Angela Duckworth, the Author of Grit, on Teaching Resilience Amid a Pandemic

The Penn psychologist talks about the importance of failure, why not everyone deserves a trophy, and the most exhausting month of lockdown.

angela duckworth

Penn psychologist and author Angela Duckworth. Photograph by Chris Crisman

Rittenhouse Square resident and soon-to-be empty nester Angela Duckworth has made a career of helping others uncover their inner fortitude. The Cherry Hill native talks about the most exhausting month of the pandemic, the science of failure, and why we shouldn’t be talking about a “COVID gap” in our kids’ educations.

Hi, Angela. Thanks for agreeing to do this interview. I once tried to ask you lots of questions about yourself when we were at a mutual friend’s backyard barbecue. But I couldn’t get a question in, because you wouldn’t stop asking me about me. Can we switch roles this time?
I think it is symptomatic of my interest in human behavior. But I’ll do my best today. Also, I’m sorry. I’m going to be talking with my mouth full. I’m eating this turkey sandwich. I’m obsessed with finishing foods before they need to be thrown out, so before this turkey turns into something that smells like cat food, I’m eating it. I’m very frugal.

When I originally requested this interview with you, I don’t think either of us expected crimes against Asian Americans to be leading the news cycle. How is this affecting you?
You know, I’ve been thinking a lot about this over the past week and the past year. My parents came here from China in the 1950s and raised my brother and sister and me in a pretty assimilationist household in Cherry Hill. We didn’t talk about race and identity the way we do today. We weren’t self-aware. So I’ve been thinking about my own identity. What do I make of my own story? What do I make of my parents’?

Why did your parents immigrate to the United States?
They were both children of people on the side of the revolution that lost. So different parts of the family went to Taiwan and others to the United States. My dad came here to get his PhD. My mom wanted to go to Penn, but she had no money to do that. So she knocked on the door of the dean of the design school and asked if she could come. They gently explained there were no scholarships for her, but then something happened — I don’t know what — and she went to Penn. So every time Penn asks me to do something for the school, I have to say yes, because they made it possible for my mom to stay, and then she met my father. Were it not for Penn’s generosity, my very existence would be in question.

The Angela Duckworth CV tells me you went to Harvard and Oxford and somehow wound up back in the Philly area. How did that happen?
My husband, Jason, grew up in Haverford but went to Oxford, which is where we met. We discovered our mutual memories of those Garden State Brickface & Stucco commercials and the ones of the Carvel guy who sounded like he had emphysema. We parlayed those memories into love and marriage. We never intended on coming back to Philly, but then he decided to go into real estate with his dad in Philly. That was 2002, and now I’m a lifer. I was born at Jefferson, so I guess you can call me a Philly girl all the way.

How did you wind up in psychology?
When I was in high school, I probably would have said the most likely outcome was that I’d become a PhD, a professor of medicine, like a lot of my family did and like my dad wanted me to do. I didn’t do that. I wound up doing a lot of volunteer work at college, and when I was at Harvard, I probably volunteered as many hours as I spent in class. And I became especially convinced that in order to change society, you have to change things for kids early in life. In my senior year of college, instead of taking the MCAT, I started a 501(c)(3) to establish a free summer school for kids. And then I never went back to the original plan. I became a psychologist to study the motivational aspects of learning and success.

So were the Duckworths all cooped up for a year thanks to COVID?
There wasn’t really much of an impact on my life in terms of my work. I read things. I think. I have phone calls with collaborators at places like Stanford. I’m not in the performing arts. I don’t have a restaurant. I will say that at the very beginning of the pandemic, my dad died of COVID at 87. It was very sad but also mercifully brief. He had been in decline for more than a decade. My mother will tell you it was a blessing in some ways.

“I always used to think the perseverance was the harder part. But passion? For young adults, passion is hard. It’s hard for a lot of people.”

What were some of your own blessings during COVID?
For me, the true blessing is that my daughters were home more than they would have been. The late teenage years, kids are usually never around. But I had breakfast with my 17-year-old, Lucy, pretty much every day. Dinner at night. And now that the pandemic is ending, we will soon truly be empty nesters.

Was there any point where you just reached total despair?
You know, I think for many people, including me, the difficulty was after they discovered the vaccines, because it made it all that much more important for the darn thing to be over. February was exhausting. But it’s an interesting thing, being a college professor during a difficult year. You’re in a position to be a bulwark for younger people. If I was going to say we’re going to hell in a handbasket, that wouldn’t be great for my students.

