On Wednesday, the MacArthur Foundation announced the 24 recipients of its “genius” grant, a $625,000 no-strings-attached award given to “individuals who show exceptional creativity in their work and the prospect for still more in the future.”
One such individual is University of Pennsylvania associate professor of psychology Angela Duckworth, whose research focuses on how “true grit” predicts an individual’s success in life, as she explains in this fascinating Ted Talk.
I called Duckworth on Wednesday night to learn more about grit and to find out how she’ll be spending her $625,000.
So, grit. What is it, exactly?
Grit is the tendency or the disposition to pursue long term goals with sustained interest and effort. It’s about sticking with things. The opposite would be dropping out, being capricious, not being able to get over setbacks and disappointments.
Who are three people from modern history who most embody the idea of grit?
Great question. Who are the historical exemplars of grit?
That would be the genius way of putting it.
Anyone who has done anything great, whether you like them or not. Abraham Lincoln, Steve Jobs, Martha Graham, Charles Darwin, Picasso.
All of them, if you look at their biographies, they almost invariably achieved through years and years of sustained engagement with their craft.
The harder question would be: Are there examples of people who were dilettante-like in approach but were nevertheless extremely successful? I can’t think of any.
Something tells me that Tom Brokaw’s Greatest Generation has more grit than my Generation X, which has more grit than Millennials and the overprotected children of today’s helicopter parents. Does your research support that?
We do have a cross-sectional study of all different ages. Older people are grittier than younger people. When I first looked, I thought this suggests that grit grows with age like a lot of other qualities like agreeableness and emotion regulation.
But then an older colleague saw this and said that Millennials are growing up in a time that doesn’t encourage us to stick with things as much as our parents did. Both are plausible.
But my sense is that young adults coming of age today are not especially encouraged to do things that take a really long time.
Any thoughts on how to fix Philadelphia’s failed education system?
I am not a policy-oriented person. But my daughters are ten and eleven, and we just moved to the city from Narberth as of three months ago, and our kids are going to Masterman.
They are adjusting in the middle of a financial crisis. At the beginning of school, their teacher announced that there was no secretary, no library, no after-school activities. That was a big deal coming from Lower Merion. They came home asking, “What are food stamps?”
My husband and I hope to be the kind of parents who turn things around. We’re committed to being public school parents. We’re doing our tiny little part to help our school: donating money, getting the in-laws to donate time and money.
This is clearly not a solution to the systemic problem, and I’m not sure what is. Don’t ask me about what’s going on in Syria, either.
Is the $625,000 yours? Or are you contractually obligated to turn it over to Penn?
I think it’s just mine to keep. But I’m running a large research lab that requires raising four times this much every year. So it’s not smart to just add it to the kitty. I’m going to ask what high risk research can we engage in that is not attractive to the usual funders.
For instance, I want to talk to teachers to find out what we can do to increase grit in children. I applied to foundations, and they said, “What? You wanna get together with a bunch of teachers? That doesn’t go into our funding strategy.” But I’m stubborn. I said, “I don’t care. I’ll do it myself.”
How does one celebrate a $625,000 genius grant?
Well, we took the kids to the Four Seasons for a burger and sparkling apple juice. We live just a few blocks away. It was great.
And finally, a question from my 7-year-old son. Which game are you better at: Scrabble, chess or Let’s Dance on the Wii?
I am outstanding in Let’s Dance. I am strangely good. I can’t play chess, and I am OK at Scrabble.
But tell him this. People who are really good at Scrabble — like world champion good — they are not good writers. They have this one super-refined skill.
And a lot of things in life are like that, which is why practice matters so much. You have to know all the two- and three-letter words. You have to know the Q words. The seven-letter words. I’m not so good, but if I did a lot of practicing, I probably could be.