Home » True Grit: Can Perseverance be Taught? By Angela Lee Duckworth (Transcript)

True Grit: Can Perseverance be Taught? By Angela Lee Duckworth (Transcript)

Angela Lee Duckworth

Here is the full transcript of psychologist Angela Lee Duckworth’s TEDx Talk: True Grit: Can Perseverance be Taught? at TEDxBlue.

Listen to the MP3 Audio here: True Grit Can Perseverance be Taught by Angela Lee Duckworth at TEDxBlue


So I’m a psychologist and I study achievement. Most psychologists who study achievement study intelligence. And I think that if the last talk didn’t convince you and I have a suspicion you didn’t need a whole lot of convincing, intelligence is — there’s only part of the story, maybe a very small part of the story. And it is, in fact possible that we even have that small part of the story wrong. In terms of intelligence being thought to be something largely inherited and not developed. Something that is relatively immutable over the course of one’s life.

But I came to a study of all the other things that intelligence, everything else, that made up achievement. In kind of a circuitous route — so I was 32 when I started graduate school. You know, I turned to my left and to my right and everybody else was drinking cappuccino and studying at one in the morning because they were 22, not 32. And so, I actually think that my life story is a great example of actually not having grit, not having enough grit. Maybe having some talent but not actually having — what I now study is one of the key and probably necessary ingredients of high achievement in any field that you want to consider.

So, what I did between the age of 22 and 32 was many different things all of which I think sounded good on a resume. I was a McKinsey Consultant, I went to Oxford for a couple of years on a prestigious fellowship. I was the COO of a non-profit website for parents to get school information that sounds good, that was good, sounds good and was good. I taught in various schools in New York and in Philadelphia and in San Francisco. And all this added up to a great person to have dinner with because that person had done a lot of interesting things and had done most of those things actually relatively well.

But what I realized is that if you are a boat, a really fast, shiny boat, which is going quickly towards one destination but then tacks to another direction, to go to another port, and then tacks again — essentially you end up being a really pretty shiny boat that goes fast nowhere. And, so my own kind of personal experience and probably my lack of grit, actually, led me to study this quality in some detail. And I’m going to mention something that I’ll get to later in the talk but it’s called the “10 year rule.” So it turns out that there is really no domain of expertise that has been studied where the world class performers have put in fewer than 10 years of consistent, deliberate practice to get to where they are.

So, I started graduate school in 2002 — I have three more years on my clock — which means many things, among which means I can’t give up until I have at least put in my 10 years and see, whether I’ve gotten anywhere.

Psychologists have been interested in the distinction between talent and everything else for years. Right? So, before we had words to describe it we were also probably interested in it. But here is a quote from Clark Hall, one of the eminent American psychologists of the early 20th century. He wrote a little review, he kind of reviewed the literature that was out there, which was quite easy to do in 1928, there was a whole lot less of it. He said, you know there are really two things: there’s our talent and I would emphasize what Chris said, talent is multifaceted, there’s creativity, there’s visual creativity, that’s different from musical creativity, there’s analytical talent, there’s athletic talent, there is musical talent. But let’s put them all on one category. There’s intelligence as conventionally defined, and then there are all those many things that are so much worse understood in a way, all the capacities that allow us to unlock our talents and he would put those in the category of industry.

William James made the same distinction. William James wrote a famous essay in 1907 called, “The Energies of Men,” and William James who arguably is the founder of American psychology said that there are our talents and those things that unlock our talents and we could design all of psychology to try to understand these two things.

I would argue that we’ve done some amount of work on the talents and almost nothing on the unlocking. When I considered what is it that unlocks people’s potential, what enables people to become a world class musician, a world class teacher, a world class performer. I struggled with this word to call what I was becoming to understand was one of these key ingredients. Eventually I called it grit, which I named in part after the somewhat mediocre western John Wayne starred in; I’ll say a little more about that but, the reason why I came to this concept of grit was I interviewed people that I knew that were at the tops of their fields, so it was relatively opportunistic. I mean I interviewed my friend who had won a MacArthur, I interviewed investment bankers who at least at that time were very successful.

I interviewed, musicians and professors, and the like. And people would often say, the people who are top in my field, they are the really talented ones. But just as often, and in fact I would say more often, people said that these individuals at the top of their fields had this kind of tenacious, dogged perseverance unlike anyone else that they knew and it was actually that which vaulted them to the top. So I called it “true grit” after this movie which is really about a young girl from Yale County, Arkansas who like in typical western form, her father is unjustly murdered, she spends the rest of the movie avenging his death, and Rooster Cogburn plays the one-eyed, semi-alcoholic sheriff who follows her along. And everyone thinks that true grit is really about John Wayne, of course, and it’s really about this young girl who against all odds pursues a very long term, almost impossible goal and eventually — with the emphasis on eventually, succeeds in that goal. And this is the quality that I study.

Charles Darwin had a half cousin named Francis Galton, and they shared a correspondence. I like to think that correspondence today is as rich and personally revealing as it was when you had to put a pen to paper. So, maybe if they had emailed they would have shared the same kinds of conversations. This conversation, this quote, this is actually the letter on the left and, maybe a little more legible on the right, was Charles Darwin’s response to Francis Galton who had written a book called “Hereditary Genius.” Francis Galton made the claim that genius had 3 parts: one part talent, one part passion or zeal and one part hard work.

And Charles Darwin’s response to that was, “That’s a really interesting idea, I thought it was all the hard work and the passion, maybe there’s a role for talent after all.” Charles Darwin himself didn’t actually consider his intellect to be at all special. He thought he had a quite ordinary mind. But a very specific interest and focus and a lot of zeal and hard work.

Moving up a little closer to where we are in time, there was a graduate student at Stanford named Katherine Cox, she was a graduate student of a professor there named Lewis Termin, he gave us, possibly the most widely used intelligence test today, the Sanford-Binnet IQ test. She was doing her graduate work in a lab where everybody studied intelligence and how to measure it and was it possible to measure it very early in life and could we predict genius and so forth.

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