Before we get into today’s show, there’s something I want to mention about our previous episode. It was called “How to Become Great at Just About Anything,” and it looked at how the key to expert performance is deliberate practice, even more than natural talent. And at the end of the show, we did a callout for volunteers who’d be willing to enroll in a deliberate-practice regimen to try to become excellent at whatever they’re passionate about.
We were thinking about picking five or 10 volunteers and following their pursuit for a series of podcasts. (The place to write, if you’re interested, is firstname.lastname@example.org.) The good news is that we were inundated with replies — more than 2,500 emails so far. People who want to become great at all kinds of musical pursuits and sports, but also language, coding, math, drawing, gaming, calligraphy, wood-carving, dog-training, documentary filmmaking — even podcasting! You name it, someone out there wants to get great at it. It is unbelievably inspiring to read all these emails. So that is the good news.
The bad news is that … well, that we got 2,500 e-mails. Which means it’s going to take us a while to sort things through and come up with a plan. So, if you’ve written in, please be very, very patient.
It also means that we’re only going to be able to accept a tiny share of the volunteers to be featured in the podcast, although, we are going to try to come up with a way for anyone who wants to build and follow their own deliberate-practice schedule. So, thanks for your overwhelming interest and enthusiasm and, as always, thanks for listening. OK, here’s today’s show:
Srinath Mahankali is sitting on a sofa in his family’s living room in Queens, New York. He’s 12 years old. His father, Srinivas, is looking up dictionary words on a laptop, reading them aloud.
SRINIVAS MAHANKALI: Chamois (sham-ee) or chamois (sham-wa)?
SRINATH MAHANKALI: Chamois. May I have the language of origin please?
SRINIVAS MAHANKALI: It’s Middle French from Late Latin.
SRINATH MAHANKALI: Chamois. May I have the definition please?
SRINIVAS MAHANKALI: A small goat-like antelope.
You’ve probably figured out that Srinath is preparing for a spelling bee. Later this month, he will be competing in the Scripps National Spelling Bee, the Super Bowl of spelling bees.
SRINATH MAHANKALI: Chamois. C-H-A-M-O-I-S. Chamois.
SRINIVAS MAHANKALI: That’s right.
Srinath is not the first great speller in his family. A few years ago, his older brother, Arvind, won the national spelling bee and the $30,000 prize. Arvind’s winning word: knaidel, from the Yiddish.
ANNOUNCER 1: Knaidel or knaidel is a small mass of leavened dough cooked by boiling or steaming as with soup, stew or fruit… It’s a dumpling.
ARVIND MAHANKALI: Knaidel. K-N-A-I-D-E-L. Knaidel.
ANNOUNCER 2: You are the champion.
Srinath would of course also like to win. He qualified for the national bee by winning the New York Daily News competition back in March.
SRINATH MAHANKALI: I won on the word osculatory. O-S-C-U-L-A-T-O-R-Y. Do you want to know what it means? Related to kissing.
Between now and the national bee, Srinath will be practicing a lot. And practice, especially what’s known as deliberate practice, is vital if you want to get really good at anything. It may in fact be more important than the talent you’re born with.
ANDERS ERICSSON: With the right kind of training, any individual would be able to acquire abilities that were previously viewed as only attainable if you had the right kind of genetic talent.
That’s what we talked about last week on Freakonomics Radio – how deliberate practice can help anyone get really good at just about anything. So let’s assume you buy into that. You really believe that talent is vastly overrated, and that with the right amount and the right kind of practice, you can excel. All right, then, here’s a question: how are you supposed to push yourself to practice like that? Where does that drive come from? How can you increase your determination, your stick-to-it-iveness, your … grit. May I have the definition, please?
ANGELA DUCKWORTH: I define grit as passion and perseverance for especially long-term goals.
And what kind of questions should we be asking about grit?
DUCKWORTH: What specifically are gritty people like? What do they do when they wake up in the morning? What beliefs do gritty people walk around with in their heads?
And, since this is Self-Improvement Month at Freakonomics Radio, let me ask you this: can someone who doesn’t have a lot of grit learn to get some?
DUCKWORTH: My answer to that would be yes, you can.
* * *
Annette Lee grew up in New Jersey. As in many first-generation immigrant Asian families, she says, there was a lot of pressure to succeed, including intra-familial pressure.
