Positively Gritty: A Conversation with Dr. Angela Duckworth

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Positively Gritty: A Conversation with Dr. Angela Duckworth

Dr. Angela Duckworth is Founder and CEO of Character Lab and Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. She co-teaches the Positive Psychology: Character, Grit, and Research Methods course, part of the Foundations of Positive Psychology Specialization on Coursera. In 2013, she did a popular TED Talk that touched upon her work and personal journey into the topics of grit and self control as seen in students.

How do grit and self control relate to the broader field of positive psychology?

Positive psychology is the scientific investigation of “the good life,� which is very broadly defined and includes happiness, positive relationships, but also character strengths. Those are enduring qualities within children and adults that can be developed. The key is that they are about leading a good life for yourself and making a positive impact on others. There are many character strengths such as honesty, empathy, kindness, generosity, gratitude, and humility. Grit fits into positive psychology as one aspect of character and character is one piece of “the good life.�

How can parents take advantage of back to school season to foster grittier kids?

The mistake I see a lot of parents making in regards to grit is due to this belief that we need to sign our kids up for everything. We are supposed to make sure their schedules are booked every minute of the day. Grit’s not at all about that. I think it’s great if kids can identify one or two things they can really get into and spend some time getting better at by the time they get to high school. I don’t know any admissions officer who is looking for kids who are spread too thin across eight different activities. Earlier in a kid’s life and schooling, they can casually sample a few things and then by the time they’re in high school, they’ll be doing something for at least a year and dug deeper into something to see what that feels like. Other than that, as a parent and psychologist, I can only say that there are no clear rules. Getting kids to think about the fact that they have an opportunity to develop interests is much more important than the concept of, “You must play piano� or have every single block in the day scheduled.  

To what extent do you see the value of self control increasing in the future?

There are a lot of temptations that haven’t existed before, be it the newest technological device or cheaper, better tasting junk food. Whether that means we have less self control or we’re just fighting tougher battles is something that’s hard to answer with any scientific accuracy as there’s no data on that. It doesn’t matter if we have less self control than in the 19th century because we’re here now. In many cases a social media account, a smartphone with cat videos, or a dollar bag of chips are vehicles for short term enjoyment at the expense of long term goals. The first step is to just recognize that these are self control dilemmas. The next time you’re doing something you might regret, pause for a minute and ask yourself how you’ll feel tomorrow about what you’re doing today.

What advice do you have for adults who want to become grittier?

I think the first thing to ask yourself before “What is my grit?� or “How do I become grittier?� is “Are you interested in your work?� If the answer is affirmative, then you can ask other questions. If the answer is no, you’re not interested or connected to your work, then you need to explore your interests more. Developing interests takes time and experiences. If you don’t feel like you have very many well developed interests, whether it’s your work or your own personal interests, then my advice is to not think you can fix that in a day or a week. You’ll have to try some things out and really invest the time to get good at something. It’s a process, often times not linear. For younger people I suggest they do internships and volunteer in different workplaces. For those of us who are older, knowing that you’ll grow into an interest rather than just discovering it fully formed is crucial to keep in mind.

What role does lifelong learning play in that exploration over time?

I’m struck by the people who I study and are paradigms of grit. They are always learning and they acknowledge that. It’s a wonderful way to be. Research has shown that the human brain is capable of adapting and getting “better� throughout your whole life, so why not?

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