Angela Duckworth and true grit

By Reade Brower | Aug 10, 2017

“I am slow to learn and slow to forget that which I have learned.”

--- Abraham Lincoln, 16th president of the United States of America (1809-1865)


I recently posted a TED talk on my Facebook wall about the power of grit. Angela Duckworth left a high-earner job in corporate America in her 20s to pursue a much tougher job: teaching math to seventh-graders in the New York City public school system. This began the journey that led to her talk; her question and mission revolved around solving the “mystery of why some people work so much harder and longer than others."

If you haven’t heard her TED talk, check it out, it is a “calorie-worthy” six minutes of your life. Here is the link:

Angela speaks to what led her to the conclusion that grit was the common denominator in success, but admitted she was still not sure exactly how it is created.

She learned that her high-IQ students were not her best performers and that some of her lower-IQ-scoring students beat her expectations, later determining their excellence stemmed from hard work, which is part of the definition of grit.

At the Hyde School in Bath, Joe Gauld founded his school more than 40 years ago on a similar principle: he called it “attitude over aptitude,” and was inspired by a student who struggled, but worked at ultimate levels of effort (he had grit) but only earned “C” grades, while his lazy and arrogant genius student, who just showed up, got “A’s” on his tests.

Joe knew something was wrong with the equation and made that part of the foundation for his legacy. While he detested giving a “C” to the hardworking boy, he equally found it distasteful giving the “A” to the genius. Following up on his theory a decade later, he found the “C” student thriving and being promoted to head engineer, while his “A” student had not settled into a job, constantly moving and looking for greener grass.

Duckworth became interested in the psychology of education as she determined that IQ only measured how fast someone could learn, not what they could do with the material or how they could apply the knowledge. In other words, (my words) IQ has nothing to do with common sense or work ethic and without those, success is elusive.

What she learned is that only one thing rose to the top in all of her case studies; it was not IQ, what you looked like, social intelligence, or physical health. It was grit.

Grit is passion and perseverance for very long-term goals. It is stamina, having stickiness with your future, working really hard, not for a week or a month – it is about having grit in your DNA and living life “like a marathon, not a sprint,” she says.

Duckworth’s results were embraced by parents and educators and she was asked “How do I build grit in my kids?" Her answer, “honestly ... I don’t know.” What are the motivators, why do some kids have it and others don’t? Is it family values, does it come from economic or social strata? Is it in the DNA?

It is not related to talent, according to her research. She put out the concept of “growth mindset” – the ability to test and fail ideas without giving up. The underlying tenet in this is that all human beings are capable of learning and that those who truly want to learn will develop their learning above their potential. One can assume that those who do not use their potential (lazy, not motivated, entitled, etc.) will not succeed at the highest levels.

So, the TED talk leaves us with questions, not answers, but an understanding that grit is to success as blood in the veins is to life. The main questions are: where does grit come from and how do we develop it?

Being adopted gives me an interesting perspective; I love my family and have always felt fortunate to be a chosen child (that’s the way my mother always positioned it). She was “so lucky to get me,” she would tell me, and I grew up in a middle-class environment surrounded by the notion that everyone could achieve, dependent on hard work and effort. A pretty simple concept.

My mother also stressed to me that happy people had balance in their lives; I didn’t know what that meant, but she said I would understand it when I got older. What if I had stayed with my birth family or what if I had been adopted by an upper-class mother and father? What if I had been adopted by a loving gay couple or heterosexual parents who didn’t love me? Would I have developed grit and, if I did, would I have been able to parlay it into more or less success than I have now?

These are questions that one cannot answer categorically, but I think that grit is, to some degree “hard-wired” into your DNA. But more so, the results are more dependent on society and family of origin; modeling what we see and what others around us do shapes who we are and what we become.

The other pieces are expectations and love. I think these are two important ingredients in nurturing success – if you have grit, but no one to teach you about life, you are in a boat with one oar. You can still get there, but the pathway will not be straight or narrow.

Several conversations about this have led me to the belief that participation awards, versus merit awards, water down grit. The other thing that is interesting is expectations. I recall a story of a seventh-grade teacher looking at her student list for the upcoming year. She was surprised and grateful to see a list of high achievers; their IQ scores suggested that she could expect a lot from them.

The teacher worked hard all summer preparing for the new school year and her students rewarded her; she won “teacher of the year.” During her acceptance speech she told the principal and parents she was humbled by the recognition but felt she had a leg up since she was given all the “high achievers.” The principal scrunched his eyebrows and looked at her.

“What are you talking about,” he asked. She replied; “The list you gave me at the beginning of the year; their IQ’s were all well above average.” The principal gave her a crooked smile; “Those were their locker numbers.”

When you expect more, you get more.

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