74 Interview: Researcher Angela Duckworth on Psychology, Parenting and Great Teachers — and Why ‘It’s More Important to Be Honest than To Be Gritty’

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See previous 74 Interviews: Author Jal Mehta on the value of teaching, Harvard scholar David Perkins on “playing the whole game,” and Professor Nell Duke on project-based learning and standards. The full archive is here

If you know one thing about Angela Duckworth, it might be that she’s a genius.

In awarding her their prestigious fellowship in 2013, the MacArthur Foundation wrote that the University of Pennsylvania psychologist “has turned intuitions about self-regulation into scientifically informed, highly practical approaches to teaching and learning.” An accolade like that, plus $625,000 in funding, will take you far in the world of education research.

Duckworth herself offers a fairly tempered view of her intellectual contributions. “I actually know almost nothing about almost everything,” she told The 74. “I just know a lot about the thing I care about.”

What she cares about is character: how it’s formed, and how it shapes people. Her widely cited studies on non-cognitive skills — the range of social and emotional competencies like self-control and teamwork that undergird intellectual ability — often focus on young people who have accomplished extraordinary things, from winning the National Spelling Bee to surviving the rigors of West Point’s Beast Barracks.

Most famously, Duckworth has isolated and extolled the benefits of grit, the sustained commitment to achieving long-term goals in the face of obstacles. She describes the trait, to which she devoted her eponymous 2016 New York Times-bestselling book, as a durable combination of passion and persistence that can better predict life success than cognitive traits like IQ. As a former teacher in New York City, she saw how sheer determination lifted her grittiest students to higher performance; inspired by her writing, some schools are now attempting to cultivate grit and other non-cognitive skills in students from a young age.

But if Duckworth’s research has won her prestige, it has also brought criticism. A few psychologists have claimed that the academic returns from grit are more directly attributable to other skills, while some educators and activists argue that preaching perseverance to poor and minority students is a form of soft-pedaled racism that blames the disadvantaged for not trying hard enough.

Duckworth says she’s been grappling with the criticism. Over the last few years, she’s started and led a nonprofit, Character Lab, to bring research on the human mind to parents and teachers. The organization recently announced that it has expanded its research network to bring roughly 100,000 students into contact with researchers who conduct studies on character development. She also regularly consults with practicing teachers to gain insight into the human element of education. The secret to great instruction, she’s learned, is devotion — not just to academic excellence, but to the pupils as people.

“A great teacher cares so much about their kids, and if they do that, they’re going to do a lot of the things that I study….The motivation is this amazing love.”

Over the past nine months, the outbreak of COVID-19 has stymied the social development of tens of millions of kids even as it has stretched the inner resources of parents and teachers to their limits. Many worry that the lengthy experiment in virtual learning will exact a long-term toll by shattering students’ routines and depriving them of opportunities to interact with peers and the world outside their homes.

In her writings as a columnist for Education Week, Duckworth has advised families and educators on how to regulate emotions under cramped conditions, retain a sense of control amidst historic uncertainty, and listen with empathy to the anger felt by children separated from school.

In this conversation with The 74, conducted before the pandemic, Duckworth fielded questions about psychology, Middlemarch, and the responsibilities of being a public intellectual. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The 74: Let’s talk about the trajectory your research has taken since it gained national attention. Since you began this research — which has stirred up some controversy — in what ways have you revised your thinking? Have you begun to look at it differently, or changed your beliefs on grit, based on criticism your work has received?

Angela Duckworth: I’m sure there are many criticisms, but a few leap to mind. One is whether grit is just the same thing as conscientiousness, and if we should stop talking about them separately. There’s also the question of whether grit is really as predictive of success outcomes as we’ve thought. And a third is about structural inequality and environmental influences. The grit narrative, as it were, is whether it’s really about your perseverance and passion, or is it more about opportunity?

In 2014, I wrote a paper saying that self-control and grit are really correlated, and they’re both part of conscientiousness. There are definitely some instances in which you’d think that conscientiousness or self-control would be a better predictor of success. Grit should not predict all outcomes. Really, it should apply to special, challenging, long-term pursuits. I don’t expect grit to be a predictor of whether you go to your checkup on time, or do your taxes on time, or stick to your diet. Those can be challenging, but they’re not really personally meaningful, like an identity-relevant pursuit. Winning the spelling bee or graduating from West Point are really different from, “Man, I should really floss.”

The second criticism is whether grit is as predictive as we thought. I don’t think grit should predict every positive outcome, or even every success outcome. Is it grit to get my grades in on time as a professor? Not really. That’s just basic self-control, and maybe organization. It’s not a personally meaningful goal that requires a lot of sustained passion and perseverance.

Even when I started, I didn’t think grit was like a magic wand that could explain everything. I even had to ask TED to change the name of my talk! You know, you don’t name your own TED talk, they just put the name on there for you. I didn’t think about it twice, but they originally chose something like, “Grit: The Key to Success.” And then somebody was like, “Hey, grit’s not the only thing that matters!” And I thought, “Right, of course.” So over the last few years I asked them to change it to just, “Passion and Perseverance,” and they very graciously agreed.

