MacArthur Fellowship grantee Angela Lee Duckworth talks about why success takes “grit,” and
whether it’s possible to teach people to be “grittier.”
What sets high achievers apart?
BY LEA WINERMAN
In her 20s, Angela Lee Duckworth, PhD, tried out a couple of different
career paths, working as a management
consultant and a middle-school teacher.
But eventually she decided that she
needed to settle down, choose a field
and commit to it. She chose psychology,
and today, she is an associate professor
at the University of Pennsylvania. As
of September, she is also one of only
about a dozen psychologists ever to win
a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship,
otherwise known as a “genius grant.”
Her story — picking a field and
sticking to it, then excelling — in some
ways illustrates her work. Duckworth
studies what she calls grit: the hard work,
dedication and perseverance that lead
people to stick with a goal for years or
decades until they succeed. She’s found
that grit, as much as or in some cases
more than talent, can predict success in
a variety of difficult situations, including
cadet training at West Point and the
National Spelling Bee.
Duckworth spoke to the Monitor
about her work and what she plans
to do with her no-strings-attached
You study grit and self-control.
How are these two traits related?
Grit is the disposition to pursue very
long-term goals with passion and
perseverance, sustained over time. So
the emphasis is on stamina.
Self-control is related — we often
measure self-control and grit in
the same sample and find a strong
correlation — but the difference is
time scale. Self-control is the ability
to resist momentary distractions
and temptations in order to reach a
goal, but the goal doesn’t have to be
something that you’re pursuing for
years or decades. You might have a goal
of staying on an exercise routine or
doing your homework that night. And
if you fail to do that and instead sit on
the couch or watch TV, that’s a failure
of self-control. But the goal doesn’t
have to be something you’re working on
for years and years.
Francis Galton was the first to tease
[grit and self-control] apart, in 1859,
when he [wrote about] the characteristics
of the most eminent individuals in
society. He said that those people are
typically blessed with talent, with zeal
and with a capacity for hard labor. I
would say that the last two elements
more or less correspond to grit: zeal,
or passion, and then the capacity for
sustained hard labor, or perseverance.
Then Galton said: This is not to be
confused with that capacity we have
to resist the hourly temptations, which
is important in everyday life. So that’s
We find similar patterns in our
modern empirical data. If you’re
looking at who succeeds in a very, very
challenging environment like West
Point Military Academy or the National
Spelling Bee, grit ends up being more
predictive than self-control. But if you’re
looking at something like how much
homework a student does — these more
routine things — then self-control ends
up being a marginally better predictor.
People who are gritty do tend to be
self-controlled and vice versa. But not
It seems like it might be easier
to have self-control without grit
than grit without self-control?
I think [both situations are] possible. I
know very gritty people who are very
determined, they have passion for their
work and they’ve been working on the
same thing for years and years, but they
can be, frankly, very distracted in the
moment. When you’re talking to them,
their minds are going in different places.
But grit is really about what they do
when they wake up the next day, and
the next year. Do they persevere?
So I do know some very gritty
individuals who are not paragons of
self-control. And as you point out, it’s
also easy to think of paragons of self-control who lack a passion — who
lack any guiding north that is really
meaningful to them.
But the exceptions are exactly that,
exceptions. Most people who have one
have the other.
You mention succeeding at
West Point and at the National
Spelling Bee. What other
situations have you found where
grit predicts success?