If someone asked you to define grit, what images would come to mind? Windburned cowboys? Pioneers on the open plain? Grit has long been used in describing those who dig in their heels in the face of hardship, who persevere in even the most challenging circumstances and emerge victorious.
Angela Lee Duckworth, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, believes this same tenacious spirit can be found in those who achieve excellence in school, on the playing field, and in business. Talent and intelligence will get you only so far. The key ingredient to success, says Duckworth, is grit. It’s that special something that keeps certain people dedicated to their goal (whether it involves their studies, their projects, their clients, or something else) for the long haul, determined to accomplish what they set out to do. It’s a fascinating concept—one that recently won Duckworth a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant.
A former public school teacher, Duckworth has a passion for improving education by understanding how grit affects a child’s trajectory, and is developing new teaching methods and interventions based on her findings. But as we learned during a recent interview, her research also has implications for managers looking to cultivate a more capable workforce.
S+B: What attracted you to the concept of grit?
DUCKWORTH: In my first couple years of graduate school, I started asking the perennial question: Why are some people more successful than others? Obviously, I’m not the first to think about that—almost every major philosopher and many prominent psychologists have addressed this question.
“Talent” is a common answer, but I wasn’t convinced that that was the whole story. I talked to prominent people—partners at successful investment banking firms, and individuals who had achieved elected office at relatively high levels of government—and I asked them: Which people are really the best in your field, and what are these outliers like?
They would rattle off a series of adjectives, but one theme emerged. In addition to talent, those highly successful people had a kind of staying power. They were working not only with intensity, but also with stamina over long periods of time, incrementally chipping away at some goal. That led me to grit.
S+B: Is grit teachable?
DUCKWORTH: I think so, yes, but it’s not easy. We’re in the nascent stages of research on behavioral change, not just about grit, but about other things too. For example, look at the percentage of dollars spent on health problems that would be preventable if people ate right, exercised, and took their medication. It should be easy to get people to do things like save their own lives, but that’s not always the case.
I do think that there’s room for optimism, though. I start from the assumption that people are trying to do well by themselves, which is actually the premise of the whole economic model of behavior. They are trying to optimize their outcomes and avoid mistakes. I’m not trying to sell the idea that you can move people from the bottom 1 percent of the distribution in grit to the highest 1 percent. This isn’t a “lose 10 pounds in two days” kind of idea. But I do think you can nudge people further to the right end of the grit spectrum.
S+B: How would that happen in a corporate environment? How can leaders encourage grittiness among their employees?
DUCKWORTH: The first thing managers should understand is that people who are gritty will doggedly pursue things that they really value. It’s sort of like love: You can’t be in love unless there’s something or someone that you’re in love with. Similarly, employees with grit are deeply and enduringly motivated by work they find meaningful. Top performers are genuinely driven to solve problems for clients, or to create tastier, healthier food for more people, and so on. Managers need to ensure that people have a goal or outcome that they hold in this high regard.