ANNETTE LEE: No matter what you did, you always heard about Auntie So-and-So’s son, or Uncle So-and-So’s daughter, who did it better, faster, first. So you would come home and say, “Guess what? I got 1520 on my SATs,” and then you would hear, “Oh, that’s too bad. Auntie Rose’s son got 1600, and he took them in 8th grade.” So pretty much, no matter what you did, you were kind of a disappointment.
Lee’s parents both emigrated from China and met in the U.S. in the 1960s. Her mother was studying for an MFA in painting. Her father got his Ph.D. in organic chemistry and took a job at DuPont. They had three kids; Annette was in the middle.
LEE: We had a very, I think, middle-class upbringing. You know, four-bedroom, two-and-a-half-bath house in the suburbs. If you’ve seen The Wonder Years, that kind of a neighborhood.
In other words, it was kind of average. Average house, average job, and average children. At least that’s how her dad saw it, Lee says. He just didn’t think his kids had much natural talent. One of his favorite sayings was: “You’re no genius.”
LEE: Yeah, “You’re no genius.” You know, I think that we grew up a lot thinking that we were just failures.
Annette Lee, we should say, became a doctor — a reproductive endocrinologist, in private practice in Pennsylvania. But back when she was applying for college and was accepted by Cornell, an Ivy League school, her parents were disappointed that she didn’t get into Harvard, Princeton, or Yale.
LEE: And my parents’ reaction was, “Oh, my God. Thank God we still have Angie.”
DUCKWORTH: Hi, this is Angela.
That is Annette’s younger sister, Angie Lee, a.k.a. Angela, now Angela Lee Duckworth. She did go to Harvard, and to Oxford, and she got a Ph.D., in psychology, from the University of Pennsylvania. But their dad’s whole genius shtick stayed with her.
DUCKWORTH: I think what my dad meant when he would say out of the blue, you know, “You’re no genius,” is that I wasn’t the smartest person that he had met. That I wasn’t leagues smarter than other people my age or people that he knew.
Duckworth’s career has worked out pretty well.
DUCKWORTH: I’m scientific director and founder of the Character Lab and a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania.
And now she’s written a book:
DUCKWORTH: Oh yeah, here comes the self-promotion part. I’m also an author of a book called Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.
Duckworth’s focus is on education, and her research tries to understand how kids learn best. She used to teach 7th-grade math in New York City. In the classroom, watching the successful kids — and the unsuccessful ones – she came to the conclusion that a given student’s natural abilities seemed to matter a lot less than effort, and grit.
DUCKWORTH: That’s right. I want to redefine genius, if you will. I think most people use the word “genius” the way my dad means the word “genius,” — you know, somebody who has an intellectual gift which is far greater than what most people have in a given area, in music or in mathematics, in running or in dancing. And by that natural ability, they’re going to far excel the rest of us, almost by destiny. I think that is what most people use the word genius for. And then they all have their handy list of geniuses that they think of, like Mozart or Einstein. I want to define genius as greatness that isn’t necessarily effortless, but, in fact, greatness that is earned however you do earn it. And so I want to define genius as something that you accomplish yourself as opposed to something that’s given to you.
STEPHEN J. DUBNER: And that brings us, I assume, therefore, to grit. So, talk about grit. First of all, let’s start with how you define it.
DUCKWORTH: I define grit as passion and perseverance for especially long-term goals.
DUBNER: OK, so that sounds kind of like a no-brainer — that everybody in their right mind would want to have more grit rather than less of that. So surely your argument isn’t simply that grit is a good thing to have; it’s that grit is … what?
DUCKWORTH: So, the message of the book is not that grit is a good thing in particular. The message of the book is that like so many other things about us that are good, we can do something to intentionally cultivate grit in ourselves and in others that we care about.
DUBNER: Well, can you start teaching me, right now, or anyone listening to this, how to be grittier? I mean, I want specifics. I want to know what to do; I want to know what not to do; I want to know how long I should expect these changes to take; I want to know if there are going to be relapses that I should be prepared for, and so on. How do we start?
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, when you talk about changing character, or changing grit, it feels like, well, “You can’t change that. People are who they are.” But when you actually get to the specifics, you know, what specifically are gritty people like? What do they do when they wake up in the morning? What beliefs do gritty people walk around with in their heads? When you get to that level of specifics, you realize, “Gosh, there’s no reason why these things couldn’t be taught, practiced, or learned.”
