Grit & self-control. Are they the keystones to academic success? The following article from National Geographic profiles Professor Angela Duckworth and her team as they measure the character traits may predict student success.
Written by Marguerite Del Giudice
Angela Duckworth and her team devise strategies to help students learn how to work hard and adapt in the face of temptation, distraction, and defeat.
PHILADELPHIA—MacArthur Foundation “genius” award winner and research psychologist Angela Lee Duckworth is a reluctant star. Her pioneering studies at the University of Pennsylvania into how character relates to achievement have been going on for 12 laborious years now, and she expects to die doing them, but you can spare her the fanfare. When the moderator of a recent live video presentation introduced her by saying, “I tried to find something on her, but she appears to be perfect,” she couldn’t help but ever-so-slightly grimace. There’s no getting around, however, that she’s “a whirlwind of brilliance and energy,” according to one Stanford colleague, and a leading voice in the effort to translate into the classroom ideas like hers that self-control and grit, more than talent and IQ, may hold the keys to a better life.
The avalanche of attention only increased after the 2013 MacArthur award. Yet by all accounts Angela has managed to remain utterly and unself-consciously herself, the sort of person commonly said to be not quite like anyone else: former Cherry Hill, New Jersey, cheerleader and über-volunteer, Harvard undergrad, Oxford postgrad, inner-city schoolteacher, thought-leading TED-talker. She’s an alpha female and a born giver who’s driven by an impulse to do good in the world and right inequities. Yes, she’s all about the work of reforming education but at the same time much more—and no doubt cringing as she reads this, if she gets around to reading it at all.
She’d been rejecting all recent media requests through intermediaries, including my own, until I reached her directly—”This is Angela”—early one morning at Penn, hoping she would reward my determination not to give up so easily.
Two things about all the attention were getting to her. First, she just wants to do her research, which is complicated and takes forever. “I feel there’s an erosion. Time is finite!” And second, “I do feel it’s hard to be modest and humble and egoless when people are telling you you are so great and wanting to give you prizes and energy. I’m trying hard not to be an awful, narcissistic human being. And I’m like, ‘Put your head down, do the work, be with the students.’ Mostly, it’s like if I could not sleep, I would not sleep so I could just work on stuff … You can come see me next Tuesday at 11:30.”
Some Days You’re Going to Cry
Over at the Duckworth Lab at Penn, an awful lot of what the researchers do is drudgery, conducted in an exacting atmosphere that is relieved on rare occasions by fleeting moments of greatness and enchantment.
The atmosphere in their digs at the Positive Psychology Center on the second floor of 3701 Market Street in Philadelphia the day I’m there hums with the quiet din of people thinking, their heads bent as they crunch data in the continuing work to create and administer questionnaires and activities that test aspects of grit and, more so now, self-control.
Take the diligence task. Students are positioned in front of a split computer screen. On the left side is some academic lesson: repetitive arithmetic, spatial orientation, anything boring. On the right are “distractors”: games, music videos, great moments in sports. They’re told that schoolwork isn’t always fun but that working on the left screen will be like doing academic calisthenics to become stronger students.
They can take a break and go over to the right screen anytime they want; they can go back and forth. Whatever they decide is fine. The research assumption is that time spent on the boring screen will correlate to degree of success down the road—suggesting that, no matter the field or endeavor, no matter how smart and talented people may be, it will be tolerance for boredom that more reliably will see them through.
Opportunities, meanwhile, keep presenting themselves, and Angela keeps entertaining new projects. She loves collaborating and is prone to what’s known in the biz as “research crushes.”
“How can I say no?” Angela says, to collaborating with minds like Harvard economist Roland Fryer, Nobel laureate James Heckman of the University of Chicago, and Florida State’s K. Anders Ericsson, the expert on the habits of experts, who will tell you that if you want to be, say, a world-class piano soloist, expect it to take at least ten years and 10,000 hours of what he calls “deliberate practice.”
Says Angela’s lab colleague David Meketon of these collaborators: “You can’t get bigger guns.”
Consequently, the amount of work she is willing to take on for herself and her lab, as described to me, is “massive.” That Angela is who she is—attentive, absorbing, amusing, altruistic, accessible, aware (and that’s just the a‘s)—eases the burden.
No job well done at the Duckworth Lab goes unrecognized, everyone’s voice is heard (as, unlike many academics, Angela is not hierarchical and seems incapable of putting on airs), and she takes care of her grad students, pushing them to publish, having them collaborate with world experts, opening doors. One student confesses to feeling depressed when she attends conferences with Angela and sees how boring other professors are.
The day of my visit Angela was trim and fit in navy blue short shorts and a white tank top, looking ten years younger than her 44, black hair in a ponytail, her little white sneakers off more than on, revealing opaque pink painted toenails; she’s been known to nonchalantly strike a yoga pose during a videoconference, as a way of relaxing while she thinks. In short, you’d follow her anywhere. At the same time, if you’re with Angela, you’d better bring your A-plus game and be prepared to work very hard and at the edges of your ability, as it is understood around here that no one grows without being uncomfortable and that the suffering is an indispensable part of what may ultimately be remembered as an amazing life experience.
“You remember the ‘tiger mom’ brouhaha?” says colleague Dave, the man Angela calls “my doppelgänger,” a retired teacher and administrator, who, at 61, is the old head among the slew of grad students, postdocs, research assistants, and undergrad interns who are constantly cycling through what amounts to an apprentice system for how to study character. “Would I say as an employer Angela’s a tiger mom? No. She loves people. But there is this very strong expectation of excellence and no tolerance for less.” He confesses that sometimes even he (“and I’m in my third act”) has been driven to a point where “I feel I don’t know what I’m doing,” and he warns applicants dying to work here that, if they do, there will be days that they will cry.