Angela Duckworth has become a household name in recent years for her research on “grit”—that admirable combination of hard work, perseverance and self-control that yields success sustained over time.
“What we eventually accomplish may depend more on our passion and perseverance than on our innate talent,” Angela declared in her 2016 bestseller, Grit, taking readers through under-resourced classrooms and West Point drills to the coached culture of the Seattle Seahawks and the academic experience of elite university undergraduates. Not only does grit consistently emerge as the strongest predictor of individual success no matter the field, but Angela is convinced that grit is something we can all cultivate, as much “from the inside out” as “from the outside in.”
It’s a motivational pair of theses, one that has struck a chord with an achievement culture hungry to understand success and those more universal ingredients that might lift all boats. No longer are we bound to the fates assigned to us by I.Q. or whatever aptitudes the gene pool bestows, but rather we can be active agents toward our preferred future—capable of shaping goals and reaching them so long as we put in the work and endure when the going gets tough.
This November, The Philanthropy Roundtable had the pleasure of welcoming Angela to the Annual Meeting in Charleston, South Carolina where she captivated the audience with her fervor around this same individual agency. Under her leadership, the Character Lab at the University of Pennsylvania is now on a quest to “get people to consistently make better choices” such that certain life outcomes—e.g. not completing high school, dying early due to poor lifestyle habits, lacking any form of financial savings—are avoided. In other words, Angela is trying to solve the quandary of enduring behavior change, the latest in the science of character development.
Angela now sees at least four influences in the development of human character, which she defines as “everything we do that’s good for us, and good for other people.” The influences are: (1) Goals and Beliefs (e.g. “I want to be a doctor,” or “I want to be a parent someday”); (2) Identity (e.g. “I’m a giver,” or “I’m a fighter, someone who never gives up”); (3) Skills (e.g. the practice of generosity, the practice of failing and realizing it’s not the end of the world); and (4) Habits (e.g. the automatic, effortless doing of the right thing). In other words, character is malleable, and can be trained and even changed with the right mental frameworks, disciplines and environmental cues.
It was a compelling presentation, one that leant both hope and a much-needed compass to an educational community increasingly burdened by the need to develop the whole person, not simply cognitive aptitude. The only thing I wish Angela had addressed was the inherent personalism embedded in character development. Flooding schools and other formative institutions with encouragers toward certain goals, identities, skills, and habits will go far, but such tactics still don’t motivate the enduring souls of human beings.
Instead, it’s what and who we love that most powerfully shapes character—moral and performative, both. We pattern ourselves after those we admire. We conform our behavior to be in harmony with the persons and causes that have the deepest hold on our hearts. This is human reality, and it’s as beautiful as it is unscientific. How to be wise about good and bad loves, laudatory and less beneficial desires? Can research go here, to this most intimate, particular place?
I hope so, and I think Angela does, too, when prodded deep. It’s getting there that’s the puzzle. And the art, perhaps less the science.
Anne Snyder is director of the Character Initiative at The Philanthropy Roundtable