Duckworth has learned what she’s learned about grit in two main ways. One: by conducting in-depth interviews with high achievers — businesspeople, athletes, musicians, and so on — “paragons of grit,” she calls them. And two, by following groups of people, like new cadets at West Point or students in the Chicago Public Schools, and seeing whether a person’s long-term success corresponds to their grit score. (We’ll learn later how she calculates that score.)
Through her research, Duckworth has identified four traits that gritty people have in abundance: interest, practice, purpose, and hope.
DUCKWORTH: Let’s start with the first thing I think that gritty people develop in the order in which they develop it, which is interest. So one thing that I found about paragons of grit, you know, real outliers in passion and perseverance, is that they have extremely well-developed interests. They cultivate something which grabs their attention initially, but that they become familiar with enough, knowledgeable enough that they wake up the next day and the next day and the next year, and they’re still interested in this thing. And I think that is something that we can actually intentionally decide: “I want to be the kind of person who stays interested in something.” And so that passion really does have to come first.
DUBNER: What about, however, if I, or my kid, or someone that I really care about — if I’m a teacher, my students — what if they can’t find a passion?
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, I don’t know if there are many commencement speeches given these days that don’t actually exhort people to follow their passion. And I think that just strikes the fear of God into people because they then think, “Oh, my God I don’t have one. Now I’m really screwed.” And I think the idea of “following a passion” is just the wrong way to phrase it. “Following a passion” sounds like it’s there in the world fully formed, you just have to dig it up under the right bush. Really, you have to foster a passion. You have to actively put some work in and try things, and try them for a little while, and get into them, and then you have to switch, right? Part of grit is actually doing enough exploration early on, quitting enough things early on, that you can find something that you’re willing to stick with. So I don’t know that there’s an easy prescription then for telling people how exactly to do that. But I think one misunderstanding, which is very dangerous, is to suggest to people that passion just falls into your lap, and it’s love at first sight. It’s not like that. It’s not like that for the people that I’ve been studying.
DUBNER: And what happens if I’m interested in something to the degree of passionate, but then my passion shifts over time? Do I feel like I’m therefore a loser? That I’m an anti-grittist? You know, “I used to think I was passionate, but now I think I’m a dilettante.” So how do you handle that?
DUCKWORTH: One of the psychologists that I interviewed said shame is usually not helpful as an emotion, and I would second that. So no, I don’t believe people should berate themselves for deciding that they don’t want to go to medical school after all. But I will say this: it is human nature to get bored of things and to seek the novel. And I think that one of the skills that one must develop in life, if one cares not to be a dilettante, if it’s a goal of yours to become expert in something, one of the skills is to learn to substitute nuance for novelty.
I love that idea — “to substitute nuance for novelty.” So rather than constantly moving on to a new thrill, you try to find another level, another dimension, of the thing you’re already doing, to make it more thrilling. Whether it’s a research project or an arpeggio, a breaststroke or a soufflé — wherever your interests lie.
DUCKWORTH: I think there’s something of a skill there that needs to be acquired. Otherwise, we will default to that natural human tendency to click on another hyperlink and go somewhere entirely new.
DUBNER: OK, so if interest is the first trait that gritty people tend to possess, and you say that is kind of the bedrock foundation, yes? That these are attained in order, yeah?
DUCKWORTH: Yes, that’s right. I think developmentally, most people just get interested in something and then some people cultivate those interests. Those interests get developed and then deepened. And that second stage is practice.
Particularly deliberate practice.
We got into that in our previous episode – the Gladwell version in Outliers, which is built around something called the 10,000-hour rule.
DUCKWORTH: Sometimes it’s called the ten-year rule, so-called because the average number of hours of effortful practice was 10,000 hours over 10 years.
ANDERS ERICSSSON: And I’m a professor of psychology at Florida State University in Tallahassee, Florida.
There are several components to deliberate practice, but generally, it’s about using good feedback to focus on specific techniques that will lead to real improvement.
ERICSSON: So anytime you can focus your performance on improving one aspect, that is the most effective way of improving performance.
Angela Duckworth, in pursuit of a better understanding of grit, has collaborated with Anders Ericsson on research about deliberate practice.
DUCKWORTH: The second stage really does have this quality of laboring in a very methodical way and in a very unfun way for most people to get better and better at this thing that you’ve become interested in.
