Of course today, culturally, we have a shift. The norm, the expectation, is that people are going to nip around from one company to another, even from one industry to another. But if people are very successful, oftentimes an underlying theme or a narrative emerges. You might look at their experience and realize, oh, this is all about managing—making decisions under conditions of uncertainty and complexity with large teams. Despite all the movement, there is a skill set that they have been honing over time.
S+B: What’s the next frontier of research on grit?
DUCKWORTH: Right now I’m thinking about the difference between work and play. A lot of grit is about working hard and having the capacity to sustain that over time—and that all sounds pretty grim. There’s this expression, “hard play.” It’s when something is really effortful and you’re engaged in it, but there’s something else about it. It’s not the same thing as “play play.” I’m interested in understanding that fine line between something that feels effortful and engaging yet aversive, but you do it anyway, and something that is effortful and engaging and just all whipped cream. Kids can play video games for hours, and that’s a pretty high cognitive-load activity. But they don’t want to work on their algebra for hours.
Is it that gritty people are able to turn work into play? Or are they just able to do the work anyway? I’ve heard [game designer] Jane McGonigal describe play as the voluntary overcoming of unnecessary obstacles. Is work the voluntary overcoming of necessary obstacles? Or is it that play is when you’re succeeding 90 percent of the time, and work is when you’re succeeding only 70 percent of the time? There’s also the question of consequences. If people are playing World of Warcraft, and you tell them that every time they lose a point you’ll take a dollar out of their bank account, but every time their points go up you’ll add a dollar, would that make it less fun? Maybe. Then again, perhaps the best we can do is find a mix between work and play that’s sustainable. At this stage, what we know conclusively is far less than what we don’t know. But we’re gritty at our research lab, so we’ll keep working on it.
Reprint No. 00232