I named the nonprofit I’m running Character Lab because I’m a mom and a former teacher, and I don’t want kids to only have grit. I want them to have a lot of things. It’s more important to be honest than to be gritty. It’s more important to be nice than to be gritty. So it’s a valid critique to say that grit isn’t the only important trait; I just hope that’s a claim that’s never made.

The third criticism is about social inequality. What I learned here is mostly that what you say isn’t always what people hear, and what matters is what people hear. I hope I never said, “Poor kids can pull themselves up by their bootstraps, and poverty doesn’t matter.” When I was a teacher, I taught at really low-income schools. I personally think there’s structural racism and tremendous inequality in the American education system, and it’s an unfair burden to lay on the shoulders of children. Any good teacher would ask, if her student wasn’t trying hard, “What needs to happen to teach this kid (a) that it’s worthwhile to try right now and (b) how to develop skills and a mindset that would make them want to keep trying?”

It’s a valid criticism that I’ve become more sensitive to and more interested in understanding. What are the environmental factors that incline a child to be gritty or not? My underlying theory of human nature is that people are very, very reasonable. And when a child or adult does something that seems unreasonable, we just haven’t understood their reasons. When I get frustrated with my own kids, or when I’m a frustrated teacher and say, “My God, how could you not have done your homework?” — there was a reason, even if it’s a reason I like. I’m interested in the environmental factors that enable or incline people to attempt things that are hard and demand sustained commitment.

The 74: I’m wondering why you think detractors, particularly those in the popular press, seemed to believe that you were advocating a straight Horatio Alger-style narrative about the importance of hard work. Why do you think your ideas were greeted that way?

I can only speculate. There is an expression that I think Niels Bohr came up with: “The opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth.” For example, I think capabilities like delayed gratification and growth mindset and grit really matter. And someone else might say that a kid’s life situation matters. And they’re both true! Of course they both matter, and they actually matter in very intricate, interrelated ways.

It’s just really hard to communicate nuance, so if you say that grit matters, you get, “Wait, what about being nice? Doesn’t that also matter?” Yeah, of course that’s also important. Clearly, individual capability matters, but environment matters too. And also, where do you think individual capabilities come from? The argument that, if you emphasize character, you must be absolving policy and society of all responsibility — no, no, no, no, no! No! It’s a feature of human cognition that we struggle to reconcile the two ideas.

People ask, “Is it nature or nurture?” It’s been extremely well understood for over 50 years that it’s actually both. But then you have to explain gene-by-gene interactions, and by the time you get to the end of your little soliloquy and say, “See, it’s nature and nurture, in the most complicated way,” people ask: “Yeah, but which is it?”

People assume that if you’re arguing for grit, you must be saying that the curriculum, the teacher quality, the neighborhood violence all don’t matter. I think they all matter. But if you, as a journalist, or me, as whatever I am, could potentially get people to understand that, it would be incredible.

The 74: I’m actually interested in knowing what you are, exactly. You’re a researcher and a bestselling author. It seems like you’ve entered the realm of being not just a commonly cited psychologist, but something of a public intellectual. What have the obstacles been from the standpoint of communication and organization and personal bandwidth? 

That’s a really empathic question. Do you think anyone really cares? (Laughs) I primarily self-identify as a scientist; I don’t really identify as an author or a popular thinker. But I also think that “scientist” is an incomplete descriptor.

Do you know who Kurt Lewin is? He died like 70 years ago, and he was such a genius. He was a brilliant psychologist, and he’s one of the people whose research actually led to growth mindset. He basically said that science should help people live a better life. After he died, his wife wrote this forward to a volume of his collected works. She wrote, and I’ll paraphrase, “I don’t know what was the greater passion for him: to really understand human nature at its core, or to communicate it and make it useful to the broadest possible audience. To the end, both of those things are what woke him up in the morning.” I read that, and I thought, “That’s what I want to do!”

I don’t know exactly what I’d call myself. But I have a little diagram at the back of my notebook that’s a kind of goal hierarchy of what I want to do before I die. The top goal is to use psychological science to help children thrive. But under that goal are two other little goals. One is to push the science forward and work with the best people. I want to understand the psychology of failure — why some people care so much when something is almost good. That’s important to know as a scientist. But the other goal is to communicate it.

I also really don’t believe in whining. When you have a book and it sells a ton of copies and gets a lot of attention, I think that if I whined that people don’t understand me — like, shut up. I’m trying to be a mature person and take responsibility for being whatever those descriptors are, whether I choose them or not. I’m extraordinarily fortunate, and I’m trying to catch up to it.

The 74: So if the New York Times calls up and offers you Tom Friedman’s column, you’d say no to the role of lofty public intellectual?

Considering the focus of my work, maybe it would be better if it were David Brooks’s column?