DUBNER: I think that is a conflict that at least I personally, and I know a lot of people that I know, come up against, which is that if you try to force yourself or will yourself into becoming awesome at something that you don’t have that true passion for, then the practice does become a sort of slow form of torture as opposed to a kind of work that you’re willing to go through because you love the underlying thing even if you don’t love playing that e-minor scale for the 1,800th time today.
DUCKWORTH: I completely agree, and I think that is why interest must come first. I think there are a lot of overeager, probably very well-intentioned parents out there who are kind of like chaining their kids to the piano bench in hopes that seventh hour of practice today is going to put them on course for Juilliard or Harvard. And I think they’re seriously getting things out of order. I interviewed Rowdy Gaines, the 1984 gold medalist in the 100-meter-freestyle representing the United States, and he estimates that in the years up to the Olympics where he won that gold medal, he swam equivalently around the world, right? Roughly 20,000 miles. And so I asked him, “Do you love practice?” And he said, “are you asking me if I love getting up at 4 in the morning, jumping into a cold pool, and swimming laps looking at a black line on the bottom, at the very edge of my physical ability where my lungs are screaming for oxygen and my arms feel like they’re about to fall off? No, I don’t, but I love the whole thing. You know, I have a passion for the whole sport.” And so that passion really does have to come first.
Such passion plainly comes in many flavors. Olympic competition, sure, but also spelling.
SRINIVAS MAHANKALI: OK, the first word is allemande.
SRINATH MAHANKALI: Can I have the definition?
SRINIVAS MAHANKALI: A 17th century and 18th century court dance developed in France.
SRINATH MAHANKALI: A-L-L-E-M-A-N-D-E, allemande.
SRINIVAS MAHANKALI: That’s right.
It isn’t just the competition that excites Srinath. It’s the words themselves.
SRINATH MAHANKALI: I have a passion for words because I just don’t really understand why they put it together in this sort of way. Like, when they got words from different languages, why did they make it spelled this way, that way?
His mother, Bhavani, remembers when her older son, Arvind, caught the spelling bug.
BHAVANI MAHANKALI: Actually when my first one was in like third grade or second grade, he was watching Scripps National Spelling Bee on TV. And then he came out with a notebook, and he was writing all the words because he wanted to be on TV.
SRINIVAS MAHANKALI: Arvind started writing them down, those words, and said, “I want to do this, and I want to be like that,” because they’re small kids. They’re so impressed with small children standing there and asking all the root questions and all that. It was fascinating.
BHAVANI MAHANKALI: I always thought this is only for some other kids. I’m not going to make my kids do that. I always thought that. This is nice to watch but I’m not expecting …
SRINIVAS MAHANKALI: Beyond our realm.
Srinath, at age six, was memorizing the winning words at the National Spelling Bee. He learned the diacritical marks in a dictionary that denote pronunciation. His parents wound up coaching him.
SRINATH MAHANKALI: I got to give a lot of thanks to my parents. They look through the dictionary. They look for interesting words. Some of them are too long. Some of them have very different spellings. Some of them are too short.
Instead, Srinath and his parents focus on interesting spellings and patterns — on French and German and Spanish words so he can master foreign prefixes and suffixes, in case similar words come up.
SRINATH MAHANKALI: Hanap. May I have the language of origin please?
SRINIVAS MAHANKALI: It’s from Middle English, from Middle French.
And then he practices and practices and practices, depending, of course, on how much homework he has.
SRINATH MAHANKALI: Hanap, H-A-N-A-P. Hanap.
SRINIVAS MAHANKALI: That’s correct.
Among the many high achievers that Angela Duckworth has studied are National Spelling Bee contestants. You may not be surprised to learn that high grit scores translate into high spelling scores, and that the style and intensity of practice are extremely important.
DUCKWORTH: Kerry Close, who won the National Spelling Bee one year that we studied it, said the one thing that very grittily studying for the National Spelling Bee for five years in a row — because she won her fifth year of competition — was just the, the ability to take a large something, and break it up into little tasks, and to fractionate things so that they’re not so overwhelming and that you can do them. So that is the second stage, and it’s about doing things that you can’t yet do. And that, too, I think if you ask the question: “Do you think kids could learn how to practice in that way? Could adults who really want to pick up something new, could they learn that?” I think they can.
DUBNER: If interest comes first, practice follows, what’s next?
