Here is the full transcript of psychologist and author Angela Duckworth’s fireside talk on Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance @ Talks at Google conference. This event occurred on May 6, 2016.
Moderator: Ben Fried
BEN FRIED: We’re here today to talk to Angela Duckworth, whose book, “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance”– today is the official publication day, right?
ANGELA DUCKWORTH: Today is the official publication day.
BEN FRIED: Congratulations.
ANGELA DUCKWORTH: Thank you.
BEN FRIED: And incredibly gracious of her to fit time in at Google with a really, really busy publicity tour, which I was getting exhausted just hearing about it a few minutes ago. So for those of you who aren’t familiar with Angela Duckworth’s work, I’ll try to briefly read a biography.
Angela Duckworth is professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and the founder and scientific director of the Character Lab, a nonprofit whose mission is to advance the science and practice of character development.
In 2013, Angela was named a MacArthur Fellow in recognition of her research on grit, self-control, and other non-IQ competencies that predict success in life. It’s a very impressive resume. Prior to her career in research, Angela founded a summer school for low income children that was profiled as a Harvard Kennedy School case study. She’s been a McKinsey management consultant, a math and science teacher in the public schools of New York City, San Francisco, and Philadelphia. She has degrees from Harvard, Oxford, and the University of Pennsylvania in neuroscience and in psychology.
Did I mention she’s a MacArthur Fellow, 2013 MacArthur Fellow? All right, I’ll stop there. And “Grit” is her first book, it says. So welcome again, Angela. Thank you for coming.
ANGELA DUCKWORTH: Thank you, Ben. Thank you for having me. I’m delighted. Thanks.
BEN FRIED: So let’s get right into it. If you’re not with her work– the TED talk, the book — I guess, hopefully it’s fair for me to summarize the thesis as that the power, as you put it, the power of passion and perseverance are at least as strong indicators and contributors to success or achievement as things like IQ and talent, which are what societally at least we’ve traditionally focused on.
And that resonated enormously for me, because I think at Google we spend a lot of time thinking about talent, IQ, raw talent. It’s kind of baked into this crazy hiring process that we have. And which brought me to the first question I had for you, which was, do you think that– I mean, from what you know about Google– do you think that we or do you think that organizations in general select for the wrong things in the hiring process? And would organizations be better off if they looked for grit plus fit, as opposed to attempting to measure innate talent?
ANGELA DUCKWORTH: You know, I think the interests that we all have in talent– and it’s not just Google, it’s me too. I wish I were more talented. Talent’s great. And if you could give me five more IQ points, I’d take them. So I don’t think it’s wrong to think about talent. I don’t think it’s wrong to think about potential. I do think it’s useful to think about what we really mean when we say the word talent. And if you force yourself to write down on a piece of paper in a sentence that ends with a period, talent is, it’s really hard to actually fill in.
What do I mean? Potential? I mean, we start to use metaphors. Here’s my definition of talent, and I think it reveals that I do think it’s important. Talent is the rate at which you increase in your skill with effort. Some people are going to increase their skills faster than others. And I think it’s legitimate to say those are the quick studies.
Those are the talented people. I think it’s legitimate for Google to look for them. Why not? Why not try to hire the more talented people? But in my data I find two things. One is that more talented individuals don’t always keep showing up. Woody Allen famously once said, “Eighty percent of success in life is just showing up.” He was later asked by William Safire of “The New York Times” how he got to the number 80. And Woody Allen, who is not exactly a scientist, said, “Well, you know, I was going to say 70, but it had one extra syllable.”
Nevertheless, 70, 80 I think his point was, is that his experience as a writer, which was the context of the quote, there are many people who could write a great book or who are talented in the sense that when they write, they get better faster, but they’d never finish what they begin. And so what I find in my data is that talent is no guarantee of actually showing up and finishing the things that you start.
The second thing is, characteristic of high achievers really in any domain, whether it’s Google or outside Google, is this kind of daily discipline of trying to get better. In sometimes microscopic, infinitesimally trivial ways. All those little details add up to excellence. And it’s not always the people who are the quick studies who are willing to put in those hours and hours of behind the scenes unglamorous work.
So sure, Google should hire talented people. But I do believe that you want people who are going to stick with things when they’re hard and who are going to daily submit themselves to the Japanese principal of kaizen, continuous improvement.
BEN FRIED: So on that subject, continuous improvement, you talk in the book about practice and the difference between– I think you use the words directed practice versus regular undirected practice. And it reminded me of in running there’s a phrase junk miles, which maybe indicate– I’ve never actually been a runner, so I can only hypothesize what it means. But I guess it means kind of running that doesn’t really contribute to your improved conditioning. And what is the difference between directed practice and undirected practice in this spirit of kaizen and self-improvement?
ANGELA DUCKWORTH: So let’s keep running as actually the perfect example. So when I started to try to understand the science of achievement beyond bumper sticker wisdom– what do we really know as a science about experts and how they got that way– I quickly found myself at the doorstep of Anders Ericsson, who’s the world expert on world experts. He studies what experts do that make them different from the rest of us. It’s a great job. He goes to the sudoku tournaments and he studies World Cup soccer players. And he refers to it actually as deliberate practice.
And he would like to say that deliberate practice is different from anything else that we do in four important ways. And I’m going to come back to running as an example. But the first thing when you’re doing truly deliberate practice is that it’s extremely intentional. It’s problem solving something in particular. Not like I’m going to come into Google and be a better CEO, whatever it is. It’s like I’m going to say that the first 15 seconds of my presentations are going to be a little sharper I mean, it’s extremely, extremely precise. That’s the first thing, a very specific goal that you’re working on. And often it’s a weakness, not a strength.
Second is 100% focus. Or as some coaches would say– like Pete Carroll at the Seahawks– practicing with great effort. Third is feedback. Ideally, right away and ideally information rich. And fourth, the kind of refinement that you reflect on and you try the whole thing over again. In fact, these four things are incredibly straightforward. And you might wonder why only world class experts do it. But let’s come back to running.