In a moving preface to her first book, Angela Duckworth shared her story of growing up as one of three children of Chinese immigrants. Her father was particularly hard to please, and he had a favorite phrase for Angela and her siblings:
You’re no genius.
According to her father, Angela didn’t measure up intellectually, and that would limit what she could achieve in life. His disappointment began early, when in third grade she didn’t test high enough for the gifted and talented program.
Here’s what happened when Angela grew up:
- In 2013, she was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, also known as the “genius grant.”
- Before that, Duckworth had earned an A.B. in neurobiology at Harvard, graduated from the University of Oxford with an M.Sc. in neuroscience, and a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Pennsylvania.
- She is currently a Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania.
Not too shabby for someone whose achievement was supposed to be limited.
On the day her MacArthur award was announced, Angela went over to her parents’ apartment. As you can imagine, there were many choice words she could have said to her father at that point.
Once the cascade of congratulatory calls from friends and family ended, her father turned to her and said, “I’m proud of you.”
Instead of the choice words, Duckworth responded, “Thanks, Dad.”
The Curse of “Smart”
In one respect, my experience was completely different from Duckworth’s. In fifth grade, my parents were called in to my school and told that on the basis of an IQ test, I was being placed in the gifted and talented program.
From then on, through high school, college, and law school, I was told I was smart. Even when I started practicing law, “But you’re so smart …” became the stock response to my dissatisfaction with the work.
While certain things came easier to me (namely school and legal analysis), other pursuits didn’t. And when things didn’t come easy for me, I tended to give up.
Research shows this isn’t unique to me. Children who are told they’re smart tend to develop a fixed mindset that actually hinders their potential:
When people perform well (academically or otherwise) at early ages and are labeled smart or gifted, they become less likely to challenge themselves. They become less likely to make mistakes, because they stay in their comfort zone and stop growing. And their fixed mindset persists through adulthood.
I can vouch that it’s true. All that mattered was that people viewed me as intelligent. And therefore everything that didn’t come easily due to intelligence obviously didn’t matter.
It wasn’t until I quit the practice of law and started a business, which ultimately failed, that my mindset changed. Being “smart” in the IQ sense didn’t compensate for the fact that I had no clue what I was doing.
Only the hard work of learning what I needed to could do that.
At that point I understood that the harder I worked, the “smarter” I got in a practical sense — which is the classic definition of a growth mindset. Further, I discovered a passion for solving business problems that made me work on that problem relentlessly until I figured it out.
To be clear, the gift of cognitive processing power has certainly not hurt, but it’s not why I’ve started a string of successful businesses since the first one failed. After all, we all know at least one brilliant underachiever who rationalizes their lack of success, right?
I could have easily been that guy.
The true keys are to not be afraid to make mistakes, to not shy away from difficulty, and to enthusiastically learn from it all. Most importantly, to keep going even when things don’t work out the way you initially thought.
It’s Grit that Translates to Success
Some of you already realize that, in addition to her other achievements, Angela Duckworth is the author of last year’s New York Times best seller Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. Based on her own research, Duckworth reveals that the ability to keep going is the key to success when compared to natural talent or native intelligence.
Duckworth’s findings have turned the ill-advised self esteem movement on its head. Rather than telling kids how special they are, perhaps we should be pushing them to persevere — especially when the going gets tough.
But what about adults who seem to lack the ability to stick with things? Is the capacity for grit just something you’re born with, like talent and intelligence?
The research says no. Perseverance is a personality trait that can have genetic and social origins just like any other aspect of personality, but it’s also something you can consciously improve on.
It can be as simple as adjusting your mindset. We know from the work of Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck that simply acknowledging that personal change is possible is what it takes to shift from a fixed mindset to one of growth.
Another aspect of an increased capacity for perseverance is maturity. As we get older, most people tend to get better at sticking with things given that the consequences of giving up become more serious as we begin careers and have children.
In my case, I was 31 when I started that first business. I understood that if I couldn’t figure out how to support myself, I would have to go back to having a job — and that would be a soul crushing consequence for me.
But there’s more to it than just growing up. You can grow your grit intentionally.
How to Grow Grittier
Through her research, Duckworth has identified four psychological assets that perseverant people possess. Moreover, these four elements tend to develop in a particular order.
- Interest: Choosing something you’re genuinely interested in is the first step to sticking with it. Here you get the powerful benefit of intrinsic motivation, meaning it’s something you want to do without regard for external approval or reward. There are always aspects that are less pleasing than others, but true passion develops when you’re captivated by the endeavour as a whole.
- Practice: The next phase is taking something you intrinsically enjoy and developing the discipline to practice. Your intentional actions to get incrementally better, step-by-step, carves out the path to mastery. This will lead to the development of sound goals that are supported by the development of the beneficial habit of practice.
- Purpose: Passion expands with the conviction that your work matters. It’s at this point that your particular thing not only creates personal gratification, but also is connected to the well-being of others. While some endeavours naturally benefit both you and others, gritty people tend to develop a sense over time that their work is indeed serving a greater purpose.
- Hope: Unlike the other three aspects, Duckworth maintains that hope is not the final stage of grit. Rather, it defines the other three stages. When you think about it, hope is what lets us rise to the occasion and keep going when things get tough. If you’re challenging yourself, you’re going to get knocked down. Getting back up reflects the hope that you’ll overcome.
It might seem that developing grit is a futile exercise in willpower. But if you start with interest and the intrinsic motivation that comes with it, you can see how the rest flows from it. And given that hope springs eternal, the first step is to get started and simply keep going.
Winners Never Quit?
While perseverance may be the key to success, let’s not pretend that it means to absolutely, positively, never give up. Sometimes, quitting is the right move. In fact, knowing when things are not working out and changing course accordingly is one of the most important skills I’ve developed over the years.
Giving up on something that isn’t a true passion is fine. And sometimes, we bite off more than we can chew and have to face reality.
You just don’t want to fail to achieve your dreams because you simply gave up after a setback. The regret that will linger is much more painful than picking yourself up and persisting.
Also published on Medium.