GUY RAZ, HOST:
It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And our show today - it's all about success, which, by any standard measure, would define Angela Duckworth - Harvard and Oxford educated, former high-powered consultant, tenured professor at Penn, and she just won a MacArthur Genius grant. So yeah, success. When I say success like, you know, you're a successful person - does that make you uncomfortable? Because I cringe, in fact I'm cringing right now knowing that we are calling this show success.
ANGELA DUCKWORTH: It doesn't make me uncomfortable. I know what you mean, though, about the term carrying baggage. Sometimes people, I think, feel uncomfortable because they feel like when people talk about objective measures of success, it's an incomplete picture, and it is because there is this other side.
RAZ: So Angela Duckworth studies those objective indicators of success to figure out why some people are more successful than others, especially when it comes to students. And her curiosity about all this began in the classroom. She was teaching seventh graders at a rough school in New York. Angela picks up the story in her TED talk.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
DUCKWORTH: I made quizzes and tests. I gave out homework assignments. When the work came back, I calculated grades. What struck me was that IQ was not the only difference between my best and my worst students. Some of my strongest performers did not have stratospheric IQ scores. Some of my smartest kids weren't doing so well. And that got me thinking. The kinds of things you need to learn in seventh grade math, sure they're hard - ratios, decimals, the area of a parallelogram, but these concepts are not impossible. And I was firmly convinced that every one of my students could learn the material if they worked hard and long enough. After several more years of teaching, I came to the conclusion that what we need in education is a much better understanding of students and learning from a motivational perspective - from a psychological perspective. In education, the one thing we know how to measure best is IQ, but what if doing well in school and in life depends on much more than your ability to learn quickly and easily. I started studying kids and adults in all kinds of super-challenging settings.
And in every study my question was - who is successful here and why? My research team and I went to West Point Military Academy. We tried to predict which cadets would stay in military training and which would drop out. We studied rookie teachers working in really tough neighborhoods, asking, which teachers are still going to be here, in teaching, by the end of the school year? And of those, who will be the most effective at improving learning outcomes for their students? We partnered with private companies asking, which of these salespeople's going to keep their jobs? And who's going to earn the most money? In all those very different contexts, one characteristic emerged as a significant predictor of success and it wasn't social intelligence, it wasn't good looks, physical health, and it wasn't IQ. It was grit.
RAZ: What is grit? How do you explain what it is?
DUCKWORTH: Grit is the disposition to pursue very long-term goals with passion and perseverance. And I want to emphasize the stamina quality of grit. Grit is sticking with things over the long term and then working very hard at it.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
DUCKWORTH: Grit is living life like it's a marathon, not a sprint. A few years ago, I started studying grit in the Chicago public schools. I asked thousands of high school juniors to take grit questionnaires, and then waited around more than a year to see who would graduate.
RAZ: Can you tell me, like, some of the questions on the grit questionnaire?
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, so half of the questions on the grit questionnaire are about perseverance, right. "I am a hard worker." "I finish whatever I begin." The scale is five points. It goes from "very much like me" to "not at all like me." "Setbacks don't discourage me." "I don't give up after disappointment." And "I'm diligent." The more you say, that's very much like me, then the higher your grit score.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
DUCKWORTH: Turns out that grittier kids were significantly more likely to graduate even when I matched them on every characteristic I could measure. Things like family income, standardized achievement test scores, even how safe kids felt when they were at school.
RAZ: There has to be a correlation between natural ability and grit, isn't there?
DUCKWORTH: Well, you know, when I first started this work, I had the intuition, as many of us might, that there would be a correlation and that it would be positive. Just let's take math ability, right. And you could say, well, some kids are going to be better at math than others. Well, shouldn't the kids who are really good at math be the ones who are really hard-working and persistent at it because, you know, when they sit down to their homework, they get so much out of it.
So shouldn't they be the ones that are persistent? Shouldn't they go hand-in-hand in a positive way? And actually, the correlation tends to either be negative or zero, depending on the data sample that I've collected. And I've wondered about that and I think it's because we adapt to our circumstances. And if you've never had to try very hard, you've never had to get up after setbacks and failures, then maybe you don't cultivate that capacity.
RAZ: All right. So how do we make sure our 4-year-olds get into, you know, Princeton?
DUCKWORTH: Didn't you listen to what I just said? No. It's actually a question - I mean, I'm not kidding, I think I've almost exactly heard that question before.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
DUCKWORTH: Everyday, parents and teachers ask me, how do I build grit in kids? What do I do to teach kids a solid work ethic? How do I keep them motivated for the long run? The honest answer is, I don't know. So far, the best idea I've heard about building grit in kids is something called growth mindset. This is an idea developed at Stanford University by Carol Dweck, and it is the belief that the ability to learn is not fixed. That it can change with your effort. Dr. Dweck has shown that when kids read and learn about the brain and how it changes and grows in response to challenge, they're much more likely to persevere when they fail because they don't believe that failure is a permanent condition.
RAZ: So that actually might inspire a child to show more perseverance?
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, in separate research, Carol and I have found together, because we collaborate, that grittier students tend to have more of this growth mindset so you're seeing a picture come together here that, indeed, believing that change is possible inclined kids to be grittier. And then that grit helps them actually accomplish things like, you know, doing well in school, graduating from high school and so forth.
RAZ: Do you think that, ultimately, the way we define success, right, kind of sets up false expectations?
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, I think that, you know, we should be very careful to examine our definitions of things like success. I don't think that every child in America is going to necessarily aspire to, you know, a four-year degree from a liberal arts college or a certain kind of life. I think that people should learn to be excellent in the thing that they choose to do. I think the questions on the grit scale about not letting setbacks disappoint you, finishing what you begin, doing things with focus, I think that those are things I would aspire to or hope for for all our children. I think that achieving a personal standard of excellence, pushing yourself farther than you thought you could, you know, getting up after disappointment - these are things that are true for all of us.
RAZ: Angela Duckworth. Her research into grit and success just won her a MacArthur Genius grant. You can watch her full talk and take the grit questionnaire for yourself at TED.NPR.org.