DUCKWORTH: The third stage is purpose. Connecting your work, or even your hobby if that’s where your real passion is, to people who are not you. So it’s a beyond-the-self purpose that I’m particularly observing in grit paragons. And I used to think, well, of course that will apply to people who are working on the cure to cancer or people who are working in community organization. But, in fact, even athletes, who you might say, “Well, they’re doing something kind of selfish, right? They’re trying to win the gold medal for themselves.” But even these people who have ostensibly very personal, or you could argue, selfish interests, they really see how their work is connected to other people. Athletes will say they feel connected to their teammates, to the sport as a whole. So I think that this third stage doesn’t happen at the front for most people.
DUBNER: OK. And the final component of grit is?
DUCKWORTH: The final component is hope. And I won’t say that you only need that only after you’ve been doing something for 12 or 15 years. You really do need hope from beginning to end. Because, of course, no matter where you are in your journey, there are going to be potholes and detours and things that might make you think that it’s not worth staying on this path. So hope, essentially, is the belief that there’s something you can do to come back from these problems or from these challenges. And I say that it’s the fourth component, but it’s really something that you need at varying degrees in varying ways all along.
DUBNER: So when you’re writing about hope, and you link it to optimism and you talk about the difference between optimists and pessimists, and you write that optimistic people tend to perform better in school, in their work, that their health is better, than pessimistic people. But whenever I see a piece of research like this I wonder: “Well, how do we know that the people that are identified as optimists aren’t optimistic because they’re better off in life? And how do we know that the pessimists aren’t pessimistic because they’re having a hard time, and that the arrow isn’t going in the other direction?”
DUCKWORTH: It’s a really good question. And I think you’re partly right, by the way. Why would somebody be optimistic? I think in part it’s because they enjoy a virtuous cycle of believing that they can change things, looking for ways that they can improve their situation, putting forth effort, in fact, making some change in their situation for the better, reaping those rewards, and the whole cycle starts over again, right? And you could imagine the vicious cycle for pessimists. And, in fact, this is what actually happens, in particular, for example, with clinical depression. When you have at the extreme a pessimistic outlook that says, “I’m hopeless, there’s nothing that I can do because I’m a loser. I’m not going to go to that party. I’m not going to take that job interview.” OK, then what happens? Social isolation, unemployment that confirms your intuition that everything’s awful. You sort of produce the evidence for yourself that you were right all along, which then gets you to be more entrenched in that pessimistic state. So you’re very likely correct that there’s this reverse causality. I would just call it part of this reciprocal causality that reinforces things.
* * *
DUBNER: So Levitt, let me ask you this question. However you think of grit, how would you rate yourself on a scale of 1 to 5 on grittiness?
LEVITT: I am not very gritty when it comes to things I don’t like.
That’s my Freakonomics friend and coauthor, Steve Levitt. He’s an economist at the University of Chicago.
LEVITT: Almost every day, as I watch my kids go to school, I think about how glad I’m not in school anymore. Because school forces you to do all sorts of things that you hate, like to swim in a really cold pool, or to learn French, or to write humanities papers about Lord of the Flies. Things I really wouldn’t want to have to do. And at this point in my life, I have no grit for things like that. But for things that I have an intrinsic interest in, I am incredibly gritty. I would say I am about the grittiest golfer who’s ever walked the planet. So, you and I, we played 72 holes in two days, and at the end of those 72 holes, all I wanted to do was go back out to the driving range and the putting green, because I felt like there so much work to be done.
In the professional realm, meanwhile, Levitt very much subscribes to the “passion” argument.
LEVITT: One of the things I’ve always used as an indicator of who will be an excellent economist is the people who love it the most. So, even if they don’t have a lot of talent, even if they haven’t had a lot of good publications, when I talk to people who love economics more than anything else in the world, I know that in 10 years, they’re still going to be working as hard as they can to try to get the answers. When I find people who treat it like a job, who don’t seem to like it, but have a natural talent, I think that’s often an indicator of someone who when the going gets tough, they will not have grit.
But let’s back up a minute. How can you tell how gritty somebody actually is? If we’re going to try to figure out how important grit is in success, you need to be able to measure their grit, right? These are the kind of questions that are central to Angela Duckworth’s research. Questions that don’t always have complete answers.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, I’ll first say that I wish I knew more. As a scientist — and I, in some ways I resisted writing a book because a scientist is, by training, I think very cautious about overreaching the data. But in my research lab, we do longitudinal studies of individuals at places like West Point or the National Spelling Bee or Chicago Public Schools — places where we can follow people over time in situations that we believe are challenging, and we can measure in some objective way their performance. And we can measure grit at the beginning and their performance at the end and in many cases other things like I.Q., where we want to make sure that we’re controlling for that. So a lot of my research is based on these longitudinal studies: measure their grit, look for differences — high-grit people, low-grit people, people in the middle — and then see what happens.
