known for her intellect and accomplishments. The MacArthur Foundation recognized her in 2013, awarding her a prestigious fellowship and acknowledging her ability to turn intuitions about self-regulation into practical teaching and learning approaches. With a grant of $625,000, Duckworth has become a prominent figure in education research.
Despite these accolades, Duckworth remains humble about her intellectual contributions. She claims to have limited knowledge in most areas but possesses extensive expertise in the subjects she is passionate about.
Duckworth’s passion lies in the study of character formation and its impact on individuals. Her renowned studies on non-cognitive skills, such as self-control and teamwork, which are essential for intellectual ability, often focus on exceptional young individuals who have achieved remarkable feats. From spelling bee champions to West Point graduates, Duckworth’s research highlights the significance of grit in sustaining long-term goals despite obstacles. In fact, she dedicated an entire book to this concept, describing grit as an enduring combination of passion and persistence that can predict life success better than cognitive traits like IQ. Inspired by her writing, some schools are now aiming to nurture grit and other non-cognitive skills in students from an early age.
However, Duckworth’s research has faced criticism. Some psychologists argue that the academic benefits associated with grit might be attributed to other skills. Additionally, educators and activists argue that emphasizing perseverance among disadvantaged students perpetuates racism by blaming them for their lack of effort.
Duckworth acknowledges these criticisms and has taken steps to address them. She founded Character Lab, a nonprofit organization that bridges the gap between research on the human mind and educators and parents. The organization has expanded its research network, allowing approximately 100,000 students to participate in studies on character development. Duckworth also seeks input from teachers to gain a deeper understanding of the human aspect of education. Through her experiences, she has learned that great instruction stems from a teacher’s unwavering dedication to their students, caring for them both academically and personally.
As we discuss her insights in this interview with , it is important to note that this conversation took place before the COVID-19 pandemic. Duckworth shares advice on regulating emotions, maintaining a sense of control, and empathetically listening to the frustrations experienced by students during these challenging times.
Let’s delve into the trajectory of Duckworth’s research since it gained national attention. In light of the controversy surrounding her work, how has her thinking evolved? Has she reevaluated her beliefs on grit based on the criticism she has received?
In 2014, I authored a paper stating that self-control and grit have a strong correlation and are both components of conscientiousness. However, there are certain situations where conscientiousness or self-control may serve as better predictors of success. Grit should not be expected to anticipate all outcomes. It should specifically apply to exceptional and demanding long-term endeavors. I do not anticipate grit being a predictor of whether one attends appointments on time, meets tax deadlines, or follows a diet. While these tasks may pose challenges, they do not hold significant personal meaning like identity-relevant pursuits do, such as winning a spelling bee or graduating from a prestigious institution like West Point.
The second critique revolves around how predictive grit truly is. I do not believe that grit should predict every positive outcome or success. Is it considered grit for a professor to submit their grades on time? Not really. That would fall under basic self-control and perhaps organizational skills. It is not a personally meaningful goal that necessitates passionate and persevering effort.
Even at the beginning, I never viewed grit as a magical solution that could explain everything. In fact, I had to request TED to change the title of my talk. You see, TED chooses the title for the talk, not the speakers themselves. Initially, they had selected a title along the lines of "Grit: The Key to Success." However, someone rightly pointed out that grit is not the sole determinant of success. I agreed, and over the past few years, I asked TED to modify it to simply "Passion and Perseverance," to which they kindly agreed.
I named the nonprofit organization I’m currently heading as Character Lab because, as a mother and former teacher, I believe children should possess more than just grit. I want them to possess various other qualities. Being honest holds greater importance than being gritty. Being kind takes precedence over being gritty. Therefore, it is a valid criticism to assert that grit is not the only significant trait. However, I hope no one makes such a claim.
The third criticism revolves around social inequality. One of the lessons I’ve learned here is that what we say is not always what others hear, and what truly matters is what people understand. I sincerely hope I never conveyed the message that "underprivileged children can overcome adversity on their own, and poverty doesn’t matter." When I was a teacher, I worked at schools with low-income students. Personally, I strongly believe that there is structural racism and extensive inequality within the American education system, which places an unfair burden on children. Any good teacher would question why a student is not putting in effort and consider what needs to be done to demonstrate to the student that it is worthwhile to try, as well as how to develop the necessary skills and mindset to keep persevering.
