No pressure. And they’re emulating you and especially if they respect you. And that brings me to the next thing that leaders do I mean, a leader is respected when they provide both the kind of demanding, challenging, it’s not good enough, it’s still not good enough, I need you to do this differently, bring it back to me again. It’s that in combination with support.
And it brings me all the way back to the parenting metaphor because that’s what great parents do. They’re demanding. They’re challenging. It’s not good enough. I’m occasionally disappointed in you. But at the same time, genuinely care about you. I want you to be successful, and I respect you.
BEN FRIED: So on the subject of mentoring and parenting, I thought it was– I don’t know where I read it– but that you share your peer review. When you submit papers, you share the negative peer reviews and grant proposal rejections with the people in your lab and your students. Is that true?
ANGELA DUCKWORTH: It is all true. And here’s the thing about it. When you interview someone whose– whatever, they win an award, or you just you read off someone’s resume, and by the way, you only usually read the good parts. Like how about the time that you completely screwed up and made this wrong decision? I didn’t put that on my resume, so you couldn’t read it. But I think a lot of my work is about demystifying things like excellence. People who succeed fail all the time.
In fact, I think they fail more than anyone else. That’s what makes them so successful, because failure provides an opportunity for information. In academia when you submit an article, even when you’re very good, odds are it’s going to get rejected. And in my world, rejection comes with a 13 page single spaced review letter about exactly how you suck. Like, I can’t believe how badly written this is. Like, oh my god, does this person not know the meta-analysis done in 2000?
And I send those letters out as soon as I get them to everybody who’s working in my lab, so that they can see all the imperfection that eventually will lead to some kind of achievement. I want them to know the truth as opposed to the shiny, polished myth that I think is easy to fall into.
BEN FRIED: Which feeds into the myth of talent. There’s some people who are just so good, they appear on stage one day never having thought about what they might say and perform “King Lear” flawlessly or whatever the case may be. Whereas in reality, it was directed practice and failure and so on that got them there.
ANGELA DUCKWORTH: And again, that person may have been– so take your favorite actor, Judi Dench, I mean, take whoever you want to think of as somebody who’s a paragon of masterful performance. It’s not that I’m saying that anybody could have been that person. I’m not saying that we all could have been Einstein. But even Einstein wasn’t born knowing anything about physics. Even Judi Dench had to learn how to be an actress.
Skills, because we are human and we are not horses or other lower order animals who are born with a lot of stuff hardwired– horses don’t really have to learn how to run. Hours after they’re born, they run. Human beings are born knowing nothing. The only thing that we’re born knowing is how to learn. And so skills are acquired over a lifetime. Sure, the talented progress faster if they stay with things and if they continue to work at it.
BEN FRIED: On the subject of learning, do you think that the educational system is set up to support and recognize grit, perseverance? It seems like the academic cycle is short with immediate feedback. And it’s easy, for example, to move on from one subject to another after three or six months of study if things don’t go well. Are the standards we’ve set for academic success hurting our ability to develop grit in people, obviously all of whom could benefit?
ANGELA DUCKWORTH: Well, if you think about younger kids, the kids who are still in elementary school or middle school and high school, one way in which our system doesn’t do a great job of encouraging grit is there’s a kind of a narrowing of the focus on what it means to be successful to essentially mean what are your scores on the annual standardized tests of math and reading? That’s incredibly narrow. It not only leaves out a lot of things that I care about– grit, for example– for something you find meaningful.
And I haven’t yet met the 16 year-old who finds their standardized test scores a meaningful life goal. It also leaves out the kind of interest where a lot of us probably in this room would say that that’s what they really did care about. Their sports team, being on the baseball team, writing for the school paper. The things that kids do outside of the classroom that are unmeasured, that policymakers– not only are they not measuring and caring about them, these things are getting cut from schools left and right. Then we talk about university education.
Well, you do have to have a major in most schools. So that’s gritty in the sense that grit means doing something in-depth, as opposed to being scattershot. But I’ll tell you a story. I was once on a committee to decide who was going to be elected to Phi Beta Kappa. And as you may recall, this is the honor society that there are people like me, faculty who say OK well, this kid’s really extraordinary as a budding academic, and this kid maybe not so.