To measure grit, Duckworth designed a twelve-question survey called the Grit Scale.
DUCKWORTH: I abbreviated it to 10 items in the book because I have discovered, through personal experience, that people are not very good at dividing by 12 to calculate their score.
DUCKWORTH: But the origin of this scale were interviews that I had done in my very first years of graduate school, when I was trying to understand what the psychological characteristics were of super-high achievers. First I asked them what they were like. And I learned very quickly that people who are, you know, Nobel laureates or the equivalent in their field, aren’t very good at describing themselves, in part, because I think we’ve all be trained to be humble and self-deprecating. So I started asking people about the people that they in turn admired most. And the questions on the scale are almost verbatim the way that these other super-achievers were described to me.
DUBNER: OK, so, Angela would you read a couple of these grit questions from the questionnaire, and I’ll go ahead and answer them.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, so let’s start with perseverance. So on a scale from 1 to 5, where 5 would be very much like me and 1 would be not at all like me: “setbacks don’t discourage me. I don’t give up easily.”
DUBNER: I would say, 4 out of 5. That is mostly like me.
DUCKWORTH: OK. “I finish whatever I begin.”
DUBNER: Oh, well, I’m interpreting that in my brain. I’m going to say, not like me at all. I mean, I finish the things that are really important, but there are a lot of things that I don’t finish. I’m going to say not.
DUCKWORTH: So not at all? So 1 out of 5?
DUBNER: Yeah, I’m going to say 1 out of 5.
DUCKWORTH: OK. “I am a hard worker.”
DUBNER: I would say 4 out of 5. That’s mostly like me.
DUCKWORTH: “New ideas and projects sometimes distract me from previous ones.”
DUBNER: Oh, daily. Yeah, very much like me.
DUCKWORTH: And then, “my interests change from year to year.”
DUBNER: I’d have to say I’m in the middle on that. Only because some interests are very, very constant, but then a lot of new ones, and I kill off a lot of old ones. So I guess 3 out of 5.
DUCKWORTH: 3 out of 5. OK, right in the middle—
DUBNER: I have a feeling I’m like, I’m heading toward real middle-grit territory. I’m like not very gritty. OK, give me one more.
DUCKWORTH: “I have been obsessed with a certain idea or project for a short time, but later lost interest.”
DUBNER: It’s interesting because I want to argue with every one of your questions, because I want to argue that the fact that I’ve been obsessed with a certain idea or project means that I have some passion, so doesn’t that get me up on the grit scale? But I do lose interest. I would say that that’s mostly like me. I get obsessions. I follow them for a while, then I kick them out of bed.
DUCKWORTH: So not so gritty, right? Two point something. Between a two and a three. Let’s see. I’ll turn it over, and I’ll give you your percentile. Yeah, 10 percent. Yeah, I think you’re roughly comparable to 10 percent of a sample of American adults. There’s lots I could say about the danger of making comparisons and error, but I absolutely agree that sometimes you take these scales and you just want to shout back to them because you don’t want to circle the answer; you want to explain why the question itself is flawed. I’d love to hear what your reactions are.
DUBNER: Well, not necessarily flawed, but that, as with any survey in life, it’s hard to reduce it to a number or a letter because there are different components of it. In other words, I want to give an essay answer rather than a multiple choice answer, which I know is not the ways surveys can work if, from your end, you want to use them. But I guess that does get me to the gist of the question, which is: it’s a self-reported pile of data. So how good is it?
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, I think I’m quoted in The New York Times saying all measures suck, and they all suck in their own way.
This is true. The Times article was about how some California schools are using socio-emotional measures to assess students’ performance. Now, you might think that Angela Duckworth, the standard-bearer for grit, would be leading this parade too. But you’d be wrong. “I do not think we should be doing this,” she told the Times. “It’s a bad idea.” Just in case anyone missed her point, she wrote an opinion piece for the Times a few weeks later called, “Don’t Grade Schools on Grit.” She argued that the measurement of grit and other character traits may never be good enough for such an important assessment. And she resigned from the board of a non-profit that was working with the California schools. All this led me to ask her what seems an obvious question:
DUBNER: So how can you claim that grit is so important while also claiming that we’re not very good yet at measuring grit?
