MacArthur 'Genius' On Grit, Self Control And Success

Host Michel Martin speaks with psychologist Angela Duckworth, who was named a MacArthur "Genius" Fellow today. Duckworth's research shows how grit and self-control can predict future life success.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Later, if you love R&B, then you probably know the two heavyweights Musiq Soulchild and Syleena Johnson. We'll find out why they really wanted to do a reggae album together and how they managed to put one out in just nine days in the studio. We'll hear more from them in just a few minutes.

But first, we want to hear about another group of people being recognized for their creativity, the MacArthur Foundation Fellows. The 2013 awards, commonly called genius grants, were just announced today. These are lucrative, unrestricted grants given to recognize exceptional and creative people who work in areas that include science, the arts and public policy. One of this year's winners is Angela Duckworth. She's an associate professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. She was recognized for, quote, transforming our understanding of the roles that grit and self-control play in educational attainment, unquote. And Professor Angela Duckworth joins us now. Welcome, congratulations.

ANGELA DUCKWORTH: Thank you so much. Happy to be here with you.

MARTIN: Of course, this is the least creative question one can think of but I have to ask, where were you and what were you doing when you found out?

DUCKWORTH: I was where I usually am, which is at my desk doing work, actually, with my lab team who left the room, and, you know, I took the call. It was exciting.

MARTIN: You had no idea?

DUCKWORTH: You know, I had some idea, only because some of my, you know, less discrete mentors had periodically asked me, actually, over the years, you know, whether I'd received any good news, you know, every fall. So I had some idea, but of course, I had no expectation. I don't think anybody really does.

MARTIN: So you're a former math teacher, and as we said, you're investigating the roles that intellectual strength and personality traits play in educational attainment. You're the grit lady. How did you get interested in this?

DUCKWORTH: So, as you say, I was a math teacher teaching middle-school students, high-school students - mostly in the public schools, a little bit in charter schools - and the observation I had as a teacher was that the kids who did really well in my class were, you know, not always the brightest, actually. And some of my smartest students, conversely, didn't do as well as I thought they should. And my intuition, as I think it is really for most teachers, is that so much of achievement, not all, but so much really does come down to effort. And then I wanted to ask the question, of course, you know, why then do some kids put in more effort than others? And that's what our research really focuses on.

MARTIN: We only have a few minutes today. Could you just share one tidbit of something that people might find surprising?

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. So the thing that I think is most exciting about this research is that the qualities, or you could call them character skills - I think that's maybe the best way to phrase it - of self-control and of grit are also teachable, right. So, you know, maybe some kids are, by their DNA, a little more inclined toward grit or toward self-control, but whatever your genetic makeup, you can learn strategies to be grittier, to be more self-controlled. Just one concrete example - you know, some kids have a strategy of, for example, you know, putting distractions and temptations, like, you know, their cellphones and so forth, farther out of reach, maybe in a place so it's not as obvious in their room. And that, actually, for example, can help you be more self-controlled, focus on your homework and not on things that feel good in the moment but are not good for you in the long run.

MARTIN: Are you finding out that there's actually an inverse correlation, that sometimes people with higher intellectual strengths, innate intellectual strengths, have a lower level of grit?

DUCKWORTH: In many of our samples, indeed, we find that on average, grittier individuals are, you know, slightly less talented. Sometimes we also find, you know, that grit is just not correlated at all, but we really don't find a positive association. In other words, we don't find that grittier people are more talented. And there are, again, you know, exceptions to that rule. But it does suggest that, you know, if things come very easily for you, if you learn things very quickly, you know, maybe you don't develop the ability to overcome setbacks, to sustain effort, etc.

MARTIN: Interesting. Well, we look forward to hearing more from you. You know I have to ask, what are you going to do with this award? And I hope you don't mind my mentioning that the award for so many years was half a million dollars. The amount has now been raised to $625,000 paid over the next five years, no strings attached. Any thoughts about what you'll do? And I do hope a fabulous pair of suede boots is in your future.

DUCKWORTH: Well, for those who know me well, there probably is a pair of boots in my future, but I don't intend to spend all of the money on that, of course. You know, the quick answer is I don't know. But I will tell you one thing that I'm going to spend it on immediately, or just a part of it. So I've met a number of remarkable, and I mean that, truly remarkable educators over the years through our research, you know, middle-school teachers in particular.

And we're going to bring them here to University of Pennsylvania on Sundays, which they are willing to do because it doesn't take away time from their students. We're going to pay for their travel and compensate them, and actually just start to have conversations about as a teacher - who's, you know, seen thousands of kids over the years - what would you say is the right way to develop grit and self-control? And, you know, from those conversations, I hope, come up with better ideas for intervention.

MARTIN: Angela Duckworth was just named a 2013 MacArthur Foundation Fellow. She's an associate professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania where she joined us from her office. Professor Duckworth, thank you so much for joining us. Once again, congratulations. Do keep us posted on your important work.

DUCKWORTH: Will do. Thank you so much for having me.

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