It is a valid criticism to which I have become more sensitive and interested in comprehending. What are the environmental factors that influence a child’s level of grit? My fundamental belief regarding human nature is that people are inherently rational. When a child or adult behaves in a seemingly irrational manner, we simply haven’t understood their reasons yet. When I feel frustrated with my own children or when I was a frustrated teacher questioning why a student didn’t complete their homework, there was always a reason behind it, even if it wasn’t one I preferred. I am interested in exploring the environmental factors that enable or predispose individuals to tackle challenging tasks that require continuous commitment.
: I’m curious about your thoughts on why critics, particularly those in the popular media, seemed to interpret your ideas as promoting a straightforward narrative about the significance of hard work. Why do you think your ideas were received in that manner?
I can only speculate on this matter. There is an expression that I believe Niels Bohr coined: "The opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth." For instance, I believe that qualities like delayed gratification, growth mindset, and grit are truly important. On the other hand, someone else may argue that a child’s life circumstances hold more significance. Both perspectives are valid! They both matter, and their importance intertwines in intricate ways.
People often ponder whether nature or nurture plays a more significant role in shaping individuals. However, the consensus has been clear for more than five decades: it is actually a combination of both. Yet, when one delves into the complexities of gene-by-gene interactions in an attempt to explain this, confusion arises and people are left questioning which factor is more influential.
It is commonly assumed that if one advocates for grit, they must be disregarding the importance of curriculum, teacher quality, and neighborhood violence. However, I believe that all these factors matter. If, as a journalist, or even as myself, an individual who is involved in various roles, we could help others understand this, it would be truly remarkable.
I find your question about my identity intriguing. It seems that I am recognized not only as a reputable psychologist but also as a public intellectual due to my research and bestselling books. Communicating effectively, managing my obligations, and maintaining personal capacity have posed some challenges.
That is a thoughtful question. Do you think anyone really cares? (Laughs) Primarily, I view myself as a scientist and not necessarily as an author or a popular thinker. However, I also believe that "scientist" is not a comprehensive label.
Are you familiar with Kurt Lewin? He was an extraordinary psychologist who passed away about 70 years ago and greatly contributed to the development of the growth mindset. He once stated that science should serve the purpose of helping people lead better lives. Following his death, his wife wrote a forward to a collection of his works, and to paraphrase her, she pondered whether his greatest passion was understanding human nature at its core or communicating and making it useful to as many people as possible. Both of these aspects drove him each day. When I read that, I thought to myself, "That is exactly what I aspire to do!"
I cannot exactly define what I am, but I have a diagram in the back of my notebook that represents a hierarchy of goals I wish to achieve before I pass away. At the top of this hierarchy is utilizing psychological science to support the thriving of children. Beneath that goal, there are two other smaller goals. One is pushing the boundaries of scientific knowledge and collaborating with exceptional individuals. I am fascinated by understanding the psychology of failure and why some people are deeply affected when something is almost good enough. This understanding is crucial as a scientist. However, the other goal is to effectively communicate this knowledge.
Furthermore, I strongly believe in avoiding complaints. When a book sells numerous copies and receives considerable attention, I think it is important not to whine about people not understanding me. Instead, I aim to be a mature individual and take responsibility for the labels assigned to me, whether or not I personally chose them. I recognize the immense privilege I have been granted and am constantly working to catch up with it.
So, if the New York Times were to offer me Tom Friedman’s column, would I decline in my pursuit of being a prominent public intellectual?
Considering the direction of my work, perhaps it would be more suitable for me to have David Brooks’s column instead?
Would I accept such an opportunity? I have contemplated these possibilities, and the real question is whether I want to invest the time and effort into convincing the New York Times to offer me a column. It is indeed within the realm of possibility! I currently write a small column each week, consisting of 200-300 words, aimed at parents and teachers. I aspire to provide them with a teaspoon of psychological wisdom, as opposed to overwhelming them with excessive information. This wisdom is meticulously fact-checked by the original scientist and presented at the highest level possible. I do not take a half-hearted approach to this endeavor. Would I do the same for the New York Times? I have not expended the energy because I am not convinced that writing for the Times would reach the specific audience I aim to impact. I did, however, inquire with Parents magazine and Parade, as many parents read the latter publication, whether they would be interested in a column on psychological science to assist children. Unfortunately, neither publication expressed interest.