Would I take that on? I’ve thought about stuff like that, and the real question is, am I going to take the time and energy trying to get the New York Times to offer me a column? That’s within the realm of possibility! I could if I wanted to.

I do write a little column, 200-300 words each week, for parents and teachers. I do have that desire to write, like, a teaspoon of psychological wisdom each week, because most writers try to give people gallons of it. That’s dumb; nobody can process 17 things they should know about self-control. You should give them one thing to know, it should be totally fact-checked by the original scientist, and it should be written at the highest level that anyone could try to produce. I don’t half-ass it. Would I do that for the New York Times? I haven’t spent the energy because I’m not convinced that writing for the Times would reach the audience that I want to. I did actually ask Parents magazine and Parade — a lot of parents read Parade — whether they would want a column on psychological science to help kids, and neither of them did.

I am spending the energy trying to communicate more, but I don’t think I’m a public intellectual in the broadest sense. I actually know almost nothing about almost everything. I just know a lot about the thing I care about.

The 74: I was wondering, is it an unalloyed good that we try to integrate expertise from brain science into the world of education? Do you see any downside?

I think you should worry about lots of things, but that’s probably orthogonal to brain science. I don’t see any special down side, and I’m not ringing any alarm bells.

Education is not only an art, but it should be a science. I don’t see any specific downside to focusing on psychology and brain science, but we should worry about overweighting one thing at the expense of something else. That’s why I’ve been writing for a while about gratitude and kindness, which are really important. And I’m not an expert, so I wrote those posts and sent them to actual scientists in that field.

I really think that if kids could grow up to care about other people, have a curious mind, and have a sense of grit and self-control, that they’ll all turn out fine. But if they’re lacking one of those — if they’re really gritty and super intellectually curious, but have no heart — that’s really bad. We should worry about that.

The 74: Okay, I’ve got a couple quick questions to finish up. Think of this as our lightning round. What are you reading right now that’s not related to your research?

I’m reading Middlemarch, and it’s really hard. My friend said it was his favorite novel, so I tried it, but I eventually gave up. Now I’m trying again.

The 74: That shows excellent grit. If you could wave a magic wand and widely implement a single education reform that you believe would improve education in the United States, what would it be?

Ah, that’s a great question. Every month, on a Thursday night at 6:20, I talk to five outlier teachers. We call them our expert teacher group, and they’re amazing. And every month, I hang up the phone and think, “If every kid in the country had them as their teachers, the world would be a different place.” I don’t know whether this is a policy solution, but I’d photocopy those five teachers. If I’d had those teachers when I was a kid, I’d be a better person.

The 74: Who is the grittiest person you’ve ever met?

One of the grittiest people I’ve met is Cody Coleman. He’s getting his PhD in computer science at Stanford, and grew up in poverty not far from Philadelphia. He’s incredibly gritty, and he’s a great person. I wrote about him in my book and at my website.

The 74: Are you trying to consciously raise your kids to be gritty? And, if so, are you successful?

My kids are 15 and 17. Earlier this week, I came down the stairs at like 5:30 in the morning. My husband was asleep, so I was trying to be quiet and not wake anybody up. But the light in the kitchen was on, and my kids had already been up for an hour. I was like, “Who are you people? What are you doing?” And they said, “Shh! We’re studying.” I thanked them for making the coffee, but it was weird.

I probably modeled a lot of grit for them, and my husband is also hard-working, so they emulated that to some extent. I just want to make sure they’re doing things for the right reasons. I really, really don’t want them to do things to get into college, or because they think I want them to. I super want them to pursue things because they want to. That said, I identify my two highest values as kindness and excellence, and I think they’ve internalized that.

They know that I care about excellence in anything. If you’re going to follow the recipe, really try to follow it. If you’re going to wrap presents, try to do it well. But the motivation of really gritty people is intrinsic, not extrinsic. I really don’t want them to be unhappy workaholics. I want them to be happy, hard-working people who do things well. If anything, I’m trying to make sure that they’re…not un-gritty, but just reflective enough to ask, “Is this something I want to do?”

The 74: What makes a good teacher?

The last line in the last lecture of William James’s Talks to Teachers is in Latin, and it basically reads, “Above all, treat your students as sub specie boni.” When I wrote my tenure application, I had to write a teaching statement, and I quoted that line. And it basically translates to: “Treat students like they’re good, and love them.”

When I speak with those five inspiring teachers, they care about grit and growth mindset and all those things. But they will also tell you that you have to really love these kids — and they do. It’s palpable. Great teachers care so much about their kids, and if they do that, they’re going to do a lot of the things that I study. They’re going to go home and try to learn what they could do better. The motivation is this amazing love.

The 74: Okay, last question: You’re a Philadelphian. Thumbs up or thumbs down on Gritty, the Flyers mascot? Is this an appropriate role model for children?

(Laughs) No, he’s really scary. Actually, people have very strong views about Gritty, so I can’t say anything too strong. It’s marketing genius, though, and I can’t even explain it. It’s like, if you have an aggressive mascot who falls down a lot, you get to be in the New York Times?

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