DUCKWORTH: Well, first of all, anything that a social scientist wants to measure from poverty to self control to I.Q. to how well somebody can read, there are no perfect measures. So let’s take a questionnaire. They’re all fakeable. There are no un-fakeable questionnaires. There simply aren’t any. And they’re also subject to something called reference bias. So, for example, you gave yourself 1 out of 5, the lowest possible score on finishing whatever you begin. Now, I think you made a good point about [how] you don’t finish everything; you finish it if you care about it. But if you really think about that, I wonder whether if you just compared yourself to humanity, and asked, “Compared to humanity, are you really in the bottom of the group in terms of finishing things?” I doubt that. My guess is that, in part, you’re comparing yourself to a different standard than other people might be comparing themselves — a very high standard. That’s probably, in part, why you do finish things. So that reference bias is another problem of self-report questionnaires. I don’t think that any of the measures that are currently available are appropriate for high-stakes accountability policy like whether a school is doing a good job educating their kids. That’s not to say that we can’t measure anything at all and we should just throw up our hands and go home. It just means that when we measure things, we should know in what ways our measurements are imperfect. And we should know that any data that we get from these measures is going to carry signal, but also noise.
DUBNER: OK, let me play devil’s advocate for just a minute. What if you’re just wrong about grit? That it’s not important as you argue? So, for instance, I understand there’s a new study by researchers at King’s College London suggesting that grit “adds little to the prediction of school achievement,” which runs contrary to some of your conclusions. They argue that the samples that you’ve used — spelling-bee finalists, and teachers — are too selective, and therefore, “lead to stronger associations between grit and achievement later in life than might be the case in a wider sample.” So tell me you’re not wrong. Or maybe you are wrong and extraordinarily gritty in your ability to admit to…
DUCKWORTH: Well, I think it’s always important to remind yourself that you could be wrong, right? I know the study that you’re talking about. In particular, in that study, it’s looking at self-reported grit scores as they correlate with your standardized achievement test scores when you’re 16 years old. And yes, grit is predictive, but not as predictive as something like a broad scale of conscientiousness.
A “broad scale of conscientiousness” meaning the “big five” personality traits that psychologists talk about: extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, openness to experience, and neuroticism. The King’s College London study looked at a sample of 4,500 16-year old twins in Britain.
DUCKWORTH: So a couple reactions. One is that I don’t expect grit to predict all success outcomes equally. I don’t think that for many 16-year olds, their standardized reading and math scores are a goal of personal significance to them. And so, that’s why I study at places like West Point. Like, if you’re a salesperson, do you stay in your sales job? If you know you’ve committed to college, do you finish college? Goals that are at least at some level important to you, and I know that they are. You could say that that’s a kind of success outcome. That’s not all success outcomes, because achievement test scores are another kind of success outcome. But am I wrong? I mean, I guess it would be hard for me to believe — I’ll just confess my bias here — it’s going to be hard for me to believe that in 20 years, research comes out to say that effort doesn’t matter. That the quality and the quantity of your effort doesn’t matter. That really, the great accomplishments of humankind have been made by people who labored for only minutes or weeks and not for decades. That actually it’s possible to get somewhere in life without being hopeful, without learning to practice, without having a sense of meaning, and without being interested in it. So, you know, I could be wrong; it’s just, it’s really hard for me to imagine at that fundamental level that I am.
DUBNER: So, for parents or would-be-parents out there, what are some ideas for instilling grit? Or maybe the better question would be: what are some ideas for not killing the appetite to accomplish grit on their own? Because you do write about how overbearing parents and teachers erode intrinsic motivation. And if motivation is the first step, obviously you don’t want to kill that before it can flourish.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, I mean, I’m a parent to a 12-year-old and a 14-year-old, so after I leave the lab, I sort of come home and there’s this study of grit all over again, but just with my own kids and what to do with them. So yeah, first I do try to remember that though the perseverance piece, the hard work, the kind of get up again after you’ve fallen down, that’s very important. But if I’ve sort of skipped that chapter on them feeling like it’s interesting to them and eventually that it is also purposeful to them — that it’s important to them, and important because it means something to other people — if I skip that, then really I’ve maybe done more harm than good by trying to get them to now work really hard at it. So I do try to keep that in mind. I also think it’s naive to — I used to believe that I’m such a hard-working person that my kids will just watch me and that they will sit down at the piano bench and like start practicing scales—
DUBNER: Osmotic grit, yeah.
