Grit: Psychologist, author Angela Duckworth explains the science behind success

Duckworth, a University of Pennsylvania professor, co-founder of the Character Lab and 2013 MacArthur Fellow headlined Elon's annual Spring Convocation on April 5. She's the best-selling author of "Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance."

When Angela Duckworth was young, she was discouraged from thinking she could achieve something great. She was told she didn’t have the mind or the talent to succeed. That’s when she developed what she calls the “I’ll show you response.”

“This little girl grew up to have something that she loves,” Duckworth, the psychologist and best-selling author told the crowd gathered in Alumni Gym for Spring Convocation on Thursday, April 5. “If you ask me, ‘Angela, do you love what I do,’ I would say ‘oh yes, I absolutely love what I do.’ It’s different from my talent. It’s even different from my luck and my opportunity. And I know, as a scientist, it can grow.”

That passion for an interest, perseverance and persistence in working toward a goal all factor into grit, a characteristic at the center of Duckworth’s research and writing. The Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and co-founder and scientific director of Character Lab, Duckworth has achieved acclaim for studying the science of success and the practices that people employ to become experts and top performers. 

Her first book, “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance,” became an immediate New York Times bestseller. A 2013 MacArthur “Genius” Fellow, Duckworth’s examination of grit and self-control has led her to be called upon as an adviser for the White House, the World Bank, NBA and NFL teams and Fortune 500 CEOs.

Speaking to the Elon community on Thursday, Duckworth outlined the research from across a century and a half into what contributes to those people who see success in a range of fields — athletics, academics, the arts, business. Many who came before her found that the effort a person expends can more often than not count for more than their innate talent or opportunities. 

People have the unique opportunity to see their passion and perseverance develop over time, Duckworth explained. As many mature, they can respond differently to questions about whether they are a hard worker, whether they have interests that they feel passionately about and whethery they are willing to stick with their pursuits. 

“Perhaps passion becomes more focused and perhaps perseverance becomes stronger,” Duckworth said. “Grit is not fixed. It can be changed.”

That’s not to say that there is not a role for talent, Duckworth said. However, it is only through effort that greatness can be achieved, she said. “No matter how talented you are, you have to multiply your talent by effort in order to get skill. The first place that effort counts is in developing your talent into what you can do.”

Duckworth pointed to the work of psychologist and scholar Anders Ericsson, who has conducted extensive research into expertise and human performance. Ericsson’s reasearch is cited as the basis for the 10,000-hour rule which holds that become an expert takes 10,000 hours of practice, but said that Ericsson’s point is often misunderstood. That time must be spent in focused, deliberative practice, Duckworth said. 

That level of practice incorporates a cycle of regularly focusing attention on improvement, obtaining feedback about where additional improvement is needed, reflecting, and then refocusing on continued improvement. “Deliberative practice is not 10,000 hours of mindless practice,” Duckworth said. “It’s 10,000 hours of deliberative focus on this cycle.”

Duckworth recounted going to The United States Military Academy, commonly known as West Point, to study the factors that may contribute to cadets dropping out within the first year of attendance after achieving monumental success prior to being accepted to West Point. A metric — the Whole Candidate Score — that combines measures of academic success, physical fitness and leadership experience — was a poor predictor of the ability to persevere during the first months at West Point, Duckworth said. 

“Grit keeps you going through that difficult experience,” Duckworth said. “Talent does not guarantee that you will show up when others have gone home.”

Offering guidance to continue developing grit during their lives, Duckworth told those in the crowd that they should find an interest that captures their attention over the long term. If they already have that interest, set goals for working to continuously improve, she said. People are more likely to adhere to an interest and work to improve is they feel that what they are doing has a sense of purpose, she said. 

“That feeling, that you’re part of something that is contributing to people’s lives who are not you, it’s a tremendous motivator,” Duckworth said. “Passion is not just interest. It’s interest plus purpose.”

Finally, having a mindset that is focused on personal and purposeful growth is important. “When you look to learn, you’ll find that you do,” Duckworth said. “We now know that the brain changes and grows throughout the entire lifespan. No matter how old you are, it’s never too late to learn.”

President Connie Ledoux Book congratulates the academic achievements of Elon students during Spring Convocation. 
During her remarks before Duckworth’s introduction by Associate Professor of Psychology Amy Overman, President Connie Ledoux Book noted that Elon’s mascot — the Phoenix — and its history embody the themes of grit and resilience that Duckworth has touched on in her work. “Elon exemplifies the very energy you have captured in your writing,” Book said. “Your research on grit and perseverance are foundational to an understanding of education and the kind of growth and development Elon students seek in their four years here.”

Book held up doctor of physical therapy student Danielle Nunn as an example, sharing that Nunn faced Legg-Calve-Perthes disease beginning at the age of 4 and hip dysplasia at the age of 19, both of which required extensive surgeries and relearning how to walk. 

“Today, despite hip disease causing back problems and limiting her to only walking, Danielle has used her experiences to fuel a desire to help others experiencing extreme pain and physical challenges,” Book said. “And she is on track to graduate with her classmates in December of this year.”

Elon’s Spring Convocation is an annual event to recognize Dean’s List and President’s List students, the faculty, the upcoming graduating class and donors to Elon.

Book also recognized 15 faculty members who are retiring this academic year, noting that they have clearly loved their jobs, this institution and their students. “We are enormously grateful for your dedication to the Elon family over the decades,” Book said. “Please keep Elon in your minds and your hearts as we continue to advance this fine institution on behalf of our students.”