Angela Duckworth on Grit, Work, and Happiness

Angela Duckworth speaks at Adobe’s Worldwide Sales Conference in December 2017.

At our recent worldwide sales conference, we had the chance to sit down with Angela Duckworth, whose TED Talk, “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance,” is one of the most-viewed of all time. In her late twenties, Angela left a consulting job to teach seventh-grade math. She realized how much effort matters when it comes to success, and went on to study why some people work harder and longer than others. Today, she’s a professor and researcher on grit and self control, a winner of the MacArthur “genius” grant, and the founder and CEO of Character Lab.

We asked Angela what it means to have grit ━ she defines it as passion and perseverance for long-term goals ━ how people can get a little grittier, and what it all has to do with happiness.

In your research, you found that grit is a better predictor of success than IQ, income, and other factors. Why does grit matter so much?

First, grit matters for doing something really challenging (not filling out your taxes or doing your homework). But, for high achievement, I found that grit out-predicted many, many other things.

So what is it that makes grit so essential? I think it’s the nature of what you’re trying to do—if it’s something that’s going to take years and decades to accomplish, if it’s something that isn’t going to work the first time or the second time or the tenth time, so that you’re continually having to try again—that’s when I think grit is important. High achievement requires stamina. Great things simply don’t happen overnight.

What are some of the common personality traits or habits that you see in people who have grit?

They are creatures of routine. They’ve ritualized practice and reflection. They’re always trying to get better and they’re intentional about it.

How can we be grittier in our day-to-day lives?

I think for different people it varies because what they’re pursuing is different. If you’re trying to be a grittier athlete, it’s different from trying to be a grittier salesperson. But, I think the commonality, no matter what you’re pursuing, is an intentional improvement cycle. The thing about gritty people is that they are never satisfied. They are, in a strange way, satisfied to be unsatisfied. They live their whole lives trying to get better at one small thing after another so that, cumulatively, they get better at one big thing.

No matter what it is that you are pursuing, ask yourself: what can I do that’s slightly better? What’s one small thing that will improve my performance compared to yesterday?

It is, by the way, tiring. Who wants to get up every single day and, no matter how good you are, ask how you can get better? Not everyone, but gritty people do.

How can we get grittier at work?

It’s not always obvious to people, but you can become more gritty if you are part of a gritty culture or a gritty group. So, if you want to be gritty, join a gritty company like Adobe. And if you are leading, create a microculture in your team that promotes this kind of growth. You’ll influence individuals through your group dynamic, through your shared cultural values, through the rituals you share as a team.

Do you have any advice for women in particular about cultivating grit in the workplace?

I think women are at least as gritty as men. I think women have passion for what they do, they are at least as hard working, and at least as resilient. But, sometimes men have an advantage in their confidence. When my daughter gets something wrong on a test, she feels guilty, and it can erode her confidence, whereas sometimes a male student might feel like he deserved to get it right. So, as women are entering more and more leadership roles, we can recognize that confidence is something we have to build.

If you want to build a team of gritty people at work, what should you look for?

I look at their resume, and I look for objective evidence that they’ve done something that took more than a couple of years, and if there’s progression. So, even if it’s a millennial and all they have to show me is what they did in college, I look to see, did they do a sport or a musical activity or something that took more than two years? I don’t think there are adults who can claim that they’re gritty and not be able to point to something in their objective record that shows they’ve demonstrated passion and perseverance.

I think most philosophers have concluded that the meaning of life has to be, at some level, happiness, because everything else is a means to that end. But, Aristotle also said there are two kinds of happiness. There’s eudemonia, which is the good life. It’s the life of character and wellbeing that you achieve through cultivating things that are sometimes hard, like being able to get through difficult times, being gritty. He contrasted the eudemonistic life with the hedonic life, which is the life of pleasure and comfort.

When I say that gritty people are happy, it’s not because I think they have more pleasure or comfort in their lives. In fact, sometimes I think they have less because to do gritty things is to do things that are hard. But, the kind of happiness that’s available to people who are truly passionate about what they do and are incredibly persevering is the feeling that you’ve chosen this life and you’re proud of what you’ve done. You’re making a contribution.

It’s not always the easiest thing and it doesn’t mean that you’re going to have the most fun, but it’s certainly the way I’ve chosen. I think there are easier paths that I could have taken, but like the people I study, I wouldn’t choose to live a different life than my own.