This month marks five years since your book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, came out. What have you learned about grit since then?
The two main parts of grit are passion and perseverance for long-term goals. I always used to think the perseverance was the harder part. But kids do know how to work hard, and they can learn to work harder. They have a mind-set of growth and learning. But passion? Lucky you and lucky me, Victor — we have something we’re good at and that we enjoy. But for young adults, passion is hard. It’s hard for a lot of people.

And you now actually teach a class at Penn based on the book, correct?
It’s called Grit Lab, and they are college students and some high-school students from Philadelphia. With the book, people had to buy the book on Amazon. Then they had to read the book. Then they had to act on what they learned in the book. Human behavior change is not so easily done in that way. I felt like I needed a structure to bring the book to life, and that’s Grit Lab.

It sounds to me like Grit Lab needs to be replicated in other schools around Philly and the country.
The students are so interested in it. This is a class about life. I’m having them write a gratitude letter to somebody they never properly thanked. We’re talking about the science of failure, what happens when you try something and don’t succeed. Remember the last time you failed, and let’s talk about what you’re going to do the next time you fail.

angela duckworth

Angela Duckworth teaching a Grit Lab session at Penn in early March 2020. Photograph by Eric Sucar

Talking about failure makes me wonder how the whole everybody-gets-a-trophy culture plays into the development of grit in a person.
Everybody does not deserve a trophy. I took Lucy to a track meet in fourth grade. There were eight kids in the race. She came in last. I was looking for her after the race, and there she was at the ribbon table, getting a pink ribbon that said “Eighth Place.” We both started laughing at the same moment.

So what do we do when our kid finishes in 10th place?
Not everybody deserves a trophy. But we cannot be too generous with our love. We shouldn’t worry about spoiling them with love and affection. There needs to be a shift of focus from comparing them to each other, best or worst, whether it’s GPAs or where they are in college or baseball or a race, to a focus on where they are relative to where they want to be or where they were this time last year. When I study high achievers, they didn’t spend a lot of time comparing themselves to other people. They compared themselves to themselves.

Give me some quick advice: My kids are 13 and 15. Is it too late for me to instill grit in them?
You’re a few years behind me. I think in high school, for the development of grit and character, one should do two activities for at least two years, whether that’s tennis or volunteering or playing the harp. You should experience what it’s like to get better at something. These years are not about what you’ll do as a career. They are about how to get better. And sample a lot. Play more than one sport. Try a different instrument.

Same question for the parents of a toddler.
A toddler is experiencing the choice between trying and not trying. They need to make choices about when to give up and when to persist. A toddler with a shape sorter, you don’t want them to try forever to stick a block into a box — but neither do you want them to give up the first time. Through some adversity, kids should learn a little bit about the struggle.

On the subject of learning, I know that your daughters’ education wasn’t interrupted much by COVID. Same for my two kids, who are privileged to go to a school that never stopped teaching. What about the millions of other kids? Do you believe there’s going to be a significant “COVID gap”?
Probably the best thinking I’ve heard on this topic comes from educator Ron Berger, who just published an article in the Atlantic. I was having a conversation with him about this topic, and I told him he should publish, and he did. The article is called, “Our Kids Are Not Broken.” He says that if you talk to young people in a way that says you’re broken, you’re behind, there’s something wrong with you, things are not going to end well, even though your intentions are probably benevolent. Young people do not do well when they have this self-portrait of brokenness. Celebrate the situations in which they showed resilience, and put them in a position of learning. This is a subtle difference in some ways but a profound one in others.

Is there another Angela Duckworth book in the future?
I’ve been thinking about it. The pendulum keeps swinging back and forth. On one hand, I think I overestimated the impact of a book. On the other hand, you can use it to transmit ideas with a seriousness you can’t get at in a TED Talk.

What would the book be?
I’m a lover and collector of cookbooks, and I think it would be Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Or How to Lead a Good Life. Samin Nosrat’s cookbook Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat was a runaway success distilling cooking into these four basic principles. If you do them all right, your food will taste pretty great. If you get one wrong, probably not. Is there an equivalent of that for a life well lived?

Do you get tired of people asking you about grit?
You know, I don’t, probably because I am so interested in what I do. I’m just so fascinated by this work. And, really, I’m a teacher. On Fridays, I teach for three hours straight, then I take office hours until the last question is answered, and then I meet with my teaching assistants to debrief. And after all that, am I exhausted? Do I need a drink? No. I am energized.

Published as “Angela Duckworth: A Year of Loss and Blessings” in the May 2021 issue of Philadelphia magazine.