: I have been contemplating whether it is entirely beneficial to incorporate expertise from brain science into the field of education. Can you see any potential drawbacks?
I believe there are numerous concerns that should be taken into account, although they may not necessarily pertain to brain science. Personally, I do not perceive any significant downsides, and I am not sounding any warning signals.
Education is not solely an art; it should also be approached scientifically. I do not see any specific disadvantages in focusing on psychology and brain science. However, we must be cautious of prioritizing one aspect to the detriment of another. This is why I have dedicated a considerable amount of time to writing about gratitude and kindness, as they hold great importance. Despite not being an expert myself, I have written posts on these topics and shared them with actual scientists in the field.
In my opinion, if children can develop a genuine care for others, possess a curious mind, and exhibit perseverance and self-control, they will ultimately flourish. However, if they lack any of these qualities – if they possess an abundance of determination and intellectual curiosity but lack empathy – this is highly concerning. It is an issue that should be of great concern.
: Alright, I have a couple of brief questions to conclude our discussion. Consider it a lightning round. What book are you currently reading that is unrelated to your research?
I am currently engrossed in Middlemarch, and I must admit that it is quite challenging. A friend of mine highly recommended it as their favorite novel, so I decided to give it a try. Although I initially gave up, I am now making another attempt.
: Your perseverance is commendable. If you had the power to implement a single educational reform that you believe would enhance education in the United States, what would it be?
Now, that is an excellent question. Every month, on a Thursday night at 6:20, I engage in conversations with five outstanding teachers whom we refer to as our expert teacher group. Without fail, after each conversation, I think to myself, "If every child in the country had these individuals as their teachers, the world would be transformed." I am not certain if this could be solved through policy, but I would certainly duplicate these five teachers. If I had the privilege of having such teachers during my own childhood, I am confident that I would be a better person today.
: Who is the most determined person you have ever encountered?
Cody Coleman is undeniably one of the most resilient individuals I have had the pleasure of meeting. He is currently pursuing a PhD in computer science at Stanford, despite having grown up in poverty near Philadelphia. His level of determination is awe-inspiring, and he is a truly exceptional person. I have written about him in my book and on my website.
: Are you actively instilling grit in your children? And if so, are you successful?
My children are 15 and 17 years old. Earlier this week, I descended the stairs around 5:30 in the morning. Trying not to disturb anyone since my husband was still asleep, I was surprised to find the kitchen light on and my children already awake for an hour. I asked, "Who are you people? What are you doing?" To which they replied, "Shh! We’re studying." I thanked them for making coffee, but it was quite out of the ordinary.
I believe I have served as a role model for grit, and my husband is also hard-working, so they have emulated these qualities to some extent. However, my main priority is ensuring that they are motivated by the right reasons. I genuinely do not want them to pursue endeavors solely for the purpose of gaining admission to college or because they believe it is my expectation. I sincerely want them to follow their passions. With that being said, I prioritize kindness and excellence as my core values, and I believe they have internalized this mindset.
They are aware that I value excellence in all aspects of life. If they are going to follow a recipe, I encourage them to do so wholeheartedly. If they are going to wrap presents, I ask them to do it with care. However, the motivation of truly gritty individuals stems from within, not from external factors. I genuinely want them to be fulfilled, hard-working individuals who excel in what they do. If anything, I aim to ensure that they possess a level of introspection that prompts them to ask, "Is this something I truly want to pursue?"
: What qualities define a good teacher?
When conversing with the five educators who serve as a great source of inspiration, they emphasize the importance of grit and a growth mindset. However, they also stress the significance of genuinely caring for the students they teach, which is evident in their actions. Exceptional teachers hold a deep sense of concern and affection for their students, and this drives them to undertake many of the practices I investigate. They dedicate their personal time to enhance their teaching skills. This motivation stems from an extraordinary love they have for their students.
: Let’s conclude with one last question: As a resident of Philadelphia, what are your thoughts on Gritty, the Flyers mascot? Do you consider it to be an appropriate role model for children?
(Laughs) No, Gritty is quite frightening. Actually, people have very strong opinions about Gritty, so I must refrain from expressing anything too strong. However, I must admit that it is a stroke of marketing genius, even though I can’t quite comprehend its success. I mean, if having an energetic mascot who frequently falls appeals to the masses and gets the attention of the New York Times, then so be it.