If you are like me, you may have been told “You know, you’re no genius” at some point in your life. During her childhood, Angela Duckworth heard that phrase over and over again from her father. Years later when she was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship—often called the “genius grant”—she was able to savor the irony of being told that she wasn’t smart enough, and yet being recognized on an international stage for work that was cutting-edge and transformational in the field of psychology. Duckworth was compassionate enough not to lord this over her father. But she did write a book based on her studies which makes the case that for those who have a calling, who challenge themselves every day, who get back up when they are knocked down, perseverance and passion matter more than talent.
Grit: The Power of Perseverance and Passion is the 2016 book that resulted from Duckworth’s life and studies. The fundamental insight that guides her research is “Our potential is one thing. What we do with it is quite another.” Early in the book she recounts the time she left a job at the high-powered consulting firm McKinsey to teach seventh grade math in the inner city. There Duckworth came to see that we are all distracted by talent. She was naturally attracted to those students who were “quick studies” and seemed to have the intellect and skills to succeed. But as marking periods went by, these were not necessarily the successful students. Duckworth became interested not in what made people smart, but what was needed to be successful in life.
What she found is that people who are successful over time have a passion. A calling. It may take time for that passion to evolve, and they may explore several pathways before landing on the one that sticks. But having an inner compass, the “thing that takes you some time to build, tinker with, and finally get right, and that then guides you on your long and winding road to where, ultimately, you want to be” is critical to success. And then you have to persevere, in the face of the inevitable failures, to reach your goals. Duckworth notes: “Enthusiasm is common. Endurance is rare.”
There’s a lot to unpack in Duckworth’s book, including how experts practice differently from others, with a deliberative focus. They make it a habit, with daily rituals. Or how pessimists have permanent and pervasive explanations for adversity that “turn minor complications into major catastrophes.” Hope and modeling a growth mindset, it turns out, are keys to perseverance. Duckworth looks at how to grow grit from the inside out, ways to build an organizational culture that focuses on perseverance and passion, and parenting for grit.
Basketball coaching legend John Wooden* captured the need for both perseverance and passion when he said: “Success is never final; failure is never fatal. It’s courage that counts.” One of my favorite stories in the book is from another sports coach who, as a philosophy and English major, has a special appreciation for the power of words. Each year he has his team memorize three different literary quotes, handpicked to communicate a different core value. The first team value is “We don’t whine.” The corresponding quote, courtesy of playwright George Bernard Shaw:
“The true joy in life is to be a force of fortune instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.”
Duckworth challenges us to cultivate our interests. Develop a habit of daily challenge-exceeding-skill practice. Connect our work to a purpose beyond ourselves. And learn to hope when all seems lost.
That seems like smart—perhaps even genius-like—advice to me.
Have a good week.
More to come…
*This quote is often attributed to Winston Churchill. The case for the attribution to either Wooden or Churchill is weak. But since Duckworth quotes Wooden, I’ll leave this as she has used it in her book.