Young Tom Edison didn’t start out a superstar. His early teachers called him “addled.”
For decades, laws, governments, even popular will were stacked against the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela. No way, people thought, would they ever change the way things were.
And so it was for Sister Mary Scullion, the scrappy nun from Northeast Philly who had a radical idea 30 years ago. In a nation as prosperous as ours, she thought, it was unacceptable to have even one homeless person on the street. Today, the programs she developed are a national model.
Is it all-brains-all-the-time that separates these achievers from the pack? Or is something else at work?
The difference likely is something Angela Lee Duckworth calls “grit,” which she defines as “tenaciously pursuing something over the long term.”
That “something” can’t be something easy. To pass the grit test, the thing being chased must be “the highest challenge.” It’s all about passion.
Duckworth, a psychologist who studies high achievers, believes people with this quality are more likely to succeed in work, school, politics and other arenas than people with higher I.Q.’s and more talent.
Which sounds about right to Sister Mary.
“Perseverance or grit does make a difference in the long run,” she says. “It allows a person to learn through their mistakes as well as through their successes. Also by trying to achieve something day in and day out, you get better, and sooner or later there is a breakthrough.”
This could be good news for teachers and parents, because it means that just as children can improve their vocabulary or get better at biology, they also can be taught to stay on task. And this, more than smaller classes, well-paid teachers, the latest equipment or even innate intelligence, may help them succeed in life.
“It could be that as a society we need to be more old-fashioned,” says Duckworth, who is 35, married and the mother of two little girls.
In other words, maybe it’s not how hard the work is. It’s how hard you work.
Duckworth’s own story is about both.
She grew up in Cherry Hill, the daughter of a now-retired chemist and an artist, both Chinese immigrants. She’s an alum of Cherry Hill East High School, where she says she was “smart, not the smartest” and worried enough about being considered a geek that she became captain of the varsity cheerleaders.
She applied to eight top-tier colleges – no fallback – and got into every one. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Harvard with a degree in advanced neurobiology, then earned a master’s – with distinction – in neuroscience at Oxford. Then came another master’s, in psychology, from the University of Pennsylvania, where she’s to receive her doctorate in May. Her mentor is Martin E.P. Seligman, well-known Penn psychology professor and the author of 20 books, including Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment.
But it was on New York’s Lower East Side where Duckworth learned her first lessons about grit. There, she taught math to seventh graders, feeling like a coddled suburbanite working with seriously disadvantaged children. She obsessed about teaching them commitment to studies and was delighted when their standardized-test math scores shot up more than 15 points each – in one year.
Next she went to a magnet high school in San Francisco where the students were considered gifted and relentlessly single-minded, averaging seven hours of homework a night.
“You learn that the achievement gap isn’t due to I.Q., because all these kids are bright,” she says. “That was when I first had the notion that there’s something worth studying here.”
Fast-forward to Penn, where in five studies, some ongoing, Duckworth interviewed high achievers in different fields and identified characteristics that distinguished them. She found that grit was a key, if not the key, to understanding successes among Penn undergraduates, select Internet users, West Point plebes, national spelling bee contestants, and eighth graders at Masterman School, one of Philadelphia’s elite magnets.
In the West Point study, for example, Duckworth surveyed 1,223 freshman cadets, class of 2008, to see whether grit would predict who would complete the rigorous summer training program. It did – more than high school class rank, SAT scores, athletic achievement, community leadership experience and faculty appraisals.
“The military is very interested in the attrition issue,” says Duckworth, “and in this question: Can you train people to have this gritty quality?”
Duckworth’s work doesn’t break entirely new ground, according to Dean K. Simonton, psychology professor at the University of California at Davis, an expert on creativity and genius. He cites a 1926 study of “historical geniuses” such as Beethoven, Michelangelo and Isaac Newton that suggested persistence played a bigger role in their success than intelligence.
“It’s not like you could be stupid, but if you didn’t have the necessary drive and determination to overcome obstacles and set high standards for yourself, then you weren’t going to make it,” he says.
But Simonton thinks Duckworth’s grit studies are interesting on two fronts. She’s looking at contemporary achievers, rather than dead geniuses, and she’s developed a grit scale, which attempts to measure the determination they show.
Robert J. Sternberg, a Yale University psychology professor who directs the school’s Center for the Psychology of Abilities, Competencies and Expertise, believes that schools don’t emphasize nonintellectual qualities – like grit – enough. “There’s a really serious disconnect between the way we prepare kids for leadership positions in society, for life as an adult, and what you actually have to do to get there,” he says.
Not that parents always do the job either. Some try to protect their kids from failure or frustration. “In the course of your life, you encounter a lot of blows, some of them quite awful,” Sternberg says, “and if you don’t learn how to overcome those obstacles, you’re at a disadvantage.”
Duckworth and others believe the most important thing parents can do to help kids succeed is to guide them in finding whatever it is they can love over the long haul.
Joseph S. Renzulli, director of the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented, in Storrs, Conn., advises parents to “expose kids to a lot of different topics, issues, authors and events in history that are exciting, that are not ordinarily covered in the curriculum or they’re covered in a paragraph.”
In this way, “they may find something they fall in love with and are willing to devote their energy to.”
Next up for Duckworth is to figure out how to teach grit to kids. She’s been in psychology for only 31/2 years and she’s aware of the “10-year rule” that says you need a good decade in a field to reach proficiency.
But not to worry. Odds are she’ll figure it out before then.
“I’m pretty gritty,” she says.
Which of these statements describes you?
1. I have achieved a goal that took years of work.
2. Others often tell me that I do not perform to my potential.
3. I have overcome setbacks to conquer an important challenge.
4. I often set a goal but later choose to pursue a different one.
5. I finish whatever I begin.
6. Setbacks don’t discourage me.
7. I am a hard worker.
8. I become interested in new pursuits every few months.
9. New ideas and new projects sometimes distract me from previous ones.
10. Circumstances beyond my control have prevented me from realizing my full potential.
11. I am diligent.
12. I am now working on a project that will take years to finish.
13. My vision of where my life is heading has not changed much in the last year.
14. Life is more of a marathon than a sprint.
15. My interests change from year to year.
16. I have been obsessed with a certain idea or project for a short time but later lose interest.
17. I discipline myself by practicing a sport, musical interest, or other skill daily.
18. I am ambitious.
19. I have difficulty maintaining my focus on projects that take more than a few months to complete.
20. I am very good at keeping new year’s resolutions. Autor: Virginia A. Smith