DUCKWORTH: Osmosis, yeah, that’s a great idea. I wish that it were so. But I think that even kids who have the potential to be very gritty, they really do need parents to say to them, “No, you actually do have to go to track practice today even though it’s raining.” Or, “You know what? That practice was — you know and I know that that practice was not serious practice, right? Let’s give it another shot.”
DUBNER: I’m curious if the partners and/or spouses and/or co-workers of people who have a lot of grit are also better off. Is grit a tide that lifts all boats? Or does it kind of swamp everybody around it?
DUCKWORTH: I do not have data on that. We have not yet asked about the happiness of the people who are living with these very gritty people. What we do have data on is the happiness of those gritty people themselves. And we find just a straight line — the more grit you have, the happier you say you are, the less anxiety you have, the less depression, the less sadness. So, from a personal perspective, grit seems to be terrific because you’re better off in terms of your achievements, but you’re also happier. But we don’t know — we really don’t — if that comes at the cost of your loved ones. I mean I’ve asked my own family — I mean, those are the only people that I can ask this question — you know, does it bother you?
DUBNER: What do you say, “Is my grit driving you crazy?”
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. Exactly. “Do I work too hard? Is your life worse off?” And I do think there is a cost, right?
DUBNER: I mean talk about unreliable self-reported data, though. What do you expect them to say to you? “Yes mom! We hate how hard you work.”
DUCKWORTH: Totally biased. Yeah, right. “We hate you.” But I will say this too. To be a really gritty person at the very extreme, take somebody like an Isaac Newton, who was singularly obsessed and there was nothing in his life, really, other than his work. You could spend a lot of time thinking about the consequences to the other people in his life. But I think for a lot of people who are listening, they’re nowhere close to that level of grit. They might be closer to the dilettante you jokingly described yourself as. And I think for those people to wonder, “Well, what if I did something with some more passion? What if I found something to be of deeper interest to me? Something that I’d be willing to be interested in, not just for the next year, but really actually for a few years. And I’m going to actually start working hard at this and trying to get better. And when bad things happen, I’m going to try and get back up again.” If you ask your question like, “Is that going to be bad for the people around me?” I’ll tell you one thing: the people who you love, love you back, and they probably want you to be a fulfilled individual. And by that metric, that should be a tide that raises the boats.
That is Angela Duckworth. Impressive; interesting; gritty. By the way, remember how her dad always used to say, “You’re no genius!”? Well, in 2013, Duckworth won a MacArthur Foundation fellowship, also known as the Genius Grant. Just sayin’.
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Coming up next week on Freakonomics Radio: Self-Improvement Month rolls on, with “How to Win Games and Beat People,” especially the people in your own family.
TOM WHIPPLE: He jumped on the sofa, and he pointed at me and with each point and with each bounce of him on the sofa, he says, “I win, you lose. I win, you lose.”
That will never happen to you again. I promise. That’s next time, on Freakonomics Radio.
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Freakonomics Radio is produced by WNYC Studios and Dubner Productions. Today’s episode was produced by Christopher Werth. The rest of our staff includes Arwa Gunja, Jay Cowit, Merritt Jacob, Greg Rosalsky, Kasia Mychajlowycz, Alison Hockenberry and Caroline English. If you want more Freakonomics Radio, you can also find us on Twitter and Facebook and don’t forget to subscribe to this podcast on iTunes or wherever else you get your free, weekly podcasts.
- Angela Lee Duckworth, Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and the Founder and Scientific Director of the Character Lab
- K. Anders Ericsson, Conradi Eminent Scholar and Professor of Psychology at Florida State University
- Steve Levitt, Freakonomics co-author and William B. Ogden Distinguished Service Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago.
- Annette Lee, endocrinologist in private practice in Pennyslvania
- Srinath Mahankali, Scripps National Spelling Bee contestant
- Angela Lee Duckworth’s 12-item Grit Scale
- Grit: Perseverance and Passion for Long-Term Goals by Angela Duckworth, et al. (2007)
- Measurement Matters: Assessing Personal Qualities Other Than Cognitive Ability for Educational Purposes by Angela Duckworth and David Yeager. (2015)
- True Grit and Genetics: Predicting Academic Achievement From Personality by Kaili Rimfield, et al. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. (2016)
- Angela Duckworth’s TED Talk